Obsession (1949) [50 Films Older Than Me #33]

A while ago (indeed, almost a whole year ago), it was my birthday! And to add to all the real life goals and challenges that that brings, I’ve created at least one as it relates to movies and this blog–watch a film I’ve never seen before which came out in each year of the fifty years before I was born, and then write a bit about it.  This is Post #33.

Spoilers ahead.  

Obsession (aka The Hidden Room)

Directed by Edward Dmytryk

Release Year:  1949 (21 years before I was born).

What it is about:  Psychiatrist Dr. Clive Riordan embarks on a mission of revenge over his wife’s frequent affairs, and kidnaps her latest boyfriend–an American named Bill Kronin. Riordan’s plan is to keep Bill a hostage until he is sure that he is not a suspect in the kidnapping, and only then to kill him, destroying his body in an elaborate chemical bath. Months pass, and Riordan’s plan seems to have succeeded, until a Scotland Yard inspector pays him an unexpected visit.

Starring Robert Newton as Dr. Clive Riordan, Phil Brown as Bill Kronin, Sally Gray as Storm Riordan (Dr. Riordan’s wife), and Naunton Wayne as Scotland Yard Superintendent Finsbury.

My impressions of this movie before I watched it:  I didn’t know anything about it. I’m vaguely aware of Edward Dmytryk from his later film, Mirage, and because some of his writing was assigned reading during my film degree at college (although I don’t remember anything he said).

Reality: Obsession is an incredibly interesting little movie. It makes the most of its modest production to tell a psychologically nerve-wracking story steeped in some pretty serious tension.

The movie kicks off with an image of a watch. It’s late, and a man is staring at it, as he sits in a gentleman’s club, apparently oblivious to the chatter of conversation going on around him. Instead, he seems fixated on a coat hanging in a cloak area nearby, and especially at something unseen in the coat’s pocket. After a few moments of this, he notes the time, gets up and takes the coat (now revealed to be his own) and heads home. His butler is surprised to see him, which he plays off as a simple change of plans. Once he has sent the servant to bed, he turns off the lights, and only then do we discover what he had in his pocket–a gun.

Its a terrifically suspenseful opening which makes good use of all the tools of cinema. Our imagination and emotions are fully engaged before we have any idea of what is going on. And once we do understand the situation, it’s even more gripping.

This is Dr. Clive Riordan, and he is out for revenge against his philandering wife, Storm. But if Riordan is a man of deep passions, he’s even more a man of cold calculations. We see he has an almost Sherlock-like ability to anticipate his enemy’s moves, manipulating the situation to maximize his wife’s torment, which is his ultimate goal.

To this end, he keeps Storm’s boyfriend Bill a prisoner in a secret room near his office. His plan is to wait for a while to make sure that he is not suspected of the kidnapping, and once he is confident to murder Bill and then dissolve his body in chemicals, and basically pour him down the drain. But in spite of how gruesome this idea is, Riordan remains soft-spoken and articulate. Indeed one of the most interesting things about the movie is just how well-mannered everyone is–Storm’s whole motivation in the film is to protect her reputation, and Riordan’s conversations with the doomed Bill are never harsh or angry, but rather utterly polite and implacably British.

The same thing happens when the tables begin to turn and Superintendent Finsbury starts to show up in every corner of Riordan’s life.

Finsbury constantly downplays his visits–they are routine, they are an unfortunate nuisance, they don’t mean anything at all. But of course, Riordan knows better. Is Scotland Yard onto him, or are they flailing around helplessly?

Obsession is not in a hurry to get anywhere, but I was fully on board for the ride. Robert Newton plays Riordan with an intensely quiet but unmistakable sense of menace. This became all the more impressive when I realized that he was the same guy who played Long John Silver in 1950’s Treasure Island (just a year later). That part is completely different but also well-played–it’s always cool to see the range that an actor can have.

The rest of the cast is good as well. Phil Brown has got some heavy lifting as the increasingly desperate Bill Kronin, and Sally Gray is good as the petulant and ultimately selfish Storm.

But my favorite is Naunton Wayne (who I now realized had a good supporting role in The Lady Vanishes) as Superintendant Finsbury. Their various face-offs a highlight–he out-manners Riordan, and thus he has the advantage over him.

In the end, Riordan makes a mistake which leads to his downfall, but its just as understated as the rest of the story. Basically, it goes like this: just as Finsbury has run out of leads, an quietly agitated Riordan uses an American turn-of-speech which he has picked up from his months of conversations with Kronin. This only occurs to Finsbury later, prompting him to talk to Storm about it on the phone. Riordan listens in on part of the conversation, mistaking Finsbury for Storm’s latest lover. This leads Riordan to taunts Storm before heading off to fulfill his ultimate plan and kill Bill. Now convinced that Bill is still alive and in danger, Storm calls Finsbury, who puts out a police alert to find Riordan’s car. This eventually leads the authorities to finding Bill Kronin before he dies.

But the only reason Bill is even alive to be rescued at the end is because of his own cleverness, where he manages to train the Riordan family dog to pull the drain on the bathtub where all the chemicals are mixed, emptying it. This subplot sounds ridiculous but makes sense when you watch the movie.

None of this is tremendously exciting when you are first watching it, but it’s the kind of storytelling one thinks about later, which proves to be immensely satisfying.

So…when you get down to it, what did I think? Slow and steady wins the race with Obsession. It’s a movie that takes its time, but is gripping right from start, all the way through to the end.

See here for the Master List.

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