Obsession (Domanda di Grazia, France-Italy 1954)

The concept of a ‘Cinéma du Papa’ was suggested by François Truffaut in the 1950s as part of his general critique of French cinema, leading up to his polemical campaign for a new kind of cinema of auteurs, which would eventually include himself. This so-called ‘cinema of quality’ encompassed several established directors and screenwriters and their stars plus the technicians who produced detailed studio sets. Obsession seems to be a good example of a film of the period, filmed in Eastmancolor, largely in ‘Les studios de Boulogne’ and directed by Jean Delannoy. It’s an adaptation of a short story ‘Silent as the Grave’ by Cornel Woolrich using his other name ‘William Irish’. Woolrich was one of the best-known American pulp writers with many film adaptations of his work – Truffaut used Woolrich/Irish stories for The Bride Wore Black (1968) and Mississippi Mermaid (1969). The film was photographed by Pierre Montazel, who lensed many of the key films of the 1940s and 1950s. I watched the film wondering if a comparison with Truffaut’s two films based on similar source stories might be fruitful.

Hélène (Michèle Morgan) and Aldo (Raf Vallone)

Obsession is a French-Italian co-production, perhaps the most common form of production partnership during the 1950s and 1960s. Here it puts the Italian star Raf Vallone alongside the great French star Michèle Morgan as ‘The Giovannis’ – a trapeze act playing circus arenas and touring theatrical venues in Paris and other cities and resorts in France. After working together for a while, the couple marry and all is fine until Aldo (Vallone) is injured and their manager pairs Hélène (Morgan) with another trapeze artist. Aldo is not very happy about this, especially when the new partner turns out to be someone he used to work with. I don’t want to spoil the narrative so I’ll just say that Hélène eventually finds herself doubting her husband in very difficult circumstances for both the couple and their colleagues. Setting the story in the world of trapeze artists gives a further twist to the ‘insecurity’ of the central characters, especially if you are as nervous as I am watching high-wire acts. According to reports Michèle Morgan did some of her own stunts in these scenes. If so, my admiration for her rises ever further. The film’s Italian title translates as something like ‘Asking for grace’. Since it clearly represents a courtroom situation this title is probably more helpful than the French ‘Obsession’. I wasn’t sure who was the obsessed character.

Sometimes the colours of the costumes seem vivid and almost ‘primal’ next to the subdued colours of the sets

But is this film a good example of those that Truffaut criticised? His 1954 article ‘Une certaine tendance du cinéma français’ was published in Cahiers in January of that year and its main argument was that the films of Delannoy, Autant-Lara, Clément, Yves Allégret etc. were part of a tendency he described as ‘psychological realism’ and as such were ‘scriptwriters’ films’ (i.e. as distinct from the concept of the director as auteur that he was developing with Cahiers colleagues). The issue for him was that this meant a ‘bourgeois view of the world’ from within the sealed community of cinema professionals. If the directors went out into the world to find real issues and ‘real people’ the films would be quite different. Truffaut was writing before Obsession was released and there are two further problems in applying Truffaut’s critique. First, the film is based on an American ‘pulp’ story and second that Delannoy adapted the work himself in partnership with three others, each of whom was relatively young and inexperienced. Truffaut’s ire was directed towards the established screenwriters who had been working since the 1930s.

Hélène searches for Aldo. The bar is a studio set.

None of these points negate the validity of the exercise involving comparing Delannoy’s conception of a William Irish story with the two examples from Truffaut. His film shares Truffaut’s use of established stars. Jeanne Moreau in The Bride Wore Black and Catherine Deneuve in Mississippi Mermaid function as star attractions in the same way as Michèle Morgan in Obsession (and Raf Vallone is an equivalent for Jean-Paul Belmondo in Mississippi Mermaid). There is nothing wrong with the performances in the film, nor the script. The main difference between the films is the ‘look’. Obsession is a studio film with only a few location-based shots. For much of the time this isn’t a problem as such and the sets are well-constructed. However everything collapses in the last scene when I thought that the street scene was so poorly put together it could have been a spoof. This 1954 film sometimes looks like a colourised version of a 1930s or 1940s picture. It’s one of the earliest French colour features that I’ve seen, shot in Eastmancolor and printed by Technicolor. There are moments when the colours of costumes and set dressings seemed to clash (see above). The images appear ‘painterly’ with an artificial palette. Truffaut’s two films, and especially Mississippi Mermaid with its trip to Réunion in the Indian Ocean, still seem ‘modern’ by comparison.

This final image from the film is taken from a website featuring a title card sequence.

Hitchcock always maintained that shooting in the studio gave the director complete control. In 1954 he adapted another Cornel Woolrich story, Rear Window, which never left the studio. Hitchcock would go on to use the same studio techniques very effectively long after most American films had shifted to location shooting, most controversially in Marnie (US 1954). The point is that Hitchcock used the qualities and the opportunities of studio shooting with care and skill and imagination. Having made that point I’m not going to criticise Delannoy and his team ten years earlier. I think that one of the problems created by the Cahiers critics is that their success in denouncing those that went before makes it more difficult to see the earlier films (especially in the UK) and to attempt to study them. I started to write this piece several years ago but then lost access to the print and discovered that the a restored Blu-ray was only available in French without English subtitling. I did, however find a useful review on Letterboxd. Presumably there is not sufficient interest in the UK/US for an all region disc with English subs? If not, that’s a shame I think.

My newspaper research reveals that Obsession was screened during a French Film Festival held in London, Glasgow and Birmingham in March 1957. It’s interesting that similar festivals still take place. Delannoy films were seen in the UK in the 1950s and we should have more interest in them now. Much as I love Truffaut, I do wonder how much his polemic has damaged the chances of later generations to see these films? Gala Film Distribution (Kenneth Rive) did receive a BBFC certificate for public screenings of Obsession in the UK at the time of the festival, but I haven’t yet found evidence of any wider release.

3 comments

  1. keith1942

    My memories of this title are that it worked well and kept me interested.
    As for Truffaut, his judgements often seemed designed to further his interests rather than actually engaging with the object. There is his notorious attempt to manipulate Hitchock in denigrating British cinema.
    Rather as with what Roy has noted regarding this title I often wonder just how many British films Truffaut had actually seen.

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    • Roy Stafford

      Can you remember roughly where and when you saw this? My initial research surprised me as to the extent that Delannoy’s films were seen in the UK. Did you see it in one of the Rives Gala cinemas or in a film society screening? MFB reviewed the film in June 1957 and the negative review suggested that 15 minutes of footage was missing. IMDb lists the film at 100 mins or 12 mins longer than the MFB review.

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  2. keith1942

    I think this was a film society, but before I kept a list of when and where I saw titles. I just recognise the film. I wonder what was missing?

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