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Robert Newton and Phil Brown in Obsession

Robert Newton experiments in Obsession

Sally Gray confronts Robert Newton in Obsession
 
 
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Obsession
cast: Robert Newton, Phil Brown, Sally Gray, Naunton Wayne, and Olga Lindo

director: Edward Dmytryk

94 minutes (PG) 1948
Fabulous / Fremantle DVD Region 0 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Paul Higson
Senator McCarthy and his communist witch-hunts deprived America and Hollywood of some of its greatest talents, debarring many from work, driving others abroad. There were no idiots amongst those accused, yet Edward Dmytryk still stood out, a genre hopper shining bright, a forerunner of Sam Fuller and Larry Cohen, a person who could identify a premise and deliver it at its best.

His 1948 UK film Obsession had such a neat twist and Dmytryk kept it small, tight and atmospheric, conveying the entrapment theme as well as any noir (which this film is not) could to the viewer. Robert Newton is Doctor Riordon with good suspicion of an intrigue between his wife and another man, an American with too wiseacre a mouth named Cronin. A handsome woman (Sally Gray) the doctor has no intention of letting go of his wife, instead devises the 'perfect' murder. First of all the victim must disappear, which is not the same as dying. Cronin is chained up in a room on a bombsite a short distance from the Doctor's garage, a careful chalk demarcation line forming a quarter circle on the outside of which the Doctor can coolly operate and calmly and almost adversely taunt his rival, as over the months he creates enough sulphuric acid to dispose of a body, transferring it from his laboratory to a porcelain bathtub infuriatingly out of visual range of his victim. There are only four key players and they are used superbly in keeping the pressure on both the intended killer and his intended victim.

There are the expected knocks taken at America, the hegemony then, but also some sniping at the country that was his new home. Down the Liberal Club the conversations, in which Dr Riordon has nothing more than an ear if that, are never far from American encroachment, in a display of postwar ungratefulness. The discussion bemoans the "dollar stranglehold on the Empire" and Dmytryk manages to make light praise of America and Britain and take pot shots at the two countries in the same instance in the one short scene. Repeatedly club members question what the dollar is buying them and how much newspaper space is given over to a single vanished American. Was any of this really in Alec Coppel's script or novel?

Robert Newton is terrific as Riordon, meticulous and calm, an actor capable of far more, which is more than can be said of Naunton Wayne, as the detective, who, alongside Newton's Englishness in this film, sends the plum delivery factor skyrocketing into the irritation zone. Phil Brown's imprisoned American lover is an asshole for too much of the running time, well into his incarceration, and it is difficult to share his terror when it comes, you instead want him to come a cropper. The dog (Monty) when under the same threat substitutes the role meant for Cronin. In the scene in which Cronin is trying to teach the dog to pull the plug on his bath, the animal falling into the water throws up the appalling parallel of the acid splash that could be in the imagination. Neither does the scene serve Cronin any additional liking with the audience, as the dog's mission could easily see it slipping into the acid and the blame is back on Cronin. I don't think gambling with her dog's fur is going to endear him to Mrs Riordan when it comes out.

The dialogue is good throughout, occasionally hitting you with an incredible remark, such as the detective's maxim that, "All murderers are amateurs you know. Nobody makes a profession of it," that the only professionals in the game are the murder detectives. Some strong names take crew credit, Nino Rota on the music and a young Stuart Freeborn on make-up but all the technical contributions are designed for low attention, nothing is allowed to take from the story or performers. There are discrepancies in the plot, which with so tight a premise set over a period of 10 months is made all the more vulnerable to blunder and viewer questioning. The seclusion of the victim is unlikely, bombsite or not, kids would have returned to the city by then and have been adventuresome in the ruins, if not adults with one purpose or another, from the scavengers to the officials. The mistake made by Riordan that exposes his plan is delivered by Newton as if the actor is aware that it is obviously too idiotic and he is, through his performance, trying to persuade them against it, but the makers go with stupid clue anyway. Riordan would never have adopted the Americanism that gives him away. In the end the trail to the 'murder' rooms could have been stumbled upon very easily long before it actually is. It is a restless and inventive film though, with a fun and game battle of wits constancy that will satisfy any viewer.

The film is 94 minutes long and there are selective cast biographies. A little more historical information on the film itself would have been welcome, a tie-in with the true crimes of Haigh, which I presume inspired the tale, and more on the film's production, though we should, at the very least, be happy at the release of this well known film and hope that it leads to more obscure British films of that and an earlier period someday getting a release.
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