A Forgotten Film to Remember: Obsession (1949)

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To view Obsession click here.

I know what you are thinking. Obsession (1976), the Hitchcock-inspired horror film by Brian DePalma about reincarnation, may not be his most respected work, but it is hardly forgotten. And, then there is Luchino Visconti’s Italian version of The Postman Always Rings Twice, Ossessione (1943), which is often listed in film history books, so it has not been forgotten. But, have you heard of the 1949 British film called Obsession? Or, perhaps by its alternate title, The Hidden Room? Yeah, me neither.

A small-scale, postwar thriller, Obsession tells the story of psychiatrist Dr. Clive Riordan (Robert Newton), a jealous husband who discovers his posh wife is stepping out with an American named Bill Kronin (Phil Brown). Dr. Riordan is a stiff-upper-lip type who spends evenings complaining about Americans with his British cronies. Riordan goes so far as to lock Kronin in the basement of a deserted building in his neighborhood. His plan is to slowly fill a nearby vat with acid so when he kills Kronin, he can dispose of the body. Each day, he brings his captor food, drink and martinis along with a container full of acid to dump into the vat. The story becomes a cat-and-mouse game between captor and captive as the clock ticks and the acid flows.

Kronin’s only allies seem to be the neighborhood pets, who steal a few scenes in the film. Monty, the wife’s dog, follows Riordan to the basement one day and almost becomes a test victim in the acid bath. Kronin saves the scruffy canine, who returns the favor by becoming part of the escape plan. In another scene, a cat leads a bobby on the beat to a major clue in a garage.

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Obsession will likely not hold you on the edge of your seat in suspense, and it might have been lost to the dustbins except for the director and a couple of cast members. The film was directed in England in 1949 by Edward Dmytryk, one of the infamous Hollywood Ten. Dmytryk’s life had changed forever in 1947 when director Sam Wood reportedly named him as a Communist to the House on Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Called by HUAC to testify about his past and to name names of fellow travelers, Dmytryk refused to answer the committee’s questions based on the First Amendment, but he was cited by HUAC for contempt of Congress. He was also blacklisted in the film industry along with the remainder of the Hollywood Ten as well as dozens of other actors, directors, producers and writers.

In 1948, the Ministry of Labor granted him a permit to work in England under the foreign directors’ quota. He signed a contract with producer Nat Bronsten of Independent Sovereign Films to make Obsession. The film was shot in 30 days, but Dmytryk and his wife stayed in England for seven months, hoping the political climate in America might change so that the sentences of the Hollywood Ten would be reversed. But, in the summer of 1949, when two liberal Supreme Court justices died and were replaced by conservatives, those hopes were dashed. Dmytryk began work on Give Us This Day (1950) with J. Arthur Rank, who owned the Rank Organization, the largest conglomerate of studios, theaters and distributors in England. Rank was a devout Christian, but, unlike the members of HUAC, he didn’t care that Dmytryk had once been a Communist.

Unfortunately, Dmytryk was ordered to return to the United States to renew his passport. Once home, he was arrested and sent to prison to serve his sentence for contempt of Congress. After a few months in prison, he was called to testify once more before HUAC. This time he agreed to name names, which allowed him to work in Hollywood once more. According to Dmytryk’s autobiography, Odd Man Out: A Memoir of the Hollywood Ten, Obsession received good reviews and did modestly well at the box office. Perhaps that was true in England, but, according to other biographers, Obsession was sparsely distributed and poorly received in America because the press had labeled Dmytryk a subversive.

Obsession lacks the striking visual style of Dmytryk’s Hollywood films of the postwar era, but I did notice that the night photography of London’s dark, foggy streets was suitably atmospheric and similar to those in such Hollywood film noirs as Murder My Sweet (1944). Also, I couldn’t help but relate the story of a man trapped by circumstances who is then convicted and condemned outside a court of law to Dmytryk’s own situation.

Dmytryk was not the only victim of HUAC and the blacklist who contributed to Obsession. Phil Brown, who played Bill, was one of the first actors to escape the Hollywood blacklist by relocating to England. Though never a Communist, Brown had been part of New York’s left-wing Group Theater, whose members had been HUAC targets. Less-than-reliable web sites state he was blacklisted in 1952, but he had already been working regularly in the British theater and film industry by that time. Fans of classic film noir might recognize him from The Killers (1946) as the character who tries to warn Burt Lancaster in the beginning that the “killers” are coming to get him. Young viewers know him as Uncle Owen from the original Star Wars (1977).

Robert Newton starred as the proper and reserved Dr. Clive Riordan, but in real life he was the epitome of the hard-drinking but brilliant actor who lived fast and hard. Though he died in his mid-50s from this lifestyle, he became a sort of role model for the next generation of actors that included Oliver Reed, Peter O’Toole or Richard Burton. However, to movie fans, he is best known as Long John Silver, a role he originated in Treasure Island (1950) and reprised on both the big and small screens in the mid-1950s. Newton adopted a gravelly voice and specific speech pattern for Long John that was an exaggeration of England’s West Country, where the actor had been born. In doing so, he inadvertently invented “pirate speak” in all its “argh” and “ahoy, matey” glory. When Talk Like a Pirate Day rolls around on September 19, you will want to top your tricorne hat to Newton. My favorite casting note involves Naunton Wayne, who plays the Columbo-esque Scotland Yard inspector. Wayne is forever seared in my movie memory as Caldicott of Childers and Caldicott, the two cricket-obsessed pals in Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938).

Finally, legendary composer Nino Rota wrote the score for Obsession —his first for a film outside his native Italy. While his life was less colorful that Dmytryk’s, Brown’s or Newton’s, Rota composed over 150 scores for major films from all over the world, including Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet (1968) and Francis Coppola’s The Godfather, I and II (1972 and 1974).

In my opinion, the best way to approach FilmStruck, or any streaming site, is not to watch films you have already seen or that you know by reputation. Instead, select titles you don’t know, and watch them for the little things that might surprise you—the forgotten actor, the tragic director or the early work of a famous composer.

Susan Doll

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9 Responses A Forgotten Film to Remember: Obsession (1949)
Posted By Christine Hoard-Barre : August 14, 2017 4:00 pm

This looks like a good one and I’ve never heard of it, as long as the pets don’t end up in the acid. Dmytryk’s CROSSFIRE is one of my favorite movies of all time.

Posted By Susan Doll : August 14, 2017 5:41 pm

Christine: The animals come through the movie unscathed. I know what you mean about that. As a rule, I won’t write about a film that shows animals being hurt or abused. If I do, I mention it, so readers have a warning.

Posted By Christine Hoard-Barre : August 14, 2017 7:40 pm

Thanks, Susan. I can better handle the human deaths in movies but don’t dare kill the pets!

Posted By AL : August 14, 2017 8:54 pm

I joined the Int’l S P C A, but I’ve had to stop reading their eMails because they include horiffic details of animal abuse. I can’t even watch those “True Animals”-type docs; and I used to love them. Can you answer this question:
Which is worse: child abuse or animal abuse?
another one:
Which is worse: what we did to the Africans or what we did to the Jews?

Posted By Susan Doll : August 14, 2017 9:30 pm

Al: Difficult questions that you pose. I don’t think you can compare and contrast: All are horrific and strike different chords in different people. I think part of the problem with watching animal abuse is that they are often such innocent victims of humans in real life that I don’t want to see it as part of a film. And, in another way, they don’t choose to be in the films. And, we all know that sometimes animals were hurt in the course of making films as though they are disposable props.

But, the dog and cat in this film are amusing, even inadvertently heroic.

Posted By AL : August 16, 2017 11:44 pm

Susan–I’m glad I know you. Hope you know A LION CALLED CHRISTIAN

Posted By Susan Doll : August 16, 2017 11:49 pm

Thanks Al. What a nice compliment.

Posted By AL : August 16, 2017 11:53 pm

Finally tracked down THE HIDDEN ROOM–a friend is sending it to me. Speaking of hidden rooms: are you familiar with the horrifying case of H H Holmes? Scorcese is making a film with Leonardo DiCaprio. If he does it right (and I’m sure he will)it’ll be hard to watch.

Posted By Susan Doll : August 17, 2017 12:12 am

I lived in Chicago for over 25 years, so I am very familiar with Holmes—long before the book Devil in the White City was published. When the book first came out, Tom Cruise optioned it. I did not realize that DiCaprio and Scorsese were making the film. I will likely see it, but you are right, it will be a tough one to watch.

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