Tuesday, June 30, 2015
Possessed, or Cherry Ames Goes to Hell
From the first moments of 1947's Possessed, Joan Crawford sketches a character different from, deeper than, and profoundly stranger than any I've seen her play in what was even then her two decades on screen.
I'm embarrassed to say that until yesterday, I'd not seen this one. Somehow I vaguely thought I had, years ago, and the lack of flashy costars* or much in the way of cult reputation didn't persuade me any differently until a dull afternoon and the temptations of streaming TCM worked their magic.
We fade in on a very lightly unkempt Joan (her shoes are scuffed, and her perfectly cut Adrian coat of stark simplicity) wandering the streets of Los Angeles. She is dazed, disoriented, and muttering about someone called "David." In short order she collapses in a coffee shop and ends up in a psych ward, where the rest of the story plays out in flashbacks punctuated by some extremely well-done bits of cinema trickery that seamlessly propel the tense goings-on forward (a pitcher of water, for example, dissolves into a fateful black lake months earlier at a critical plot moment).
Louise Howell, for such is her unglamourous name, is a private-duty nurse, something we learn only after first seeing her (in flashback) as a woman with some of Joan's trademark bite - love-hungry and more than a little imperious - but also one who is from the start disconcertingly needy, high-strung, and, most confounding of all... vulnerable. That's not something Joan had been in a very long time, not in the way that here aches behind her only slightly overpainted eyes with an honesty that seems far more Billie Cassin, the poor little girl from San Antonio, than it does MGM's sometime darling. She's genuinely acting, and it's something to see.
In short order we know that she's caught up, professionally, with a rich and troubled family, while grappling personally with an infuriatingly caddish loner who is in the process of using and discarding her. We know nothing of her past except that it's been bleak. She alternates between calm professionalism and and an ever-increasing cycle of over-reaction and collapse, and as the tangled plot unfolds she becomes her employer's second wife.** After a brief period of apparent content as a high-society lady, the denouement unfolds when the cad returns and makes a play (of unclear motives; it's indicated if not confirmed that he's a no-goodnik of a very high order) for her stepdaughter. What happens as the picture moves relentlessly toward its conclusion is shocking, and all the more so given the clever ways in which director Curtis Bernhardt (the Warners stalwart whose magnum opus, I believed until yesterday, to be Interrupted Melody) has repeatedly proved the camera to be an unreliable narrator. If it all closes on a note that is a shade too Hollywood-pat, all loose ends tied, Joan's last scene is one of the most harrowing she ever filmed.
Possessed shows not only that Joan could act (and why does it seem that this was something she had to prove so often?), but that even the trademark Crawford mannerisms - her brittle comebacks, her dagger stares, the inevitable well-timed slapping - could be worked perfectly into a real character. Early on, before he even knows anything about her, an emergency room MD looks down at the comatose patient before him and calls her "beautiful, intelligent, and frustrated" (it seems there's been a rash of catatonic lovelies in this particular corner of noir LA), and nothing that we learn about poor Louise contradicts this first diagnosis. The movie may not be totally up to date in its take on mental illness (characters keep referring to victims as being schiz-oid, with no "t" sound, which just seems odd), but Joan portrays as convincing a madwoman as anyone this side of Jessica Lange in Frances, and without a trace of excess or starry vanity. She's a sad woman in a bad place, saved - but only up to a point - by the devotion of a good man.
With her fragile identity driven to and then beyond the breaking point, Louise Howell reminds me, bizarrely, of the leading lady of a very different film, Carnival of Souls. She may not, physically, die, as that woman does (and I do hope that's not a spoiler for anyone), but even so, Possessed takes us, repeatedly, to the edge of the abyss, and leaves us not really sure to what extent even the love of Raymond Massey will allow her to put the pieces back together after the camera fades out one last time. Crawford got an Oscar nod for this one (losing out to Saint Loretta's simpering Farmer's Daughter), and she deserved it. Given her service to Warners to date - this one's the third in a trilogy that includes her triumphs in Mildred Pierce and Humoresque - one only wishes the studio had consistently tested her at this level. What follows - as she grew ever tougher, meaner, and more predatory - has its highlights (who does't love Harriet Craig?), but Possessed, among so many other things, is also a poignant reminder of what film lost when Joan Crawford, actress, lost out to Joan Crawford, star.
* Van Heflin has simply never done it for me, and is there any performer in Hollywood history more the antithesis of the very concept of "flashy" than Raymond Massey? After that it's pretty much Sarah Padden in an uncredited housekeeper role or total nonentities.
** One whose sophisticated wardrobe, if nothing else, justifies the presence offscreen of Adrian. His forties creations may not have quite the verve of a few years earlier, but in general he does her proud, particularly in the way that her costumes increasingly and subtly telegraph her character's interior desperation and her outer attempts to preserve a facade of normality.