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Obsession (1976 film)

Obsession is a 1976 psychological thriller/mystery film directed by Brian De Palma, starring Cliff Robertson, Geneviève Bujold, John Lithgow, and Stocker Fontelieu. The screenplay was by Paul Schrader, from a story by De Palma and Schrader. Bernard Herrmann provided the film's soundtrack prior to his death in 1975. The story is about a New Orleans businessman who is haunted by guilt following the death of his wife and daughter during a kidnapping-rescue attempt gone wrong. Years after the tragedy, he meets and falls in love with a young woman who is the exact look-alike of his long dead wife.

Original theatrical poster
Directed byBrian De Palma
Produced byGeorge Litto
Written byPaul Schrader
StarringCliff Robertson
Geneviève Bujold
John Lithgow
Stocker Fontelieu
Music byBernard Herrmann
CinematographyVilmos Zsigmond
Edited byPaul Hirsch
Distributed byColumbia Pictures
Release date
  • August 1, 1976 (1976-08-01) (New York City premiere)
Running time
98 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$1,400,000 (estimate)
Box office$4,468,000 (rentals)

Both De Palma and Schrader have pointed to Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) as the major inspiration for Obsession's narrative and thematic concerns. Schrader's script was extensively rewritten and pared down by De Palma prior to shooting, causing the screenwriter to proclaim a complete lack of interest in the film's subsequent production and release. Completed in 1975, Columbia Pictures picked up the distribution rights but demanded that minor changes be made to reduce potentially controversial aspects of the plot. When finally released in the late summer of 1976, it became De Palma's first substantial box office success and received a mixed response from critics.


In 1959, Michael Courtland (Robertson), a New Orleans real estate developer, has his life shattered when his wife Elizabeth (Bujold) and young daughter Amy are kidnapped. The police recommend that he provide the kidnappers with a briefcase of shredded blank paper instead of the demanded ransom, as the kidnappers will then be more likely to surrender when cornered, rather than attempt to escape with cash in hand. Courtland agrees to this plan. This leads to a bungled car chase in which both kidnappers and victims are killed in a spectacular explosion. Courtland blames himself for the deaths of his wife and daughter.

Skipping forward sixteen years later in 1975, Courtland is morbidly obsessed with his dead wife, and regularly visits a monument he has had built in her memory. The monument is a replica of the church (Basilica di San Miniato al Monte) where he and Elizabeth had met many years before in Florence, Italy. His real estate partner Robert LaSalle (Lithgow) convinces Courtland to tag along on a business trip back to Florence. While there, Courtland revisits the church, and suddenly comes face to face with a young woman named Sandra (Bujold in a dual role) who looks exactly like his late wife. The already slightly unhinged Courtland begins to court the young woman, and subtly attempts to transform her into a perfect mirror image of his dead wife.

Facade of the basilica San Miniato al Monte in Florence, one of the important settings of the film.

Courtland returns to New Orleans with Sandra so they can marry. On their wedding night, Sandra is kidnapped and a ransom note is left behind by her abductors. It is an exact replica of the kidnappers' message from sixteen years before. This time, Courtland decides to deliver the demanded cash. He withdraws massive quantities of money from his accounts and business holdings, financially ruining him and forcing him to sign over his interest in the real estate business to LaSalle. In the process, he discovers that his entire ordeal, including the original kidnapping, had been engineered by LaSalle as a way to gain sole control of Courtland's company share holdings. The now nearly insane Courtland stabs LaSalle to death.

Knowing that Sandra must have been a willing accomplice in the plot against him, he goes to the airport to kill the escaping woman. On the plane, Sandra has a flashback to her part in the scheme; she is in fact Courtland's daughter: following the original kidnapping LaSalle concealed her survival and sent her to live in secret with an Italian caretaker who raised Amy as her own child and gave her the name of Sandra. Over the years, LaSalle has told her lies about Courtland, convincing her that her father had not paid the ransom because he did not love her. Sandra, who has come to love Courtland, attempts suicide on the plane and is taken off the flight in a wheelchair. Courtland sees her and runs toward her, gun drawn. A security guard attempts to stop him but Courtland smashes the briefcase full of money against the guard's head, knocking him unconscious. The briefcase breaks open and all of the money flies out. Sandra, seeing the fluttering bills, stands up and shouts: "Daddy! You brought the money!" Courtland now realizes for the first time who Sandra really is, and father and daughter fall into a deep embrace.


De Palma and Schrader devised a story with a narrative inspired by Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, a film that both of them admired. Schrader's original screenplay, titled Déjà Vu, was reportedly much longer than the final film, with a coda that extended another ten years beyond where the film now ends. De Palma ultimately found Schrader's screenplay unfilmable due to its length, and rewrote and condensed the finale himself after Schrader refused to make the requested changes. According to De Palma, "Paul Schrader's ending actually went on for another act of obsession. I felt it was much too complicated, and wouldn't sustain, so I abbreviated it."[1] The film's composer, Bernard Herrmann, agreed that the original ending should be jettisoned, telling De Palma, after reading Schrader's version, "Get rid of it — that'll never work".[2] Schrader remained resentful of De Palma's rewrite for years, and claimed to have lost all interest in the project once the change was made. Schrader indicated that "the original three part story conclude with a section set in the future (1985). My original idea in the script was to write an obsessive love where transcended the normal strictures of time."[3]

De Palma said, "It made Schrader very unhappy: he thought I'd truncated his masterpiece. He's never been the same since."[1] Schrader stated that "the future section was cut from the script for budgetary reasons" however rumor had it that Bernard Herrmann suggested the cuts when he was working on the score for the film because he felt the last third set in the future didn't work.[4] In 2011 Schrader's full three part script was released as part of the Arrow Video Blu-ray.

After the film was completed, Bernard Herrmann considered it the finest film in his musical career.[5]

Columbia executives expressed unease over the incest theme, especially as it was portrayed in such a heavily romanticized manner. Consequently, a few minor changes were made to a pivotal sequence between Robertson and Bujold, in which dissolves and visual "ripples" were inserted over the wedding and post-wedding scenes to suggest that the consummation of their marriage only took place in a dream sequence. The film's editor, Paul Hirsch, agreed with the decision to obscure the incest theme, noting, "I thought it was a mistake to drag incest into what was basically a romantic mystery, so I suggested to Brian, 'What if it never happened? What if instead of having them get married, Michael only dreams of getting married? We have this shot of Cliff Robertson asleep. We could use that and then cut to the wedding sequence.' And that's what we did. It became a projection of his desires rather than actual fact."[6]

In the documentary De Palma, the director indicated that he felt the major flaw of the film was in casting Academy Award winner Cliff Robertson. De Palma felt that Robertson couldn't play the anguish of the character. De Palma was effusive in his praise of Bujold who he felt had the more difficult role, which she played admirably, giving the film the emotional resonance needed for the project.[7]


  • Cliff Robertson as Michael Courtland
  • Geneviève Bujold as Elizabeth Courtland/Sandra Portinari
  • John Lithgow as Robert Lasalle
  • Stocker Fontelieu as Dr. Ellman
  • Sylvia Kuumba Williams as Maid
  • Wanda Blackman as Amy Courtland
  • J. Patrick McNamara as Third kidnapper
  • Stanley J. Reyes as Inspector Brie
  • Nick Kreiger as Farber
  • Don Hood as Ferguson
  • Andrea Esterhazy as D'Annunzio
  • Thomas Carr as Paperboy
  • Tom Felleghy as Italian businessman
  • Nella Simoncini Barbieri as Mrs. Portinari
  • John Creamer as Justice of the Peace
  • Regis Cordic as Newscaster
  • Loraine Despres as Jane
  • Clyde Ventura as Ticket agent
  • Fain M. Cogrove as Secretary


The film was an unexpected financial success. Columbia held on to the movie for almost a year before dumping it into theaters in late August, traditionally the "dog days" of movie attendance. Obsession had managed to obtain enough positive critical notices to spark interest, and it earned the distributor over $4 million in domestic (U.S. and Canada) rentals.[8]

Initial critical reaction to Obsession was mixed. Roger Ebert wrote, "Brian De Palma's Obsession is an overwrought melodrama, and that's what I like best about it... I don't just like movies like these; I relish them. Sometimes overwrought excess can be its own reward. If Obsession had been even a little more subtle, had made even a little more sense on some boring logical plane, it wouldn't have worked at all."[9] Variety's review described it as "an excellent romantic and non-violent suspense drama...Paul Schrader's a complex but comprehensible mix of treachery, torment and selfishness..."[10] In Time, Richard Schickel called the film, "...exquisite entertainment...The film also throws into high melodramatic relief certain recognizable human truths: the shock of sudden loss, the panic of the effort to recoup, the mourning and guilt that blind the protagonist to a multitude of suspicious signs as he seeks expiation and a chance to relive his life. In a sense, the movie offers viewers the opportunity to do the same thing—by going back to a more romantic era of the cinema and the simple, touching pleasures denied the audience by the current antiromantic spirit of the movies."[11] Other reviewers routinely praised the stylish cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond, and Bernard Herrmann's beautiful, highly romantic score was one of the most acclaimed in his distinguished career, earning him a posthumous Academy Award nomination (the composer died in December 1975, a few hours after completing the score of Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver). The National Board of Review named Obsession one of the Top Ten Films of 1976.[12]

But several critics complained that the film was all too clearly a mere homage to Vertigo, without being original or interesting enough in itself as a thriller. Pauline Kael, normally one of De Palma's greatest admirers, dismissed the film as " more than an exercise in style, with the camera whirling around nothingness..."[13] Vincent Canby wrote, "To be blunt, Obsession is no Vertigo, Hitchcock's witty, sardonic study of obsession that did transcend its material, which wasn't all that bad to start with. The Schrader most effective when it's most romantic, and transparent when it attempts to be mysterious...The such that you'll probably have figured out the mystery very early."[14]

Decades later, Obsession's reputation improved considerably. Rotten Tomatoes website lists the film as having a 77% favorability rating, based on the critiques of a sampling of 22 reviewers.[15]


The CD soundtrack composed and conducted by Bernard Herrmann is available on Music Box Records label.[16] Disc one presents "The Film Score" and disc two, "The Original 1976 Soundtrack Album".


  1. ^ a b Childs, Mike and Jones, Alan. Cinefantastique Magazine, Volume 6, Number 1, 1977, pgs. 4 - 13. "DePalma Has The Power!"
  2. ^ Fentum, Bill. "The Making of Obsession". Archived from the original on 2006-10-27. Retrieved 2006-12-14.
  3. ^ "Obsession" an essay by Brad Stevens, Arrow Blu-Ray, 2011
  4. ^ "Obsession: An Essay" by Brad Stevens, Arrow video, Blu-Ray, 2011
  5. ^ BBC
  6. ^ Fentum, Bill. "The Making of Obsession". Archived from the original on 2006-10-27. Retrieved 2006-12-14.
  7. ^ "De Palma" 2016 documentary
  8. ^ "Business Data for Obsession". Retrieved 2006-07-15.
  9. ^ Ebert, Roger. "Obsession Review". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 2006-07-15.
  10. ^ "Obsession Review". 1976-01-01. Retrieved 2006-07-15.
  11. ^ Schickel, Richard (1976-08-16). "Double Jeopardy". Retrieved 2006-07-15.
  12. ^ "Awards for 1976". National Board of Review. Archived from the original on 2006-05-16. Retrieved 2006-07-15.
  13. ^ Kael, Pauline. From her review "The Curse" in The New Yorker, dated November 22, 1976, reprinted in When The Lights Go Down, Holt Rinehart Winston, 1980. ISBN 0-03-056842-0
  14. ^ Canby, Vincent (1976-08-02). "'Obsession':Mystery Film by Brian De Palma at Coronet". New York Times, August 2, 1976. Retrieved 2011-02-20.
  15. ^ "Obsession (1976)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 2009-02-21.
  16. ^ website.

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