"Hidden Love! Hidden Hate! Hidden Fear!" and an Acid Bath in Obsession, Formerly Known as The Hidden Room

November 12, 2014

Clive knows he's caught, and Scotland Yard casually arrests him; sadly, it's a bit anti-climatic. Before the handcuffs, though, Clive offers up a small bit of his psyche to the law enforcement agent: now that it's all over he can see his mistakes, mainly the fact that he thought the only way he could deal with Storm's affairs was to kill the next guy. (Therapy might have worked too? Shouldn't he know that?) "What do you get for a near miss?" he asks Finsbury.

 

As for Bill, he's in the hospital recovering when Storm visits him with Monty. Storm says her goodbyes - I'm guessing there's way too much history there to attempt to salvage their affair - but leaves Monty with Bill. Bill's face lights up as Monty jumps into his arms - man's best (life saving) friend, indeed!

Bill isn't so happy that Storm showed up...

But Monty? Heck yes! Bye Storm!

Obsession shocked me in a few ways, mostly due to the subject matter and stark characterizations. Several films feature leads – married or not – who hate each other and even plot their murders for whatever reason (1954's Dial M for Murder comes to mind and to a lesser extent, 1948's Sorry, Wrong Number). However, Obsession takes it one step further: A clear psychopath, Clive is so completely deranged that he believes his wife would suffer more, certainly in the long run, if he kills one of her lovers (and her dog!); thus, she would feel directly responsible for the man – in this case, Bill’s – death and would have to deal with the guilt for the rest of her life.

 

It’s obvious that Clive and Storm don’t love each other anymore; in fact, by the way they interact, it seems like all they share is a mutual feeling of hatred. Was divorce an option? Who knows, but if ever a couple needed therapy, it would be these two right here. So instead of perhaps talking things through or even confronting Storm, as Clive may recommend to his own patients, he chooses the most dramatic ‘solution’ possible - carefully formulating a smart yet hideous plan to inflict pain and suffering on his cheating, unsuspecting wife. Storm isn't fully innocent in this situation either; she obviously doesn't think twice about betraying her marriage vows and her husband's trust...over and over again. When both Clive and Storm share a scene, you can feel how cold and calculating they have become simply through the air exchanged between them.

 

At the helm of Obsession stood director Edward Dmytryk, a hardworking son of Ukrainian immigrants who worked his way up in Hollywood over the years from messenger boy to director (135). Dmytryk viewed his job in the industry simply as a way to make a living and consequently was known for adhering to shooting schedules and staying within budgets. However, character and story wise, the director’s personal fascination with violence, sometimes bordering on sadism, shone through in several of his works, one of those obviously being Obsession (141).

Edward Dmytryk working at Paramount early in his career (via editorsguild.com)

Unfortunately, Dmytryk is probably best remembered today as a member of the infamous Hollywood Ten. He took on Obsession as his first picture after he fled America when he refused to testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee in October 1947. Before the whole HUAC situation, Dmytryk was under contract to RKO, though the day after the Waldorf Statement was delivered on November 25, 1947, he was promptly fired because through his "actions, attitude, associations, public statements, and general conduct...you have brought yourself into disrepute with a large section of the public, have offended the community, have prejudiced this corporation as your employer and the motion picture industry in general...and have otherwise violated the provisions of Article 16 of your employment agreement [a morals clause] with us" (132). Dmytryk sued RKO for "wrongful discharge" and the money owed to him for the rest of his contract, though he dropped his suit in 1951 after he recanted (133). Interestingly, due to his renouncement of Communism and the fact that he joined much later than the other members of the Ten - in 1944 - some authors feel he was the least committed to the party (149).

Dmytryk appearing before the HUAC.

Regardless of how dedicated he was to the cause, the damage had been done. Though the director never thought he would live and work anywhere other than America, Dmytryk and his wife, Jean, packed their bags and landed at the Atheneum Court Hotel in Piccadilly, a “seedy inn” that was the “only reasonable accommodation available in war-depleted London,” the director recalled in his autobiography, Odd Man Out: A Memoir of the Hollywood Ten (105).

 

Around the same time, Nat Bronston bought the rights to an unpublished novel called Man about a Dog by Alec Coppel, and Bronston suggested that he, his girlfriend, Coppel and his wife, and Dmytryk and Jean all journey to a resort in Lake Annecy in the French Alps to work on the script together. Coppel did most of the work, and Dmytryk would meet with him to go over certain parts of the script and notes. Outside of work hours, the couples would “swim or sail, or just lie around drinking in the sun” and dine together, Dmytryk recalled in his other memoir, It's a Hell of a Life, but not a Bad Living. With all the chaos and turmoil occurring in Dmytryk’s life, it sounded like a nice – and necessary – relaxing getaway (110-111).

 

While Coppel was putting the finishing touches on the screenplay, the cast was assembled: native Brits Robert Newton, Sally Gray, and Naunton Wayne, along with American Phil Brown, who, according to Dmytryk, was “perhaps the first Hollywood actor to flee the Hollywood blacklist and make his home in England” (105).

 

Despite the low budget and short - for England - 30 day shooting schedule (113), the performances are all top notch, from Robert Newton's coolly terrifying portrayal of a man, Clive, who’s lost all sense of morals and compassion (or perhaps never had them to begin with...) to Phil Brown's outwardly confident and slightly smug adulterer/prisoner, Bill, who is slowly but surely losing hope and his mind. In the supporting roles, Sally Gray radiates sex appeal and ice as Storm (such an incredibly accurate moniker), holding her own opposite Newton's extremely forceful and unstable Clive - it's easy to see why she attracted so many men and perhaps partly why Clive still kept her around - while Naunton Wayne provides welcome bits of comic relief as a seemingly innocent officer of the law more sly than he appears to be who pops up humorously to shake Clive's confidence a bit.

 

Based on the personal and professional circumstances Dmytryk was dealing with at the time, it's no surprise that tension fills Obsession from beginning to end (definitely moreso towards the end). Certainly, some of the director’s anxiety seeped through the script and performances to infiltrate other areas of the production to give an all-around feel of apprehension; for example, the cinematography, spearheaded by photographer C. Pennington (Penny) Richards, casts an ominous dark shadow across several scenes, particularly those involving Clive and Bill in the hidden chamber. Dmytryk, never fond of “overdetailed lighting” because he found it “dull to look at," worked with Penny to achieve the look he wanted, which, in the case of the basement room, leaned more towards an extreme contrast. Those scenes were set to be lit with two bright overhead work lights rigged with green shades, but Penny made one change: he added a photo-flood bulb in each light. This rather impromptu method added an ominous, bold, and realistic sense to the sequences shot there, as the lights made an actor “hot” when close and then served to vanish them into the background when they were far enough away (113-114). 

This is either Clive or Finsbury entering the basement...what lighting!

It’s also quite interesting to note the personal hardships the three main actors were dealing with which most likely heightened their individual performances. In light of what I read about each, it was hard not to view their characters, who all simmer just under the surface and push each other to the brink of breakdown, differently.

 

Let's start with Storm. Sally Gray suffered a major nervous breakdown in the early 1940s that kept her out of the industry for five years. Surely, she could have pulled from some of that inner torment in her scenes with Robert Newton, who relishes the chance to cause her character distress, whether through the disappearance of Bill or Monty.

 

As for Phil Brown, the only American in the main cast, he also apparently found himself in a similar boat as Dmytryk, as the director noted that Brown was also forced to leave Hollywood because of the Blacklist. The mental and emotional suffering he probably underwent could have been of use in his characterization of a man who is terrorized psychologically by Clive.

 

Of particular intrigue to me was the similarity between Robert Newton and his character, Clive. The former, known for sliding between extreme temperaments quite easily, was required to put up £20,000 to guarantee his sobriety throughout the film’s production (113). Though Newton was one of the “nicest, most considerate, most sensitive of men” when not drinking, he was a “holy terror” when drunk, and “if we had been a few days over schedule, I doubt he would have made it. As it was, on the last day of shooting, with liberty in sight, he started drinking…By the time I said ‘print it’ on his last scene, his face was glowing a deep red. By the time our set party was over, he was already Mr. Hyde” (113), Dmytryk recalled.  Well, that sounds pretty accurate for Clive as well, except for the alcoholism: to most of the world, save for Storm, he comes across as a smart, respectful doctor. Who would ever think of him as someone who could hold a man hostage while plotting to dissolve his body in acid?! Just as the actor portraying the character could shift so rapidly from charmer to monster, Clive seems to transform easily from unassuming doctor to psychopathic murderer-to-be who eventually starts unraveling on his own as he is picked apart by Finsbury.

 

Last but certainly not least is Monty, the dog that foils Clive’s murderous scheme; even he shared some similarities with his on-screen persona! Operating outside Hollywood, there was no access to “picture animal trainers", so producer Bronston simply bought Monty and had someone come in to train him for the film. Since he was so vital to the movie, the dog was insured, but ironically, he ran away a few weeks after production wrapped. A reward was offered by the insurance company, and the dog was found and returned to its owners, but eventually he disappeared again, ate poisoned meat and met his end (not in a tub filled with acid, but still tragic). As the director wryly remarked in his autobiography about the dog’s real life fate: “No reward could save his life. Moral – too much insurance is no good protection” (114).

 

In another ironic twist, while Obsession was in production, a sensational murder took place in London in which the killer coerced his victims to turn over their assets to him “for various kinds of trumped-up investments” and in turn murdered them by placing their bodies in sulfuric acid (111). The perpetrator, John George Haigh, was eventually convicted of killing six people this way. What are the odds that two dissolving-bodies-in-acid stories hit within months of each other? 

The real life Clive, John George Haigh, who was convicted of killing 6 people in England during the 1940s. He was executed months before Obsession was released.

Despite, or perhaps because, of that incident, Dmytryk mentioned that the film received positive reviews and made money at the box office. A snippet of the Variety review from December 31, 1948 commended the director's first British film as a "powerful suspense" story; the reviewer noted that the plot ran a bit on the slow side until Scotland Yard entered the picture (a statement I don't entirely agree with), but the atmosphere from then on was "tense."

 

Tense is certainly a word that could describe the story and production of Obsession for its cast and crew in more ways than one!

 

 

How to watch Monty save the day:

Take your pick: Obsession is available for purchase from Amazon.com here, and The Hidden Room is here. Personally, the Obsession DVD looks more legit, and hopefully, both are the exact same film! 

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I See a Dark Theater is a website dedicated to classic movie-going—and loving—in the City of Angels. Whether it's coverage on screenings, special presentations, or Q&As around Los Angeles that you're looking for, or commentary on the wonderful and sometimes wacky world of classic cinema, you've come to the right place for a variety of pieces written with zeal, awe, and (occasionally) wit. Enjoy.

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