Seeing as it’s really a style more than anything else, film noir has the ability to cross over and touch on many genres. Of course it’s most often associated with the crime thriller, but there are examples of noirs that are also melodramas, westerns and so on. Horror would seem a natural bedfellow, due to the nightmare quality frequently evoked by film noir, and Obsession (1949) – AKA The Hidden Room – although it’s not a full on horror picture, is what I’d definitely term a chiller.
What we have is essentially a tale of jealousy and revenge plotted in the coldest and most unsettling way. Clive Riordan (Robert Newton) is a respected and successful psychiatrist with a problem in his private life – his wife Storm (Sally Gray) is a kind of serial adulteress. This cultured and rational man who spends his days attempting to cure the neuroses of others finds himself driven to the brink of tolerance and sanity by the faithless nature of his wife. On discovering Storm in a tryst with her latest admirer, an American called Kronin (Phil Brown), he calmly announces that he’s reached his limit and is going to kill the man. There are no histrionics, no outraged dignity, just that cool and grim assertion. It’s here that the story takes a detour into the macabre though. Instead of merely shooting Kronin on the spot, Riordan tells him that they’re first going to take a walk. This is only the beginning of Riordan’s plan and serves to leave his wife uncertain as to the fate of her lover, thus guaranteeing that she should suffer as much mental torment as he can muster. Kronin is kept chained up for months on end in a secret location for two reasons – firstly to allow Riordan to produce him unharmed should there be any chance that the police get on his trail, and secondly to ensure that he has ample time to prepare for the grisly disposal of the body when he finally gets round to doing the deed. The really chilling element is not only Riordan’s detached and matter of fact demeanour, but also the fact that he visits Kronin daily to feed him, ask after his well-being, and assure him of the absolute certainty of his imminent demise. Kronin starts off jaunty and confident but, bit by bit, that cockiness is eroded by his confinement, and his desperation grows as his hopes for salvation recede. All the while, Riordan is engaged in a game of cat and mouse with a deceptively bland Scotland Yard detective (Naunton Wayne) who may or may not be onto him.
Obsession was made in England at a time when Hollywood was a place best avoided for someone like Edward Dmytryk; he could, for a time, put his HUAC troubles behind him and concentrate on making movies. He managed to bring a true noir sense to the film, although it has to be said that the ending is a little too upbeat and drains some of its power. Still, Dmytryk creates an atmosphere of dread and despair by concentrating much of the action in the decrepit cellar where Riordan keeps his rival captive. There aren’t that many outdoor scenes but what we do see of the bombed out city adds to the sense that Kronin is just marking time in a dead landscape. While Robert Newton tends to be remembered for his larger than life portrayals he’s admirably restrained here. The cool and collected facade that he presents is far more effective and frightening than any amount of grand guignol eye rolling. He seems to have every detail worked out and every eventuality covered, so much so that it’s impossible not to share in the desperation of his victim. Even so, there’s a temptation to sympathise a little with him too as his wife is a frankly unpleasant piece of work. Sally Gray invested her character with enough condescension and haughtiness to paper over a fairly wooden performance but, as I don’t think the intention was to have the audience side with her anyway, it works out reasonably well. Phil Brown was fine as the hapless lover taking the fall for his indiscretion, his gradual transformation from a kind of carefree playboy to a man counting down the hours to his death is convincingly done. He’s the one character in the whole set up that you really feel for and it’s hard not to think that he’s been incredibly unfortunate to stumble into such a nightmare. Naunton Wayne doesn’t show up until about the half way mark but he adds a lot to the film. He was excellent at putting over that quality of vagueness that you know is really only a blind to lower the defences of his quarry.
The only DVD of Obsession that I’m aware of is the UK release from Fremantle. The image is passable, there are the nicks, scratches and cue blips that you’d expect from an unrestored print, but the fact that it doesn’t seem to be a progressive transfer is more problematic. On the positive side, it’s fairly sharp and crisp and it’s certainly watchable. There are also cast and crew bios included in text form to round out the package. The film is a good example of British noir, from a director with an excellent pedigree, that is genuinely creepy. You could argue that the pay off isn’t as dark as the build up seems to demand, but it’s still a classy and suspenseful picture. I recommend it.