It comes with the source. Like Lloyd C. Douglas’s novel and John M. Stahl’s original adaptation (with Robert Taylor and Irene Dunne), Sirk’s 1954 update is a religious sermon disguised as a hokey romance between medical school dropout Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson) and widow Helen Phillips (Jane Wyman, prettier than a doctor’s wife should ever be).
When Merrick wrecks his speedboat going 180mph, the town’s only resuscitator is put to his use, just when the respected Dr. Phillips needs it more. Haunted by his selfishness, Merrick gets drunk and takes a drive, winding up in a ditch outside of the doctor’s friend’s house. Lugging a none-too-subtle ‘DANGER’ sign (which he may as well be carrying for the whole 108 minutes) to the door, he’s invited in.
The friend is Randolph (Otto Kruger), a painter who, like the rest of the lakeside town, was “touched” by Dr. Phillips. After a cold, sobering shower, he lets Merrick in on his “source of infinite power,” a Sunday school sermon that encourages one to be serviceable to others in secret. Merrick sees the chance to redeem himself for Helen, even after Randolph warns him of the “magnificent obsession,” a mantra that becomes a recycle sound clip throughout the film, lest the audience forget why they’re here.
In true melodramatic style, everything backfires, leaving Helen blind and inoperable (and offering faux-philosophical metaphors on the “constant darkness” in her life), her stepdaughter Joyce (Barbara Rush) furious at Merrick, and the playboy clutching at every chance he concocts for himself.
Sirk solidified his place in film history by making Technicolor expressionism for Universal Pictures, like 1955’s All That Heaven Allows (also with Hudson, Wyman, and Agnes Moorehead), ‘56’s Written on the Wind, and Magnificent Obsession, which collectively is a trilogy of sorts. In each, the gorgeous postcard locales and swelling score serve less as theatrics than as distractions from the characters’ tragic destinies.
Only in Magnificent Obsession, Sirk refuses to let Merrick and Helen become permanent victims, using every contrivance he can for his own obsession: to give his characters a free pass to a happy ending in his safe, naïve, preachy, religious soap opera.
Audio Commentary featuring Film Scholar Thomas Doherty: The professor and author provides an educated track, noting details on Douglas Sirk’s background, differences between both versions of Magnificent Obsession, the cast, religion and sexuality in Hollywood at the time, the melodramatic style, and much, much more.
Video Interviews: Filmmakers Allison Anders (9:10) and Kathryn Bigelow (13:17) sit down for newly-recorded pieces. Both directors discuss their love of Sirk, with Anders (Border Radio) focusing on revisiting Magnificent Obsession and the similarities throughout his films, while Bigelow (Strange Days) shares her experiences viewing Sirk’s films and meeting/interviewing the director.
Magnificent Obsession (1935): Directed by John M. Stahl (1934’s Imitation of Life, which Douglas Sirk also remade), this original adaptation of Lloyd C. Douglas’s novel stars Irene Dunne and Robert Taylor in the roles of Helen Hudon and Robert Merrick. It isn’t altogether different than Sirk’s colorful version, apart from the obvious stylistic distinctions, but Dunne’s performance is worth seeing.
From UFA to Hollywood: Douglas Sirk Remembers (1:22:31): In this 1991 talking head documentary directed by Eckhart Schmidt, Sirk reflects on his days at UFA (Universum Film AG), his move to Hollywood, the star system, specific films (Written on the Wind, The Tarnished Angels), and much more. It can be a bit dry and long, but is also an invaluable addition for Sirk enthusiasts.
Also included in this 2-Disc Criterion Collection is a 16-page booklet with a new essay titled “Magnificent Obsessions” by film critic Geoffrey O’Brien, who has contributed to, amongst other publications, Film Comment and Village Voice.