‘Magnificent Obsession’ or — Crazed Sirk-adian Rhythms?

Colin Edwards
3 min readMar 18


‘Magnificent Obsession’ (1954) has been described as a “combination of kitsch and craziness and trashiness” with a “damned crazy story if ever there was one”. These aren’t the words of some mean and nasty critic but of the film’s director, Douglas Sirk, himself and he’s totally right because ‘Magnificent Obsession’ is, to put it bluntly, fucking nuts.

Irresponsible playboy and med school dropout Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson) is driving his speedboat one day when he crashes it and in the process accidentally kills a famous brain surgeon because the town’s only resuscitator is rushed to the injured Merrick when it could’ve been used on the respected surgeon who also badly needed the device which then spurs the reckless and selfish Merrick to become part of a secret society of benevolent/insane philanthropists who all seem determined to bankrupt themselves in an attempt to imitate Jesus if he had lived in a rampantly Capitalist society with International Style architecture and furnishings only for Merrick’s good works to spectacularly backfire when he falls in love with the dead surgeon’s widow, Helen Phillips (Jane Wyman), before going on to accidentally blind her during an outburst of misguided munificence in a taxi meaning Merrick has to suddenly retrain to become a brain surgeon in order to… okay, look, I’m not even going to bother explaining the rest of the story because I’m not sure I can and you wouldn’t believe me anyway. Besides, one of the pleasures of watching ‘Magnificent Obsession’ is sitting there and muttering to yourself “What the hell?” every two minutes as some insane plot development after another whacks you round the head until blood starts dripping out your ears.

And, best of all, it’s conveyed through the most unhinged dialogue you could possibly imagine that’s delivered with so much earnestness it’s hysterical. So we treated to such glorious lines as -

“He told me… he told me… he told me how to contact a source of infinite power!”

followed by

“You mean keeping these deeds secret is like insulating the power of your personality?”

or how about the absolutely fantastic

“We’re going to get dressed up to the teeth! I’m going to initiate that new net dress.”

It’s almost as though the meaning of the words is completely irrelevant and, instead, driven purely by the phonetics, the way the syllables sound as they land on the ear as opposed to the focus being their actual content. The effect is side-splittingly hilarious and when you combine all this with Technicolor hues so demented they should be sectioned it results in a level of camp that’s utterly bananas (watching this you can really understand why John Waters was such a Sirk fan).

The film was based on a book written by Lloyd C. Douglas, a Lutheran minister who wrote the novel as a warning against selfish hedonism and for the promotion of selfless charity and there are certainly explicit religious elements at play here (the film even opens with Hudson blasting across the surface of the water like some deranged Eisenhower era, atomic-powered Christ). But to ascribe any actual theological depth or sincere spiritual intention to the movie would be as insane as the film itself because it all simply feels like nutsoid grist to Sirk’s berko mill as ecclesiastical concepts smash up against nuclear theory and Fifties futurism (this is almsgiving and sight restoration by way of Oppenheimer and van der Rohe).

All this barking lunacy is further augmented by Sirk keeping everything moving forward at a pretty furious rate of knots along with some technically impressive scene transitions, carefully orchestrated fades plus a stunning eye for visual composition that’s legitimately gobsmacking. There’s an incredible fluid glide to these images, a highly stimulating rhythmic flow of what we’re seeing that’s deliriously intoxicating.

So yeah, Sirk’s comments about his own film were completely accurate as when it comes to kitsch trashiness with a damned crazy story the guy was in a league of his own as ‘Magnificent Obsession’ is really something else. Quite frankly, it’s absolutely spectacular.



Colin Edwards

Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.