Although the title suggests a film noir about debauchery, illicit behaviour, or a woman’s poisonous love that destroys rather than enriches the family unit, Woman Obsessed is a melodrama that’s ultimately confused with what it wants to be because its most controversial elements had to be argued through the fifties morality filter to ensure everything was neatly wrapped up in the end scene, and the new star Twntieth Century-Fox was trying to build up – Stephen Boyd – didn’t leave audiences (and women) feeling he was an amoral jerk.
The Plot (with spoilers)
After Tom Sharron (Arthur Franz) dies trying to stop a vicious forest fire in the wild mountains of Saskatchewan (!), a fellow reserve firefighter named Fred Carter (Stephen Boyd, sporting an amusing faux Canadian accent) decides to look after widow Mary and son Robbie (Dennis Holmes), helping out with chores, seeding & farming, and making sure the family is able to get back on its feet before he heads off on his own.
Fred, himself a widower after his 'loose' wife died in a fire, develops a friendship with Mary, and while Robbie initially dislikes the live-in handyman, he finds him a viable father figure, willing to spend time, and fill a void left by his dad’s tragic death. After a few months, the townsfolk start to talk, and Fred suggest perhaps marriage might help stop gossip, and firm up the roots of what was clearly developing into a new family.
After their wedding, Fred’s patriarchal assertion is more pronounced, but he’s fair-minded dad until the mercy killing of a deer exposes a deep-rooted hatred for weak-willed personas. He traumatizes Robbie by gutting the deer to save the carcass for meat, and during an argument, beats Mary to the corner of the kitchen.
She refuses him any further physical contact, but Fred’s rage pushes him to kick down the bedroom door, and commit rape. Mary keeps the night a secret, but an unwanted baby causes further anguish. During a torrential rainstorm, Mary suffers a miscarriage, but unaware of her condition, Fred merely sees her bend over in pain. When the horse bolts away in fear, he ends up carrying her seven miles into town with his bare hands.
Shocked at discovering his chance at fatherhood was cut short, Fred disappears, but later decides to head back to the family farm and make sure Robbie is safe after the downpour caused serious flooding. Robbie, still seething with hatred, lures Fred to a quicksand pool, but he has second thoughts when Fred is about to go under, and uses all of his tiny tot might to pull his stepfather out from the brink of muddy doom.
With Mary home again, Fred decides it's best to leave, explaining he was wrong in his judgment - a position strengthened after making peace with the weak-willed brother he felt was responsible for his wife's death. Mary decides to give it another go, sensing Fred has learned from his misbehaviour, but the potential for a happy life is hardly secure.
Now, that’s a simplification of the drama, but what makes WO such an odd film is the way social taboos are handled, and key stressors for the characters don't yield cliched end results.
As a character, Fred isn’t psychotic nor had pre-planned dreams of weaseling into Mary’s life for sex or becoming some mad substitute father. He explains right from the onset he’s there to help as a favour to her late husband – most likely because Tom Sharron was one of the volunteer firefighters who tried to save his wife. Fred’s a bit of an introvert, but he genuinely cares about the well-being of the family – so he’s a natural husband, if she decides it’s time to settle down again, rather than take on the farm by herself.
Although strong-willed, Mary is a classic fifties mom and homemaker. Her mountain cabin lacks modern conveniences (oil lamps and wooden fires for light and heat), but everything’s laid out like a contemporary kitchen, so in spite of the rustic trappings, she’s very much a hausfrau archetype, just as Robbie is socially an average child in spite of having no school to attend, and zero friends, besides the forest creatures he visits on his regular day trips (culled by the editor from stock footage).
Because the two get along, there’s no reason for the couple not to court, and Mary is neither ‘obsessed’ with her late husband, hot sex, nor over-protective of her son. She isn’t ‘obsessed’ with anything, so the title is a total cheat.
When Fred blows a gasket after shooting the deer, the event reveals a latent rage that if left untreated, will escalate. He rough-handles Robbie, smacks Mary, and rapes her; the r-word is never uttered, likely due to censorship issues. (Interestingly, that same year, director Otto Preminger finally broke the ban, and had the word and the violent act discussed in Anatomy of a Murder.)
The assumption one has to make is that within a small gossipy town, family troubles are kept under wraps, and when Mary carefully infers to the family doctor (Theodore Bikel, sporting a hazy Canadian accent) that she was raped, his reaction towards Fred is moral finger-waving than calling the local law. Rape is apparently something best handled within the family, and it’s up to them to decide how to handle a ‘bump’ in their marriage.
Robbie may not know what transpired that evening, but as a child outraged with Fred’s bullying (and sullying his late father’s hallowed family position), his desire to wish Fred dead – and wait for the chance – is wholly believable.
By having Robbie save Fred from the quicksand, it guarantees a neat closure, but it also robs audiences of the noir finale they’d been led to believe was coming. The irony would’ve been beautifully cruel had Robbie let Fred sink to his death: Robbie lets the man who just saved his mom die ignominiously, and the family is further devastated by the event, which they also keep secret, because like rape, murder is something best kept within family earshot.
Being 1959, however, a child committing murder in an A-level studio picture would’ve been perhaps too shocking; little Rhoda committed more than enough vile things in The Bad Seed (1956), so she deserved to die (and by God’s divine electrical finger instead of human vigilantism). Without a shrink, Robbie would’ve grown up bonkers, and Mary would've remained a spinster, becoming ‘that crazy old Sharron woman on the mountain with a killer son.’
That's hardly the finale Fox would’ve wanted for new star Boyd, so the wrap-up had to be neat: Fred apologizes, he’s given a second chance, and the genuine love he has for the family will (hopefully) temper his temper. The question is whether in Mary’s mind the assault was an act of violence, or whether she reasoned Fred was just having a bad reaction to the word ‘No.’
The strange handling of domestic abuse might confuse some present day viewers because in our ‘neat’ dramas the resolution usually involves an arrest & conviction, or revenge; it’s rare and politically incorrect to show a family writing-off abuse and violence for what seems like a naïve pipe dream. The assumption we’re asked to make is that Fred has changed, and his understanding and peace-making with his brother has been more progressive than any psychiatric assistance or legal threat.
How much of John Mantley’s novel was changed by screenwriter Sydney Boehm (Union Station, Violent Saturday [M]) is a mystery, but it’s possible the events and moral resolutions were faithful to the novel, since Mantley was himself a screenwriter and knew the rules of crating a commercial story: give it a neat wrap-up, or go grim and dour like James M. Cain.
Boehm’s script is intriguing for its pacing – much like Violent Saturday, the violent act doesn’t happen until far into the story – and he peppers the first act with some amusing dialogue, including a few outrageous double-entendres and innuendo.
When the good doctor (Bikel) describes Fred’s late wife, he characterizes her as “loose,” and like James Cagney ably performs in Smart Money [M] (1931), he motions his hands to feel out a giant bosom. A less subtle but clever allusion also include Mary deciding to buy some colourful fabric for a new dress she plans to make, which the sales lady (Barbara Nichols) describes as ‘clinging kind of close.’
A more daring scene occurs after Fred has rescued Mary and Robbie from freezing during a snowstorm. Mother and son wake up undressed, but under the covers, in the master bed. Fred enters, and director Henry Hathaway choreographs a series of silent reaction shots to cover her confusion after she sees her clothes on a nearby chair, and Fred realizing what she’s thinking.
Mary then asks ‘Is everything is alright?’ and Fred’s discrete response ensures her and the audience he was neither stimulated by the undressing, nor attempt to take advantage of Mary, or for that matter, her son. It’s an odd scene because it nevertheless instills a bit of doubt in audiences, and acts as a contrast to the line of trust Fred later destroys when he physically abuses the two, and sexually assaults Mary after the deer incident.
Hathaway is no stranger to melodrama and noir (Kiss of Death, Niagara), and he’s equally adept in maintaining unsettling moods to keep audiences anxious when little action or piercing drama is occurring (most notably in Garden of Evil). He also knew how to create arresting montages, and WO contains a compact but exciting forest fire sequence at the beginning, and the ‘scope cinematography sometimes feels almost 3D: quiet character scenes – particularly when Robbie is alone on a mountain ridge overlooking the valley – are in crisp focus, while the background is deliberately soft or fuzzy.
Also notable is Hugo Friedhofer’s score which doesn't settle on a lengthy theme statement. Just as the three characters form an uneasy family, Friedhofer lets his material flow through various moods, never letting audiences feel the family is settling into something assured and traditional. (It’s also portentous of the composer's rich masterwork, One-Eyed Jacks, scored two years later, using very similar harmonics in that score's main themes.)
Extras & Afterthoughts
Twilight Time’s DVD contains a lovely transfer of the film, and Friedhofer’s score is isolated in rich stereo on a separate track, with studio chatter prior to most cues. (An album was also released by Intrada in 2007, coupling WO with Friedhofer’s In Love and War.)
The original theatrical trailer is quite telling of what could be perceived as Fox’ publicity department trying to market a film as a 'woody' noir drama. More than half of the trailer’s running time consists of a build-up inferring Hayward won Best Actress nominations & awards for WO… but the excerpted Oscar ceremony footage reveals the accolades are for I Want to Live! (1958). Fox decided to ‘thematically’ tie Hayward’s prestige from her winning film to WO, but it doesn’t work, and neither does the closing montage that sells WO as some overheated romantic mountain tussle about ‘an obsessed woman,’ instead of a social drama about abuse, forgiveness, and latent violence.
Julie Kirgo’s booklet notes provide extra background on screenwriter Boehm, a former journalist whose filmic focus on violent behaviour yielded a string of exceptional dramas in various genres. Had WO been made during the pre-Code years, Boehm would’ve had the freedom to be more precise in his dialogue, and the film may not have been so badly sold, but his skills managed to ensure a lot of the film’s violence – particularly the psychological grey-level material that hovers under the character’s skin – is quite palpable, and seethes beyond the safe confines demanded by an already weakened Production Code.
After WO, Boyd appeared in Fox’ glossy drama The Best of Everything (1959), and that same year landed the plum role of Messala in MGM’s monster hit Ben-Hur, the first of several ancient epics culminating with The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) and Genghis Khan (1965). Boyd's meteoric career rise and sloping fall was recently profiled in the short but affectionate BBC documentary Stephen Boyd: The Man Who Never Was [M] (2011).
After flourishing during the fifties with big budget A-level films for Fox, composer Friedhofer would take on more freelance projects, but by the early sixties he was trapped in TV, and among his last scores for the studio was Edward Dmytryk’s 1959 remake of The Blue Angel.
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan