NB: These notes make the outcome of the plot explicit
My choice of 1949’s Obsession to begin a series of films about the theme ‘trapped’ was made on two counts. Firstly, the specifics of the narrative: Clive Riordan (Robert Newton) plots to kill American Bill Cronin (Phil Brown) as a punishment for an affair with his wife, Storm (Sally Gray who also stars in the other perfect British noir of this period, They Made Me a Fugitive). Hesitating in killing Cronin until suspicion has passed over him, he confines him to cell in a bombed out house and daily delivers a hot water bottle of acid each day, slowly filling a bath in which he will eventually dissolve the man who cuckolded him. His only companion is Clive’s dog Monty and four volumes of Boswell’s Life of Johnson. Over the course of the film, the two men build an equally entwined relationship as the two eighteenth-century grandees. Besides the plot, I thought the production circumstances of the film were too germane to the theme to pass up: its director Edward Dmytryk had fled America, refusing to reveal the specifics of his communist colleagues. After ending his exile in Britain as a member of the Hollywood Ten, he found himself sentenced to a six month prison term on his return to the USA, just shortly after the film was released.
Despite its American protagonist and director, the film nevertheless shows a rare focus on idiomatically British themes and attitudes. Jules Dassin’s Night and the City (a film that was a product of the same blacklisting) shows a thorough disregard for the specifics of the British social scene (and for the geography of London) but Obsession is ridden with details that blend noir tropes with the older British modes of detective fiction. When a gun is drawn in this film, it is not simply a quotidian prop as in the American thriller: here it is a statement of intent, the kind of object only a man seriously determined on murder would seek out.
The focus on the gentlemen’s club bears this out: Clive’s associates there seem like a collection of garrulous spectres, unaffected by the huge social changes that were transforming the nation. ‘Things were going on quite nicely until Hitler popped up,’ one opines. ‘Met a Canadian once, fantastic lingo; same as Americans, you know.’ Defeated and insignificant, like the rest of the nation they are ‘living on American dollars’ and subsisting on the ration (‘diabolical coffee’). Clive’s prison for Bill is a perfect metaphor for their existence: an untouched façade leading onto a back garden that shows the depredations of war where unspeakable acts can go unnoticed.
Clive himself and his actions seems to be emblematic of the state of empire too: no longer ebullient or virile, lacking strength, he now must rely on calculating cruelty that will trap his subject in order to kill it. This cold methodology is embedded in the pacing of the film. Contrasting with the propulsion of an American thriller, we linger over Clive preparing the solution he plans to dissolve Bill in, Clive entering the makeshift prison; the film has the prison movie’s attention to the magnification of minor frustrations that comes from confinement. Showing characters trapped in a film means the producers have to overcome a consequent narrative stasis. In this case, the film chooses the play out the relationship between jailer and prisoner to deal with this potential inertia. Like Walter Mosley’s The Man in My Basement, the reasons for imprisonment seem arbitrary: it is an excuse to let two figures who are fully themselves (as well as having allegorical import) confront each other over extended sessions, rather like a philosophical dialogue (the serious, impotent colonial vs. the impish, philandering new worlder).
It is only in the film’s final third that the battle is revealed to be between three, rather than two, competing parties. Naunton Wayne plays Superintendent Finsbury, brilliantly riffing on his established turn as Caldicott that started with Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes. Here, he is an avenging spirit on the inventor of the perfect murder, appearing at inopportune moments and making Clive’s home seem just as confining as Bill’s cell. This character, an interpolation from the Golden Age of detective novels, knocks the film into thoroughly British territory, as cosy and cunning as Agatha Christie’s Poirot and possessing a supercilious but devastating wit. At one point Clive describes being tried for murder as ‘awkward’ and this sense of the art of murder as a question of manners is expressed in the embarassment that Finsbury visits upon Clive. He quietly threatens Clive, ‘All murderers are amateurs Mr. Riordan. The only people who are professionals in the game are the people who catch the murderers.’ The details of the film (acid in hot water bottles, thermoses and ham sandwiches for the prisoner and, wonderfully, our would-be murderer waiting coolly for his victims by polishing off the Times crossword) all give the film a drawing-room quality that collides productively with the blackness of the murder itself.
There’s a hint of the anxiety that attended homosexual life at this time in the dynamic between these three men: an ‘unnatural’ relationship that must be hidden from the eyes of the authorities and wider society, being constantly interrupted by the police. This interpretation is not so far fetched when one consider’s the extent to which post-war Britain’s social clean up was focused on the homosexual problem (breaking up ‘cottages’ and other gay meeting points), excellently detailed in Richard Hornsey’s analysis of The Lavender Hill Mob in his book The Spiv and the Architect.
This focus on the homosocial relationship between Bill and Clive is borne out in the film’s perfunctory ending. Having suffered many months in solitary confinement as a result of his peccadillo with Storm, Bill is visited by his lover in hospital. Expecting a tear-stained reunion that will see them begin their lives together, she instead declares she is going on a cruise, taking Monty with her; she leaves him to get back in touch with her on her return. As she leaves, we get a reunion with the only creature who was willing to sacrifice himself for Bill’s life.