Millionaire playboy Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson) is out test driving his latest high-speed craft on the lake, oblivious to how much danger he may be putting him or his passenger in. She takes her chance to get out when Merrick pulls up at the dockside, and he zooms off alone, despite the advice of his crew, so it's no surprise when he loses control and crashes. A resuscitator is brought with the ambulance to save him, but it's the only one in the area and this means someone else in grave need of help dies as a result. That someone else is the much-respected Dr Phillips, who has suffered a heart attack, leaving a daughter, Joyce (Barbara Rush), and a widow, Helen (Jane Wyman) who was his second wife, to pick up the pieces.
And the person they blame for all this tragedy is Merrick, of course. This was one of the first of producer Ross Hunter's melodramas, most of which tend to have a camp appeal today with their anguish and suffering brought upon the beautiful people, more than a little ridiculous plotting, and a touch of classical music sprinkled over the top. It was also one of the first of director Douglas Sirk's soap opera style movies for Hunter, a "women's picture" that allowed audiences to indulge themselves in a couple of hours of misery, guaranteed to satisfy, especially if there was a swooningly romantic resolution.
Magnificent Obsession, scripted by Robert Blees from a novel by religious themed writer Lloyd C. Douglas, had been filmed before in the thirties, and Hunter would pull off the trick of restaging a previous, hit melodrama a few more times in his career with some success. Note the religious angle, though, because it's important as Merrick becomes an unlikely Christ figure; Dr Phillips, we soon learn, was just about a perfect human being (although we conveniently never actually meet him in order to judge), and a great surgeon to boot. Now the local hospital is in trouble without him.
Merrick is unaware of what he is partly responsible for thanks to his devil-may-care attitude, and he would rather be working out business deals on the telephone than find out why nobody wants to talk to him. He is told after a week of convalescing, and reacts by escaping his bed and stumbling out into the countryside where he is picked up by Helen (she seems to suffer far more undeserving misfortune than Merrick, who you could argue has done more to merit this - all part of his guilt trip, I guess). As he is an all round sleazy guy, he starts chatting her up, or he does until he finds out who she is and is seized by remorse, collapses, and is rushed back to hospital. Still not quite on the road to redemption, Merrick is eventually discharged and winds up at a bar, drowning his sorrows, leading to drunkenly crashing his car into a ditch.
It's because of this he meets the film's God stand-in, Randolph (Otto Kruger) and spends the night on his sofa. You'll notice that whenever anything significant happens, a heavenly choir is heard on the soundtrack as if we were in any doubt when Randolph sets Merrick right about his and Dr Phillips' brand of "secret" Christianity. This means doing good deeds but seeking no reward for them, which Merrick begins to carry out but what is preoccupying him is appeasing Helen, something he notably fails to do when he well-meaningly chases her out of a taxi and into the path of an oncoming car, an accident which blinds her. How can Merrick, now falling in love with the widow, save this situation? By turning into Dr Phillips, that's how, romancing Helen and studying medicine so that the Christ figure essentially comes back from the dead. A moving parable about a reformed character or a daft yarn about a man losing his identity for the greater good? Maybe Magnificent Obsession is a bit of both, professionally assembled nevertheless. Music by Frank Skinner.