Possessed (1947) Curtis Bernhardt
Warner Archive Blu-ray
A strange, frightened, forlorn woman (Joan Crawford) wanders the streets of Los Angeles, asking everyone she meets if they’ve seen “David.” Eventually she awakens in a hospital, where doctors learn that her name is Louise Howell, a disturbed woman who slowly, reluctantly tells her story in flashback.
Louise works as a private nurse to the invalid wife of a wealthy man named Graham (Raymond Massey, below right) when she falls in love with an engineer named David Sutton (Van Heflin, left). Louise grows obsessed with David, so much so that her smothering drives him further and further away. After Graham’s wife drowns herself, Graham asks Louise to marry him. Louise doesn’t really love Graham; after all, David is practically her life’s obsession, but maybe if she did marry Graham, she’d at least have some remnant of pride left in her life, and maybe, just maybe being married to another man would get David’s attention.
If all of this sounds like just another 1940s melodrama, it’s not. Possessed is instead a dark spiral of obsession, madness and revenge, all wrapped up in a nightmare that only gets more twisted with each passing scene. One of the more interesting elements of the film is how typical noir gender roles are reversed: David seems to care little for Louise, but once Louise marries Graham, David ups the ante by giving some special attention to Graham’s daughter Carol (Geraldine Brooks), further agonizing Louise. In doing so, David has become something of a male “femme fatale” to counter Louise’s trapped protagonist, normally a male role in noir.
Possessed is filled with many great scenes and shots, but I want to compare two that, for me, are both memorable and important. In the first half of the film, David has taken Louise to the Graham’s house by boat. Once there, David tells her that it’s over between them and leaves to get in his boat. Louise (wearing her white nurse’s uniform, representing both purity and order) descends a long series of stairs from the house down to the pier, her fear and hysteria growing with each step, while David, calm as a summer breeze, starts up his boat and pulls away, leaving Louise devastated by a situation beyond her control. Later in the film, there’s another scene on a long, winding staircase, this time indoors, this time with Louise in a very different outcome. These scenes symbolize how Louise’s mental state can twist and turn in a matter of seconds to devastating effect.
Classic film fans will know that Crawford won the Best Actress Oscar for Mildred Pierce (1945), but may forget that she was also nominated for Possessed (losing to Loretta Young in The Farmer’s Daughter), a psychological portrait of woman at the abyss of insanity. It’s a slow release of both venom and madness made at a time when most film performances dealing with mental illness were wildly overplayed. Although Crawford often comes close to losing control, there’s an amazing amount of restraint in her performance. And as I always like to say, if you really want to judge an actor’s ability, watch what they’re doing when they’re not delivering lines.
The Warner Archive Blu-ray also contains a commentary by film historian Drew Casper, a trailer, and a 9-minute extra called “Possessed: The Quintessential Film Noir” featuring comments by Casper, Glenn Erickson, James Ursini, and my favorite noir expert, Eddie Muller. If you’re a fan of great classic films, you should strongly consider this release. If you’re noir lover or a Joan Crawford fan, Possessed is a must-buy.