Joan Crawford Lets Us Have It in 'Possessed'

by Michael Barrett

12 January 2015

This Joan Crawford vehicle is a tantalizing mix of woman's melodrama and Freudian noir.
 
cover art

Possessed

Director: Curtis Bernhardt
Cast: Joan Crawford, Van Heflin

US DVD: 21 Oct 2014

Possessed displays many ingredients popping in the Hollywood boilers of 1947. First, it’s a Joan Crawford vehicle, one fashioned to remind viewers of Mildred Pierce, which is mentioned in the film’s trailer. Like that hit, the story features problems of tension and jealousy with a (step)daughter, a romance with a shallow cad, and a scene where Crawford brandishes a revolver. Both were impeccable Jerry Wald productions.

Next, it’s a film directed by Curtis Bernhardt, shot by Joseph Valentine, and designed by Anton Grot in a manner emphasizing the dark, expressionist tendencies and uneasy paranoid mood that French critics would call “film noir”. Its expressionist streak extends to the casting of Crawford, whose wide-eyed glances and shoulder twitches are more expressive than natural. At least three prominent uses of subjective camera simulate her character’s vision: when she’s wheeled into a hospital, when she wanders into a house after an apparent ghost (an eerie scene), and when she’s holding a gun. In some shots, she points it at the viewer, as we adopt her prospective victim’s point of view.
  
Last, it’s a prime example of postwar Hollywood’s affair with Freudianism, when glib explanations for psychological traumas and repressions and dreams suddenly exploded all over the screen. In the first reel, one doctoral authority pronounces, “This civilization of ours is a worse disease than heart trouble or tuberculosis and we can’t escape it.” The dialogue by Silvia Richards and Ranald MacDougall is as outstanding as their story and its flashback structure. Possessed is ahead of its time in depicting sequences that may be completely hallucinated, something the audience never knows until it’s over, and not always then.

These elements conjoin into a splendid brew of melodrama (the roiling “melo” provided by composer Franz Waxman), scary behavior, painfully crossed loves and desires, various forms of death, a touch of almost supernatural uncanniness reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca, and sincere social drama about schizophrenia, a word so new in the American lexicon that different characters say it differently.

The opening is especially disorienting, as it blends studio shooting with “realistic” (though expressionist also) location work on Los Angeles streets, and presents the shocking spectacle of Crawford worn and haggard without makeup. As Louise Howell, she’s wandering in a daze, and once admitted to hospital, will reveal the complicated story in flashbacks: her love for a manipulator (Van Heflin), her own manipulations involving an employer (Raymond Massey) whose wife’s neurotic behavior eerily foreshadows Louise’s, and her troubles with a teenage girl (Geraldine Brooks).

The events reveal a psychological trap of Louise’s own devising, which only makes it more dangerous. In its image of powerful men and the women who love them hopelessly, the movie may indeed offer a comment on “this civilization of ours”. The diagnosis is as ambiguous as the ending. With what image did audiences leave the theatre—the suffering near-comatose Joan, or that satisfied little smirk when she pulls the trigger? It offers fruitful comparison with Arch Oboler’s low-budget Bewitched  (1945, also from Warner Archive) and, decades later, Fatal Attraction.

This movie grabs our attention from beginning to end, and the image looks great on Blu-ray. The contents of this Warner Archive disc are the same as the previous DVD incarnation, with a trailer, an extra on film noir, and a commentary from noir historian Drew Casper.

Possessed

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