Sirk's Magnificent Movie
"Magnificent Obsession" is one of Douglas Sirk's most popular movies and there is a reason why, it is brilliant. The irony of that is that "Magnificent Obsession" is just a romantic drama, a tear jerker and as any movie fan will know romantic tear jerkers are ten a penny. And adding to the irony of "Magnificent Obsession" being brilliant is that frankly the outcome is obvious, you can second guess what will happen once the set up is in place and so there are few surprises. But yet still "Magnificent Obsession" is a brilliant movie and whilst part of that is down to the casting of Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson most of the praise goes to Sirk himself for crafting a beautiful love story full of drama and romance which draws you in to every second and into his embellished real world.
When rich playboy Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson - Has Anybody Seen My Gal) almost kills himself in a stupid boating accident he is saved by the use of an expensive resuscitator, but whilst it was saving his life it couldn't be used elsewhere and in particular the well respected Dr. Phillips who died due to it being used on Merrick. When Merrick realises that Dr. Phillips not only died because of him but also spent his life unselfishly helping others Merrick tries to do the same but it's all very shallow as he tries to clear his conscience. But his silly attempts to helps other causes another disaster when Dr. Phillips wife Helen (Jane Wyman - Three Guys Named Mike) suffers a serious accident which not only changes her life but also Merrick's as well as he dedicates his life to making amends especially as he falls in love with her.
I am not being disparaging when I say that "Magnificent Obsession" is obvious, you should expect certain things from a melodrama and the fact that Sirk delivers all that is expected is right. As such as I already mentioned that following the series of set ups which sees Dr. Phillips die and then Helen Phillips suffer a serious accident due to Bob you can guess the outcome of all this. And so as we watch Bob basically dedicate his life to secretly helping Helen making something of his life whilst helping others in the same unselfish way as Dr. Phillips did you know that all will come good in a heart warming, feel good ending. But it is what you both want and expect and so it isn't an issue.
But "Magnificent Obsession" is more than just a beautiful romantic drama it has depth and Sirk explores a semi religious concept of unselfishly helping others. I say semi religious as there are elements of iconography thrown in but this isn't some subversive attempt to convert people, this is just an idea. And yes for those who know their movies a similar idea of unselfishly helping others was employed in the more recent "Pay it Forward". This extra layer adds a perfect amount of depth to things so we watch as Bob initially tries to help others in an attempt to clear his conscience over the death of Dr. Phillips but learns that it is not a case of redeeming yourself but a case of just doing good for the sake of doing good.
Of course something which is impossible to ignore is that this is a Douglas Sirk movie and so we have his blend of embellished reality. And by that I mean we have "Magnificent Obsession" set in a real work but a world where colours are so vibrant that people really stand out. It's a clever technique because it aids the moments when he incorporates shadows, especially in the scenes which focus on Helen's battle following the accident, to really feel more emotional and solemn.
Now whilst Sirk crafts a beautiful and well paced movie it is the central casting which helps lift "Magnificent Obsession" into the realms of greatness. And whilst Jane Wyman is not only beautiful but gives a beautiful and vulnerable performance as Helen it is Rock Hudson who really impresses through out. From his initially arrogant playboy, to the feelings of guilt through to his recreation as a man no longer concerned for himself but for others it is simply brilliant as you get both strength and vulnerability. Plus of course Wyman and Hudson looked so good together as if there was a real bond of friendship between them that made their on screen chemistry so much more natural.
What this all boils down to is that "Magnificent Obsession" serves up not only everything you expect from a melodrama but also everything you expect from a Douglas Sirk movie. It is romantic, it is dramatic and it also has a heart warming ending, to put it simply "Magnificent Obsession" is a magnificent movie and a lesson in how a good melodrama should be made.