When arrogant playboy Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson) crashes his speedboat on a lake one sunny afternoon, the emergency services are forced to bring the town's only respirator to the scene, meaning the equipment is unavailable to save the life of beloved local doctor and eminent surgeon Wayne Phillips, who happens to have suffered a coronary at the same moment. The churlish, directionless and deeply unpopular Merrick is guilt-ridden when he learns of the tragedy later and is persuaded to adopt a new philosophy of anonymous philanthropy by artist Edward Randolph (Otto Kruger), a friend of the deceased. Pursuing Phillips' attractive widow Helen (Jane Wyman) to apologise, Merrick accidentally causes her to be hit by a car after which she permanently loses her sight. Merrick, who has fallen in love with Helen, arranges for her to visit a trio of specialists in Switzerland but they prove unable to cure her blindness. After an idyllic evening together in the Alps, Merrick proposes to Helen but she instead disappears with her nurse, Nancy (Agnes Moorhead), apparently never to be seen again. Heartbroken, Merrick re-enrols in medical school and trains to become a neurologist, whereupon Helen unexpectedly re-enters his life and the older, wiser Merrick finally finds himself presented with an opportunity to right his many wrongs.
A former UFA director turned Hollywood journeyman, Douglas Sirk certainly made a silk purse out of a sow's ear when he adapted Lloyd C. Douglas's soapy 1929 novel for Universal-International. Working within the confines of the studio system, Sirk would soon carve out a niche for himself as the king of the American Melodrama with such superior weepies as All That Heaven Allows (1955), Written On The Wind (1956) and Imitation Of Life (1959), but it all began here. A Dane by background, Sirk lived and worked in Germany until 1937 when he was forced to emigrate in order to protect his Jewish wife. The director never forgot the lessons of Nazism and made films that analysed the manners and moors of the middle class in America, a social demographic he deeply distrusted as “the soil in which dictatorships take root”. Magnificent Obsession can be read as an example of this attitude in action. Shot in a dreamy pastel palette by cinematographer Russell Metty, Sirk presents the town of Brightwood as a Rockwellian idyll, a consumer-capitalist utopia lined with gleaming automobiles, blooming gardens and domestic ease, the product of Madison Avenue's persuasive imagination and as unreal as the world of Father Knows Best (1954-60) on television. Hudson's wealthy Bob Merrick is the fruit of this seemingly perfect landscape and is profoundly unfulfilled as a result of its superficiality, his actions causing destruction all around him. If Merrick stands for his class in microcosm, he is in dire need of correction for society's greater good. Fortunately, he gets it, courtesy of Kruger's interventionist creator, a man who preaches a selfless, karmic code of personal conduct that he traces back to Christ. Given a new mission, Merrick sets out to redeem himself, although the fact remains that it has still taken two tragedies to shake this Good Samaritan out of his cruddy complacency, a rot attributed to luxury and entitlement. This savage social critique, with its heavily Christian subtext, runs beneath the surface of what might otherwise have been an empty chocolate box romance with an embarrassingly conventional plot. Herein lies Sirk's greatness, balancing crowd-pleasing aesthetics and emotion with pressing social concerns.