Joan Crawford officially entered the ‘crazy lady’ stage of her movie career playing a psychologically deranged caregiver in Curtis Bernhardt’s Possessed (1947, and not to be confused with Possessed, 1932 – another Crawford vehicle, costarring Clark Gable). The two films are not related, thematically or otherwise; Crawford’s love-starved freak of nature in Bernhardt’s movie, doggedly pursuing playboy/architect, David Sutton (carried off with uncharacteristic charisma by Van Heflin) who would much prefer to have never met Crawford’s Louise Howell in the first place. What makes a person star-struck senseless for somebody else remains the stuff to which volumes of psychological probing by the likes of Freud and his ilk have been dedicated; also, some harrowing case files at the FBI, profiling the hearts and minds of serial stalkers/killers, who can develop their telescopically focused obsession for certain people as easily as the poor bugger lost in the desert, desiring a drink of Perrier because he is dying from thirst.
Crawford’s performance in Possessed is imbued with a stroke of sheer genius; the Randal McDougall/Silvia Richards’ screenplay less so. We’ve seen a lot of Possessed before; the embittered/invalided, nee suicidal wife; the unstable second wife; the dark old house situated on a dreary cliff side, haunted by painful memories and creaking in a late autumn thunderstorm; the devoted husband destined to remain unhappy and the unfaithful lover, preparing to meet his just desserts. The extremes are more exaggerated in Possessed, perhaps, because so is Crawford's trip into this grand guignol; but it’s still the same old pulp. What sets the film apart is Crawford herself; unafraid to look haggard and insane; playing the part of this shockingly confused/terrified matron; the last vestiges of the doting wife and stepmother unable to be reconciled with the polar opposite of her crumbling emotional psyche. Crawford's Louise Howell is doomed to remain terrorized, unhinged and institutionalized for life. She's a tragic figure, a lovelorn frump and a warped human being; just par for the course of what Crawford's later 'heroines' in the movies would become. But here we get our real first taste of Crawford the unconventional star and she remains a force of unbridled nature with which to be reckoned. Put bluntly: I'd much rather have her for a friend than an enemy - even if she is nuts!
Possessed is actually a lot more psychologically complex and convincing than most movies; Louise’s catatonia serving as the crux for a hypno-regression exercise that delves into the more recent past and illustrates how a seemingly ‘normal’ woman can suddenly turn to ravenous man-trap with just the right tweak to her hot-wiring. In this case, jealousy mixes with an unhealthy blend of expectation; also a wrinkle in Louise’s own fundamentally flawed misconception: that David Sutton is…well…as crazy about her as she is for him. According the Ranald MacDougall and Silvia Richards’ screenplay (loosely based on a story by Rita Weiman), Crawford’s demented mistress spends the bulk of the movie precariously balanced on the extremely edge of this psychosis; the devoted second wife to millionaire, Dean Graham (Raymond Massey) after his first, who just happened to be Louise’s patient, is found floating face down in the lake near the couple’s summer home.
Could Louise have…? Highly unlikely, since the absence of female companionship immediately paves the road for romantic prospects of a very different kind. Put bluntly, the aging Graham is no David Sutton and Louise isn’t really interested in either him or his money, although it will take the movie’s entire second act to basically convince Graham’s suspicious college-bound daughter, Carol (Geraldine Brooks) of as much. Possessed falls in line with other sundry and penetrating movies dedicated to the then hot topic of psychoanalysis. It seems every director from Hitchcock to Otto Preminger had their crack at bat: movies like Spellbound, Laura (both made in 1945), The Snake Pit (1948), The Three Faces of Eve (1957), Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) and so on, plying the artful craft of cinema with the more often misunderstood probing of the human mind. Alas, some situations cannot be helped. Some people are like that too.
Possessed comes at a critical juncture in Joan Crawford’s career. Only five years earlier she had been branded ‘box office poison’; MGM’s favorite shop girl/clotheshorse makes good unceremoniously thrown under the proverbial bus by L.B. Mayer to make way for a new crop of younger, more malleable child stars on the rise. Crawford wasn’t the only one to suffer the slings and arrows of this humiliation, with her ever-increasing demands for bigger, better pictures, and, temporarily languishing after a series of high profile commercial flops. But she would prove one of the most resilient against being labeled a ‘has been’; picking up the baton at Warner Bros. with an unlikely Oscar-winning performance in Mildred Pierce (1945).
In an era where one female actress is pretty much a carbon copy of another, seen elsewhere and barely recalled, Crawford undeniably remains the standout; her willful defiance of that early start afforded her in life (as gawky, dance hall queen from a broken and impoverished home, with a closet full of Charleston loving cups and equally as many broken hearts scattered along the road to success); by 1942, Crawford’s ensconced movie queen wasn’t about to take guff from anybody: not even her former boss, Louie Mayer. So off she went, practically willingly, to Warner’s back lot as a rival to their reigning diva, Bette Davis – frequently a very course pebble creating a sore bunion in Jack L. Warner’s shoe. In hindsight, Davis and Crawford were so similar in their upbringings, public ambitions and private desires, they might have just as easily allied against the world as the best of friends…if only the whole darn competition between these two tigresses hadn’t already been put into place by Warner. Alas, Davis ruled the roost at that studio and wasn’t about to share her fame or success with anyone. And Crawford, despite being the more congenial star at first, grew to despise Davis for her arrogance.
She would, however, prove Davis one better by taking and making something of the parts Bette mercifully turned down – like the title character in Mildred Pierce. On the ether of this surprise Oscar win, Crawford pushed on, her box office cache cemented with Humoresque (1946) and later, The Damned Don’t Cry (1950). Crawford’s reign at Warner was, in fact, short-lived, Possessed sandwiched right in the middle of all the fanfare and hoopla over her ‘resurrection’ from the oblivion. Bernhardt’s movie is a minor masterpiece; not quite as effective at tapping into the Crawford mystique, though nevertheless efficacious at expanding her range of possibilities. Crawford is, after all, working against her newly established archetype as the tough-as-nails go getter with the proverbial heart of stone, rather than gold.
Possessed finds Crawford in rather unfamiliar territory. She’s not an evil woman, although she winds up doing wicked things. It’s rather startling to witness the moment in the film when Crawford’s crazed stepmother confronts her husband’s daughter, Carol for staying out late with David, viciously walloping and sending her down a flight of neck and back-breaking stairs with guilty satisfaction dramatically caught in her eyes, only to suddenly be stirred from this sweaty elation by the sound of a car driving up to the house and Carol entering by the front door just a few moments later. We suddenly realize all this vengeance has been imagined; or rather, realistically concocted in Louise Howell’s degenerating mind as an alternative reality. Are we to pity Louise for her mental subsidence or fear for Carol’s safety this second time around? Crawford plays the scene right down the middle; her look of thorough disgust over her own vial thoughts never revealed, coupled with an imploding sense of self-confidence and genuine concern she is about to crack under pressure; all of this is played out in Crawford’s magnificent performance and it provides us with a conflicted empathy for this woman with whom we ought not sympathize, yet cannot but want to help pull back from the precipice of her looming madness.
Possessed is given the A-list Warner Bros. treatment, utilizing slightly redressed sets from previous pictures and taking full advantage of its brief location shoot in downtown Los Angeles. The film actually opens with one of the most startling debuts for a female character in any vintage thriller; our star looking utterly haggard – and obviously wearing very little (if any) makeup as she blindly stumbles down these deserted downtown streets. Crawford gives us Louise Howell warts and all; bug-eyed and sleep deprived, muttering over and over again the name ‘David’ to some of the most non-empathetic people on the planet. The street car driver, as example, ignores her entirely, closing his folding doors in her face. The guy working behind the counter of a greasy spoon isn’t much better; offering her a cup of coffee before telephoning an ambulance to cart Louise off to the insane asylum. Actually, she’s taken to the local hospital (easily identifiable as Los Angeles Country General…the same façade used for TV’s longest running soap opera; General Hospital 1963-present) and wheeled into the curiously labeled ‘psychopathic’ ward.
From here on in, things begin to look up for Louise; marginally speaking. The kindly Dr. Ames (Moroni Olsen) and his assistant, Dr. Craig (Don McGuire) tend to her care; injecting Louise with a magic elixir that stirs her from this self-imposed catatonia. Gaining access to Louise’s mind leads to a lengthy regression into the past. We’re introduced to the Joan Crawford of our expectations; immaculately quaffed and impeccably dressed after a moonlight swim with her paramour, David Sutton. The two have been carrying on an afterhours romance for presumably some time; Louise making her protestations known one too many times to suit our dapper Dave. He isn’t opposed to having his fun, just as long as it doesn’t cost him anything outright. But wedding bells are not in his future – not yet. So, Louise tries to take back the request. It’s no use. David’s mind is made up. He doesn’t want to see Louise any more. Chartering her by speedboat back to the ample country estate at the far side of the lake, Louise takes a mighty last stand to plead for reconciliation. This is met with abject indifference from David and Louise marches off in the direction of the great house to pout; momentarily admonished by its lord and master, Dean Graham for not being present when his invalid wife needed her most.
Louise reminds Graham that Tuesdays are her day off and he apologizes for being so rude. Actually, Graham’s not a bad egg; just a harried hubby whose nerves and patience have worn thin. He and Louise are both under a lot of pressure; not the least for being placed under a microscope by Dean’s wife, Pauline (Nana Bryant) whose unwarranted suspicions have Louise and her husband carrying on an affair right under her nose. Naturally, nothing could be further from the truth. Louise’s heart belongs to David, even if he doesn’t want it. And Dean is completely devoted to his crumbling marriage. It’s left him curmudgeonly and defeated. For all concerned it really would be better if Pauline could just go away for good.
Providence grimly smiles on the household after Pauline goes missing; her lifeless body eventually dredged up from the bottom of the lake. It’s a blessing, actually; Louise believing she will be free to pursue David now that her responsibilities as nursemaid are at an end. David has recently signed on with Dean’s firm to build a pipeline somewhere in Canada. It will mean a separation of a few months, and in the interim Graham proposes marriage to Louise; the smite of her reluctant acceptance affecting Graham’s daughter, Carol, who refuses to believe Louise didn’t have the whole affair mapped out from the moment she set foot inside her father’s house. She even goes so far as to suggest Louise murdered her mother. Graham chastises Carol for her wicked insinuations. This only creates a deeper rift between daughter and stepmother. Interestingly, time heals even this wound; Carol realizing Louise never meant her parents any harm. However, as the bond between them grows, Louise becomes protective against David’s sudden romantic interest in Carol. She is, after all, much too young for him. Alas, Louise’s opinion of David begins to sour; her maternal nurturing turning self-destructively inward as she begins to resent Carol for being exactly the kind of girl she used to be and for fitting so neatly into David’s idea of the disposable plaything; looking fashionable on his arm at the opera.
So far, Possessed has been a fairly standard melodrama from Warner – a studio that came to foster a whole slew of like-minded ‘family strife’ pictures like Old Acquaintance (1943) and My Reputation (1946); anchored by strong female heroines. But now, Curtis Bernhardt takes us down a very dark corridor on an unexpected twist of circumstances: Louise’s jealousy transformed into dissociative episodes of persecution and flights into hideous wish-fulfilment, most predicated on achieving some sort of injuriousness that will forever tear these newfound lovers apart. Because almost all of these nightmarish episodes remain locked inside Louise’s brain (she never acts on them) they become even more sinister; the audience recognizing how morally bankrupt and mentally disturbed she truly is. But Bernhardt and Crawford do not give us the leering monster in all her Medean-inspired flourish; rather, a somewhat exhausted and half-beaten ‘good woman’, desperately battling demons destined to drag her psyche into the depths of psychotic despair.
Louise’s spiraling mental condition evolves; voices in her head taking on the disturbing contents of the first Mrs. Graham, despite Dean’s devotion. Alas, he is quite unable to reach Louise for very long; their brief interludes of happiness interrupted by more fantastical plots to murder, maim and otherwise destroy all of their lives. The trigger that pushes Louise over the edge is David and Carol’s wedding announcement. How can they? Don’t they realize what will happen if they do? Louise makes a last ditch effort to end their relationship. Carol, who has miraculously come around to deeply caring for Louise in place of her own mother, is now deeply wounded by this betrayal of her trust.
Even Graham must acknowledge Louise has slipped beyond the salvation his own love and care can provide. Desperate to spare his family the tragedy of another drawn-out illness, Graham urges Louise to seek professional counseling. Instead, Louise skulks off to David’s apartment, confronting him with a gun; ordering him to cease in his plans to marry Carol. Unable to comprehend the gravity of the situation, David believes he can talk his way out. However, Louise is void of any vestige of love she might have once harbored for David. He must be destroyed - and is; Louise emptying Graham’s revolver into David’s belly until he is quite dead. We dissolve back to Louise’s hospital room in the psychopathic ward; Crawford’s deglamorized gargoyle insanely screaming David’s name and having to be subdued by the doctors. Afterward, Dr. Ames pledges himself to Louise’s full recovery, promising Graham he will do everything in his power to restore his wife to him. Alas, in misunderstanding the depth of Louise’s obsession for the late David Sutton, Ames may have bitten off more than he can chew; Graham offering Ames whatever support is required to ‘fix’ the problem.
Possessed is a very curious Crawford picture; particularly its ending, that offers not even a shred of optimism for our disturbed heroine. Will she ever see the light of day except through the windows of a heavily padded cell? Unlikely. Possessed does, however, effectively foreshadow Hollywood’s rather perverse predilection for defrocking its own screen queens from the 1930’s and 40’s. Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Gloria Swanson, Dorothy McGuire, et al. eventually found themselves at the mercy of this grindhouse mentality to debunk their stature as ‘classy actresses’. Crawford’s descent into the mouth of madness eventually led to her casting in other like-minded fare; mostly notably, Robert Aldrich’s sublime grand gingnol, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) and, the deplorably subpar screamer, Berserk (1968).
This being the beginning of the end, Crawford is, of course, divine in Possessed; illustrating a wellspring of imaginative talents for playing more than the proverbial ‘bitch’; drawing out our empathy for her character’s dreadful demise. The sing-song way Bernhardt handles the intermittently interrupted flashback somewhat hampers this narrative arc; the dissolves from Louise’s imperfect past to her even more frightening present, clever enough from a photographic standpoint, but jarring the continuity of the story nonetheless. Raymond Massey and Van Heflin give credible support. But the picture belongs to Crawford and she dutifully holds up her share with delectable determination. Possessed ought not to have worked except that it does – magnificently so; audiences ready for a deglamorized view of femininity run amuck. Interestingly, in such movies it’s usually the woman who descends into lunacy, leaving the menfolk to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives. In the fictional realm of cinema, crazy men are serial killers. But crazy women could easily be your grandmother or the girl you just decided to ask out on a date. Yeow! Viewed today, Possessed is a very fine example of this particular breed of stylized psycho-analytic babble. And Crawford sells it to us as few of her generation could or did. Hers is a performance on par with Gloria Swanson’s warped enchantress in Sunset Boulevard (1950).
The Warner Archive’s Blu-ray of Possessed is another reason why I’ve steadily fallen in love with their corporate model for releasing catalog to home video: pluperfect presentations in 1080p. Possessed has never looked better. Does it look perfect? Hmmmm. Warner has done everything possible to resurrect Joseph Valentine’s superb noir cinematography. For the most part, they’ve admirably succeeded. But the ‘thick’ characteristic of the image hasn’t entirely been licked; grain frequently inconsistent from shot to shot or scene to scene. Location work has a generally softer quality to it than studio-bound sequences. This is, as it should be. But it remains ever so slightly jarring. There’s also just a hint of edge enhancement here and there. Nothing egregious. Contrast is gorgeous, except for one or two moments when it seems ever so slightly bumped. Again, forgivable.
The pluses are overwhelming: a razor-sharp image, staggering in the amount of fine detail and permissible grain, accurately represented. It’s a stunner, in fact; close-ups revealing minute details in hair and makeup. Gone is that greenish tint with lower than anticipated contrast levels plaguing the DVD. Age related damage has been virtually eradicated, including the excessive speckling that once existed during a scene where David is briefly reunited with Louise – the water/mold damage to the print replaced by a sumptuous, smooth and altogether satisfying presentation. Extras are ported over from the DVD and include an audio commentary and theatrical trailer. Bottom line: Possessed looks fabulous on Blu-ray. It now seems a no brainer we can expect Crawford’s Oscar-winning Mildred Pierce via the Archive sometime next year; hopefully Humoresque, Flamingo Road and A Woman’s Face too. Speaking of noir: perhaps Warner would consider some other viable candidates like Mystery Street, Act of Violence, and Murder My Sweet for such sweet treatment. We’ll see – and keep you posted!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)