Obsession (1949) A Study in Psychological Torture


Obsession – Starring Robert Newton, Phil Brown, Naughton Wayne, Sally Gray

I stumbled on this black and white gem on TCM. The plot is a simple one: Clive Riordan, a psychiatrist, discovers his wife is having an affair with American Bill Kronin. He kidnaps Kronin and chains him up in an abandoned ruin of a building, surrounded by an almost impenetrable warren of bomb shelters and tunnels. Dr. Riordan taunts his prisoner by sharing how he eventually will murder him and dispose of his body.

Not only is this movie dark and noirish – the black and white surroundings are the post-war ruins of England, where broken down brick walls, rubble, wooden doors on rusty hinges open to abandoned warehouses, but it symbolizes the breakdown of Dr. Riordan’s marriage. It’s a psychological thriller, where the doctor’s adulterous wife suffers from not knowing what happened to her lover, and the anguish of the prisoner Kronin wondering when the end will come.

Dr. Riordan is played by Robert Newton, a mild looking actor who looks harmless enough, but when he is engaged in his nefarious scheme, his eyes betray the intensity of jealousy, rage and revenge. He carries out a careful plan, attaching a strong chain to Kronin that allows Kronin the freedom to walk to the bathroom and to a shelf of books. Dr. Riordan draws a chalk line on the floor to indicate how far away he needs to be to remain out of reach. He is careful to place food and drink just outside this circle.

Riordan tortures the prisoner by bringing rubber water bottles filled with acid and emptying them into a bathtub in the next room, telling Kronin that his body would be destroyed without a trace after his murder. Riordan would never reveal how he planned to kill the prisoner and the prisoner would typically try to guess every time he saw the doctor.

Dr. Riordan and his prisoner

This routine continues for some five months, when we are introduced to Superintendent Finsbury, expertly played by Naughton Wayne. Finsbury conducts his investigation step-by-step, calmly and completely, and soon lays his suspicions on Dr. Riordan, who has the interesting habit of disappearing many nights, ostensibly to “work in his laboratory” (minus an assistant named Igor).

There’s no blood in this movie, only the mental bloodletting of Kronin hearing the myriad methods by which he may die. It’s a delightful Hitchcockian paradox that not only does Dr. Riordan bring nourishment, he brings dread and death to his prisoner. 

Originally called “The Hidden Room,” Obsession is a more apt name due to the main character’s relentless torture of his prisoner. No need for car chases or explosions to  enhance the intensity of this obsession.

What psychological thrillers would you recommend? Please comment below; I’d love to hear from you!

Author: Christy

Christy Kelly grew up in a swamp (Washington DC), graduated Villanova U. then escaped to another swamp (Hollywood, Florida). Her greatest achievement was convincing her two daughters that black and white movies are worth watching. Christy's passions: classic movies, writing, reading and singing in Sweet Adelines. She shares movie trivia with all who will listen and alternates between watching TCM and Netflix.

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