Obsession / The Hidden Room (1949)

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“Do you like mysteries?” and “we found your dog.” These two lines tell you just about everything you need to know about the fantastic British thriller Obsession, alternately titled The Hidden Room, a movie directed by Edward Dmytryk (Crossfire, Murder My Sweet).

Robert Newton superbly plays the icy and jealous psychiatrist who’s surely a bigger psycho than any of his patients. He’s had it with his beautiful wife Sally Gray’s wandering eye and plans to do away with whoever happens to be her next lover. He’s long planned to do it in the most dramatic way possible, to deter her from ever wandering again. We learn early on in the picture all we need to know about Newton’s cold nature and approach; while waiting for his wife to come home from a night out with that latest (unluckiest) boyfriend, played by Phil Brown, Newton prepares his gun, then sits down to work on a crossword puzzle. That’s exactly what crime is to him, a fun analytical challenge, one he’ll carry out with a most unflappable demeanor and an outsized pride about his own superior intelligence. He relishes explaining his clever idea and how perfectly it will all unfold, making the couple squirm at gunpoint while catching them in lies about their story for the evening. Newton gets his wife to run upstairs from sheer embarrassment, leaving him alone with Brown, whom he soon after chains up in an abandoned bomb shelter near his office garage. From there the bulk of the movie is a battle of wills and a display of different kinds of patience and persistence, as Newton keeps Brown imprisoned in the underground room for months, during which time everyone, including Sally, have given up hope of ever finding the missing man. Newton brings Brown food, martinis in a thermos, and all four volumes of Boswell’s Life of Johnson, biding time while police interest cools off, and while he fills a tub with sulfuric acid, bottle by bottle with each day’s visit, until there’s enough to cleanly dispose of Brown’s body.

There’s the common theme of the amazing hubris and of course the paradoxically huge yet amazingly shallow and fragile ego of a self-proclaimed genius, who believes his plan is flawless because he’s studied all those other foolish amateurs and knows exactly what not to do. But as all mystery lovers know, there’s no such thing as the perfect crime and not only is this one no exception, it’s the waiting for Newton to make the fatal mistake that creates the tension. The main complication comes as Newton’s cute little doggie Monty runs away from Gray and follows Newton to the bunker. Newton almost comically treats Monty like an inconvenient witness that must be eliminated, and decides to use fluffy as a guinea pig for the acid bath; a great, suspenseful struggle ensues.

Robert Newton, who pretty much single-handedly established the film pirate “aarrrr” persona when he played Long John Silver in Treasure Island soon after this movie, was of course so much more than that, a talented character actor who played all shades of crazy and bad, but is far scarier here than anywhere I’ve seen him so far, subtly shading the cold, determined obsessive who hardly even seems capable of working up the passion needed to actually be a believably jealous husband. No, Newton’s motivation is more pure protection of his wife as a possession, and through the months keeping Brown captive he’s sustained by a love of his plan. It almost seems he hates to see it end, but must, partly because of a clinical mad-scientist curiosity about seeing whether the acid will actually work, and also because he’s attached his own self-worth to the success of his scheme. Sally Gray certainly doesn’t love Newton, and is apparently just as cold to her lovers, and seems to forget Brown even existed soon after his disappearance. After Gray reports her dog missing and suspects her husband was involved, she calls the police, and in comes Scotland Yard detective superintendent, a Columbo-esque sleuth who only appears to be bumbling, nicely played by Naunton Wayne, aka “Caldicott,” one of the duo of memorable cricket fans from The Lady Vanishes and Night Train to Munich. Newton’s so insulting and condescending to Wayne during their first meeting that the good detective smells a sociopath, and the investigation proper begins.

Brown, whom my generation would best recognize as “Uncle Owen” from Star Wars, despite the fact that he made a ton of movies, is good and builds up from being presented as kind of a silly fellow, a stunned lightweight, to being on an equal footing with Newton both in terms of acting and in the story. Brown makes a quick study of Newton’s personality as soon as he’s at gunpoint, and while in captivity, Brown’s sympathetic, charming and cunning, keeping his sanity like a crafty POW, working on his captor every chance he gets, hoping to somehow guilt or befriend him. He gets a little companion in Monty to train for some cross-plot as the time ticks away and the police try to get closer to finding the hidden room. By the end, Brown proves himself even a better man than the shallow Sally Gray deserves, something even the dog recognizes (you’re sure to be a little put off by her behavior at the end of the movie.) Look sharp for Stanley Baker as a policeman, which was a cool surprise since lately I’ve been aiming to watch as many of his movies as I can but never expected him here.

The score by Nino (Godfather, Leopard, La Dolce Vita, etc etc) Rota fits well, and the whole thing has a real Hitchcock-ian feel to it in the most flattering sense, as far as the quality of suspense, but the look is real and gritty in the best Dmytryk noir style. Obsession was a nice find for me because I’d never really heard of this film mentioned in the same tier as Dmytryk’s best but I definitely found it to be just that; a memorable and well done suspense picture that may be hard to find but is totally worth seeking out.

This post is the first of my contributions to the SCENES OF THE CRIME event which you can learn more about by clicking on Mr Bronson here:

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3 thoughts on “Obsession / The Hidden Room (1949)”

  1. Kristina, I’ve heard of OBSESSION/THE HIDDEN ROOM, but this is my first opportunity to read about it. Battles of wits between adversaries a la SLEUTH always intrigue me, so I’ll definitely keep an eye out for this one!

    1. Thanks for checking it out, I guarantee you’d like this one, it’s fun to find a well done gem every once in a while 🙂 cheers

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