Magnificent Obsession is one of the first of the many 1950s melodramas that director Douglas Sirk became known for. It marks the first meaty film role for Rock Hudson as well, who had been stereotyped as a hunky romantic lead (although he had also done a lot of Westerns—including one with Sirk—and adventure films). Sirk saw something in Hudson that others missed, and in many ways was responsible for creating Rock Hudson as a movie star. He worked almost exclusively with Sirk for the rest of the 1950s, until his run of Doris Day films began at the end of the decade. He did only occasionally do a major film, like Giant and A Farewell to Arms, and didn’t re-emerge as a serious actor until Frankenheimer’s Seconds in the mid-60s. At the time, that film was also not well-received.
Here Hudson plays a spoiled jerk of a playboy, Bob Merrick, who is worth some insane amount of money but at the point where the film starts, has wasted his life. Merrick ends up in an accident caused by his own reckless behaviour. While he is in a small clinic being treated by the much-loved Dr. Phillips, the doctor has a fatal heart attack—and can’t be revived because Merrick is attached to the resuscitation equipment.
Merrick tries to make up for accidentally causing the doctor’s death by helping Dr. Phillips’ wife (Jane Wyman), but ends up causing an accident that makes her become blind. After that, he feels even worse. He becomes a medical student, in which guise he again tries to help the widow and falls in love with her.
The film is a bit trashy, and was based on a novel by Lloyd C. Douglas, who was a huge writer in the 1930s. Most of his books were adapted into movies, including The Robe. There is a Greek mythology connection as well, with parallels to the story of Alcsetis.
If you can get on board with the ludicrousness of the movie’s plot, you will like it. If you can’t, you probably won’t. Sirk would go on to make better movies—this is certainly not my favourite Sirk film—and its heavy-handedness doesn’t endear it to audiences. All That Heaven Allows, for example, has a much more nuanced subtext.
Magnificent Obsession is more impenetrable than some of Sirk’s later work. Hudson does a great job in the role of Merrick, but didn’t get the attention he deserved because there was a bias against him in Hollywood for many reasons. Apparently he was very nervous about having a role of this size in a proper film, and Sirk built up his confidence by doing multiple takes. As often with Sirk’s film it was not well received at the time. Wyman has much less to do than Hudson, but turns in a good performance. The film is also beautifully photographed by Russel Metty, with some amazing tracking shots. Metty shot most of the great Sirk movies, and also won an Oscar for his work on Spartacus.
The Blu-Ray carries over all the extras from the Region 1 Criterion Collection DVD release from 2009, which included commentary by film scholar Thomas Doherty, short appreciations of Sirk from Alison Anders and Kathryn Bigelow, a feature-length documentary on Sirk, and the theatrical trailer. Also included is the 1935 version of Magnificent Obsession, which was directed by John M. Stahl. Sirk also remade Stahl’s Imitation of Life years later. The only new extra is a 2009 interview from screenwriter Robert Blees. The booklet reprises an essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien, also from the 2009 DVD release.