This is the type of film that when the inevitable happens and a character mentions the title phrase a swell of angels voices begin to murmur and in one sense Magnificent Obsession is a sentimental even spiritual endeavor wrapped up in a soapy melodramatic morality tale.
But the key is that if you know anything about Douglas Sirk, you easily get a sense that this is not the director getting on his soapbox unabashedly. He is using the very material he is given and finding some of the ironies within it.
The story unfurls rather like a modern age parable. There were two men. One man died — a good man — so that another might live and that other man is Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson) a conceited, frivolous playboy only out for a good time.
The unseen, deceased Dr. Phillips left behind a recently wedded wife Helen (Jane Wyman) who was madly in love with him and a grown daughter Joyce (Barbara Rush) who was equally delighted with her new mother.
All of that was torn away from them by the selfish jerk of a man who unwittingly left Dr. Phillips without a resuscitator because the foolhardy Merrick got in a boating accident.
The film begins the long winding road of a soap opera as Merrick begins to change. First, he wants to buy Mrs. Phillip’s sympathy which he will never acquire that way. But he feels like wherever he goes he is somehow haunted by the sacrificial love and anonymous charity which seemed to dictate Dr. Phillips life. He can’t seem to get away from it. It makes him feel awful.
Of all places, he gleans wisdom from one of Phillip’s closest friends a sagacious artist (Otto Kruger) who imparts him with knowledge on how to pursue a life of true purpose. He’s warned by Randolph in one moment, “This is dangerous stuff, one man who used it went to the cross, died at the age of 33” but Merrick begins to go through a radical transformation — to take on this so-called magnificent obsession. Hudson gets the situation which allows him to exhibit his changing attitudes toward his fellow human beings and ultimately his own change in heart.
Anyways the plot spins and jumps in the most inconceivable and unlikely ways that have no other purpose but to set up the dramatic moments that fail to take heed of how absurd everything seems. It’s laid on slightly thick even for me with a few eye-rolling moments no less. Absolute poppycock if I might be so bold.
Still, there’s no doubting the potential impact of this emotional manipulation. You might suspect a crescendo courtesy of the Little Tramp except in lieu of Chaplin we have Rock Hudson in his first leading role. There’s no comparison but he and Wyman do prove to be a compelling romantic team.
I had never quite thought of it like this but sometimes it’s truly a joy to watch some visionary directors work cinematic magic in spite of the material they’ve been given. Currently, if you make a movie it’s usually on your own volition. Either you wrote it or you signed on knowing full well what you are getting involved with (at least in most cases).
But in Classic Hollywood you have so many more examples of great or at least interesting directors saddled with mediocre material. But the truly great ones took that material and made something fascinating out of it whether it was through mise-en-scene, shot selection, or simple choice of tone.
After seeing the works of Douglas Sirk it’s easy to wager that he was such a filmmaker. Originally from Germany and only transplanted to Hollywood in the 1940s, very late compared to many of his contemporaries, he was a very intellectual man and it bleeds into how he approaches his films.
Sometimes to grasp what he is getting at is an exercise in near extrasensory perception. Because he works in irony but very often it gives the pretense of mere melodrama if taken at face value. And that’s what he did, taking that standard so-called women’s picture of the 1950s and giving it a further dimension that allows it depth even today.
So is Magnificent Obsession a masterpiece? Not necessarily. But should that even matter and what does that subjective label mean anyway? Might we just be happy that there are directors like Douglas Sirk who made enduringly riveting films that we can go back to again and again? The idyllic shots of Lake Tahoe would easily make nostalgic souls yearn for the images found in this film alone.