Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Classic Films in Focus: OBSESSION (1949)

Released in the United States as The Hidden Room, Edward Dmytryk's Obsession (1949) is an unusual little gem of a thriller, a strangely polite and very English story of murder, jealousy, and revenge. It makes the most of its cast and its setting to craft a thoughtful tale of suspense that never becomes showy or overdone, with especially effective use of Robert Newton and post-war London. In fact, Obsession would probably have enjoyed enduring fame had it featured bigger stars or a different director, but don't let its obscurity dissuade you from spending some time with this unique film.

Robert Newton leads as psychiatrist Clive Riordan, who gets fed up with his wife's affairs and decides to murder the next man she takes on as a lover. Unfortunately for American Bill Kronin (Phil Brown), he happens to be the next man, and Clive soon has him imprisoned in a hidden room beneath a bomb damaged area of London. Clive's wife, Storm (Sally Gray), suspects that Clive has murdered Bill but can't prove anything to the police, while Clive keeps Bill alive as long as there's a chance that Scotland Yard might deduce his role in making Bill disappear. Bill, meanwhile, suffers loneliness and anxiety in his secret prison, even as he hopes that Clive's murderous plans will ultimately fall through.

The consequences and cultural shifts that followed World War II shape the subtext of the film and make it much more sophisticated than a simple murder plot. Like The Third Man (1949), Obsession takes advantage of the ruined landscapes of post-war Europe; Clive's plot hinges on the availability of abandoned and damaged buildings in which to hide his prisoner. The film also captures a strong feeling of English resentment toward American usurpation as a result of the war; not only is Bill poaching Clive's wife, but there are American sailors lolling in the streets, and at Clive's club the conversation inevitably turns to the strange colonials and their omnipotent dollars. Bill, the interloping young American, embodies all that Clive and his peers abhor about the new order of the world, but the American influence proves inescapable, even to the indubitably English Clive.

It's easy to imagine more illustrious stars in the roles, but each actor in the film delivers a compelling performance. Newton, a character actor best remembered as Long John Silver in Treasure Island (1950), here plays a role that would have perfectly suited Claude Rains, but Newton does such a good job that Rains' absence cannot be lamented. Newton keeps Clive in a low register throughout, so that he always seems like a perfectly reasonable human being who just happens to be dead set on murdering his wife's lover. His lethal plans aren't personal as far as Bill is concerned; in fact, he's unfailingly polite to his intended victim, even when Bill cracks under stress. With his slight build, all-American persona, and casual amiability, Phil Brown might be a stand-in for Henry Fonda as Bill, whose inherent decency becomes more apparent after he pays for his caddish dalliance with another man's wife, especially when he rescues Clive's persistent little dog, Monty, from becoming a test subject for Clive's acid bath. The beautiful but unfaithful Storm might have been played by any of the classic Hitchcock blondes, but Sally Gray has the perfect jaw and disdainful gaze to convey Storm's essential nature. Naunton Wayne arrives late in the picture as the Scotland Yard superintendent, Finsbury, but he adds another aspect of the English character to the proceedings as he corners Clive through a series of seemingly harmless exchanges. One can imagine Cecil Kellaway in the part, but Wayne is precisely right for it himself, and to English audiences he would have been quite recognizable from his appearances as the comical Caldicott in previous films.

Edward Dmytryk's directorial career suffered after he was caught up in the anti-Communist hearings of the late 1940s, but for more of his work see Murder, My Sweet (1944), Crossfire (1947), and The Caine Mutiny (1954). In addition to his appearances as Long John Silver in two films and a television series, Robert Newton can be found in This Happy Breed (1944), Oliver Twist (1948), and The Desert Rats (1953). Naunton Wayne turns up as Caldicott in both The Lady Vanishes (1938) and Night Train to Munich (1940), while Sally Gray appears in Green for Danger (1947). You might not recognize Bill Kronin as a young man, but you've certainly seen him; he had in small parts in The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976) and Superman (1978) but gained a measure of movie immortality as Luke's Uncle Owen in Star Wars: A New Hope (1977).