Criterion has long harbored a weakness for helmer Douglas Sirk, and this two-disc release of his 1954 version of “Magnificent Obsession” furthers the love affair. But though this issue offers ample bonuses, including director John Stahl’s 1935 version of the film, not all the extras live up to Criterion’s generally impeccable standards.
The film, the first by Sirk to pair Jane Wyman and Rock Hudson (it was followed the next year with “All That Heaven Allows”), is a florid morality tale based on a bestselling novel in which a playboy (Hudson) becomes a brain surgeon after his reckless actions adversely affect the life of a doctor’s wife (Wyman).
Sirk’s psychologically probing style of filmmaking and his producer Ross Hunter’s flair for stylish settings and costumes made them natural collaborators, and of their 10 films together, the best were mellers like this. Add lensing by pro and frequent partner Russell Metty and you’ve got exemplars of the genre — made all the more appealing in this case by Criterion’s delicious color transfer.
Appealing, too, is the excellent commentary track provided by Thomas Doherty, who not only offers requisite technical insights but puts the film in historical context: Comparing it to Stahl’s version, juxtaposing Sirk’s filmmaking with present-day cinematic standards and discussing the pic’s place in the larger culture of 1950s America. His only failing is occasionally lapsing into academic language.
Stahl’s film is not as cleanly transferred as Sirk’s, but as its presence here is supplemental, that’s not a problem. The pic is most interesting as a star vehicle for leads Irene Dunne and Robert Taylor, though it also, by contrast, makes perfectly clear just how much the once-maligned Sirk brought to projects.
This issue’s most important bonus is an 80-minute documentary from 1991 featuring an aged Sirk reflecting on his career. That he does so speaking almost entirely in his native German proves no drawback, so vivid are his memories and witty and urbane his storytelling. Indeed, the language barrier is almost a plus, for it reminds viewers that Sirk (ne Detlef Sierk), who so naturally took to American angst, was in fact an outsider, something that may have given him useful perspective.
Two tributes to Sirk by directors Allison Anders and Kathryn Bigelow cap the release on a down note. Though the former possesses a homey, confessional charm, the latter proves frustrating, with Bigelow haltingly and methodically discussing Sirk’s influence on her early work.
Running time: 108 MIN.