Late B noir may have given way to early B science fiction, but the presence of the mad scientist rarely appears before the transition. A fantastic exception to the rule is the 1949 British noir Obsession (released in the US as The Hidden Room). It’s a common noir tale of jealousy and murder in which a husband, Dr. Clive Riordan (Robert Newton), decides his philandering wife Storm (Sally Gray) has had one affair too many. He decides to kill her current lover, a friendly American named Bill (Phil Brown), but Clive is too shrewd and self-protective to simply shoot the man. Instead of noir violence, we delve into the macabre as he chains Bill within a disused back room and proceeds to torture him emotionally with details of how his body will be disposed of after the murder: an acid bath being prepared for him. From looming death to the gentlemanly way the murderer and his would-be victim interact, it’s an intense, creepy ride.
If you’re not yet fully tempted to watch this delicious taste of noir horror, perhaps some fascinating background will inspire you:
- Obsession took some of its inspiration from the John George Haigh case, a.k.a. The Acid Bath Murderer. During one of his multiple prison terms, Haigh concocted the “perfect” plan for murder: dissolving the body in acid. He seemed to have misunderstood the law, thinking that if no body could be found, he could not be convicted. He was eventually proved wrong, and was convicted of six murders and hanged in 1949, though he confessed to killing nine.
- Star Robert Newton was an actor highly popular with boys for his hard-drinking lifestyle (both Oliver Reed and Keith Moon — drummer for The Who — cited him as a role model). His most famous role, by far, would come only a year after Obsession: Long John Silver in the 1950 version of Treasure Island. He played the role as well as Blackbeard several more times in the 1950s, and is credited with having created the stereotypical pirate voice. In fact, he is celebrated as the “patron saint” of International Talk Like a Pirate Day.
- Obsession was directed by Canadian-American Edward Dmytryk, who was nominated for a Best Director Oscar in 1947 for Crossfire and then promptly hauled up before HUAC as one of the Hollywood Ten. He refused to testify at that time and instead fled to England, where he directed two films, Obsession and Give Us This Day, about a struggling Italian-American family during the Depression and featuring Sam Wanamaker, who had also been blacklisted and moved to England.
And here are a few images to whet your dark appetite:
The sweetest element of this grim film is the dog. Prized possession of the adulterous Storm, the pooch follows Clive to the hidden room. To avoid his wife discovering the hidden “guest” before he can be dispatched, Clive decides to use the animal as a test case for his acid bath. Bill gets a temporary stay of execution for the cuddly little mop, and the two become fast friends, imprisoned together in the lonely, desolate room. (While some critics found the adorable man-dog bond mood-killing, they’re wrong! The pup is part of the original play and novel written by Alec Coppel, who also wrote the screenplay and made his home available as a dressing room for the production.)
I love this dark little chiller and its devilish upper-class mad scientist, and so did the #BNoirDetour crew when we showed it last year. Join the party and watch it yourself!