You get in here and watch this film, brat, or Judge Brett Cullum will beat you with the coat hanger again!
Louise: "I love you" is such an inadequate way of saying I love you. It doesn't quite describe how much it hurts sometimes.
Ladies and gentlemen (and flamboyant gentlemen)…I give you Joan "Shoulder Pads" Crawford in a genre-breaking film called Possessed. Not content with merely labeling this film "noir," I give you the new term "camp noir" to capture the essence and excess of this spectacular little movie from 1947. Grab your wire hangers, your bottle of Ajax, and prepare to scrub and scrub…as we look for dirt behind the potted palms of one of the screen's earliest examples of the collision of Freud, dark visions, and a macho woman. Fatal Attraction ain't got nothing on this down-trodden diva flick shot in shady black and white.
Facts of the Case
The film opens with our major Hollywood star wandering the streets of Los Angeles with no make-up and a frumpy black outfit. A trolley car door opens and all she can moan is "David…where is David?" Soon she's in the "psycho" ward of a major hospital, and after being injected with intravenous drugs begins to tell doctors the tale of an obsessive love affair gone horribly wrong. The rest of the story transpires in flashback, as we find out who this mysterious woman is, and why she is here.
Joan Crawford (The Women, Mildred Pierce) stars as Louise, a woman who is in love with a man who is not in love with her. This drives Louise crazy. Her job is certainly not helping either—she is a nurse for a wealthy man's wife, who is bed-ridden and insane. When her employer's spouse mysteriously ends up in the river one night, Louise's situation shifts. She becomes her employer's new wife, but don't think Louise has forgotten about the man that got away. Oh no, not our girl. To make matters worse, the man that got away is now courting her stepdaughter. All Louise needs now is a few choice words and a weapon, and things will change all over again. The core problem is Louise is "possessed" by some inner demons, and a secret…she's schizophrenic and psychopathic to boot. Nobody should ever mess with her.
Possessed is called by many people a movie expressly designed for Joan Crawford and her unique talents and persona. She certainly went all out, and even nabbed an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Louise. But truth be known, the studio had offered the role to Bette Davis (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?) first, and Davis declined in order to go on maternity leave. Joan Crawford was probably only too happy to step into Bette's vacant shoes, and she probably would have preferred to step on the rival diva's toes in the process if she could. Joan was just that kind of gracious star who was always willing to step in at the last minute and steal someone's thunder. I'm sure Bette would return the favor if she could.
The movie itself is a riot. It's the noir genre turned on its head, with a woman in the lead and a man playing the "femme fatale" role (more aptly an "homme fatale" for you Francophiles). Van Heflin (Shane, Battle Cry) gets to play the object of Louise's obsession. He's pretty straight-up with her from the start of the film, saying that he's not in love with her, and does everything he can to make himself unavailable. But he is pretty stupid to come trotting back to make a play for the stepdaughter, and for that we have to say he's the "dumb blonde" of the picture. Raymond Massey (East of Eden) plays the wealthy widower who marries Louise, despite the fact that she's also a straightforward gal who laughs at his marriage proposal and responds to him with "I don't love you, but I could make you happy." He is the frumpy brunette—what I commonly call the Suzanne Pleshette role. Let's face it—it's a Joan Crawford flick, so the boys aren't allowed to be too bright or have balls. Then there is the young, pretty Geraldine Brooks (Ironside) as the stepdaughter, who is doomed to be physically hit at some point by an enraged Crawford on a staircase. You know she's going to be the only one to stand up to Louise, but she'll get the back end of a long masculine hand in no time.
Possessed was directed by Curtis Bernhardt and produced by Jerry Wald and Jack L. Warner, who had only a year prior coached Crawford to an Oscar win in Mildred Pierce. Bernhardt creates a handsome noir movie using all the tricks of his German expressionist background. (Note his use of shadows and diagonal lines to create visual tension in scenes.) He's helming a traditional noir tale that exhibits many signs of the genre: it's told from Louise's point of view only; the movie is concerned not only with action but with reasons and psychology; there are no "good" or "bad" characters, only gray ones; the past is inflicted on the present at all times; and evil people are held up as protagonists. It's a well-crafted film—Bernhardt handled his stars and his style very well. The pacing, the photography, and the performances are all spot on. Possessed is still a tight, tough thriller with some unexpected turns, even almost sixty years after it was made.
Warner Brothers has given Possessed some very good extras. First up is a featurette called Possessed: The Quintessential Film Noir, with a panel of experts telling you why the film is a great example of the genre. Next up is a lively, scatological commentary by film historian Drew Casper. He knows his Crawford lore, and explodes with tons of factoids about the star and film noir in his passionate track. It's as fun as the movie. Also included is a rather trippy original trailer, which contains quite a few spoilers. The packaging is great—they use the original poster art for the release, so it looks quite handsome sitting on your shelf.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Possessed is obviously not taken from print that was in good shape. The video presentation is problematic, and I wonder if anything could have been done to restore it a little more. There is tons of grain throughout the movie, and some severe degrading has occurred at some of the reel changes. It all borders on being distracting during some key confrontation scenes. I'm glad it is hitting the digital medium to prevent it from any further damage. The monaural soundtrack is intact, and no mixing has been done to amp it up any. It's clear, but nothing outstanding. It definitely shows its age in many spots. This not the stuff digital dreams are made of.
So what makes this classic movie campy? True "camp" can never be aware of its nature by definition. Joan Crawford is indeed giving an excellent performance here, but it's a victim of her real past. Like a true noir heroine, we know too much about her in hindsight, and it's hard to watch Possessed and not chuckle now and then at the actress's own quirks spiking through the reality they create in the film. Curse Faye Dunaway and Christina Crawford for Mommie Dearest, because now I cannot watch Possessed without thinking about the woman's infamous reputation as an abusive, belligerent ball-buster. She screams, she howls, and she tries to be feminine and vulnerable…but I just can't buy it. As good a movie as this is, I still see Joan Crawford up there every second of the story. In the final analysis, that was always part of her trademark charm, and why people flocked to see her. She was a man trapped in a woman's body, and she represented a strong woman in a sea of wilting flowers. Nobody could beat people up like Joan, and that's part of the fun of this one. Anytime she gets nasty with someone you just want to cheer.
Possessed is a good time for both fans of Joan Crawford and noir. It's an interesting piece of cinema that should have you happily munching popcorn and waiting for the next plot twist. It's entertaining, and an iconic performance from the woman whom we all feared could be our adopted mother some day. Film noir was the perfect vehicle for an actress whom we could only ever see in retrospect as bad to the bone. The "hell hath no fury" story is a prime example of finding your "inner bitch" and running with her, all neatly disguised and passed off as mental illness. You've got to love that. Possessed is proof positive that Joan Crawford was Hollywood's best film noir leading man.
Possessed is guilty of being one of the best times you will have with a moody film noir movie. Warner Brothers is free to go on delivering classics with great cover art and ample extras. Joan Crawford is found guilty of being more man than you'll ever be.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by Film Historian Drew Casper
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