Tuesday, June 14, 2005


Possessed is among the Joan Crawford films included in the tribute box set Warner Bros' has released today. The others are The Women, Humoresque (which I have not seen), The Damned Don't Cry (ditto) and Mildred Pierce. There really isn't a modern equivalent to these sorts of movies. They are impressionistic, heated melodramatic noirs, soap opera stories elevated by what could be considered overheated acting and dynamic photographic effects into a kind of nightmare-world women's picture smorgasboard of suffering. It's pretty amazing stuff.

Possessed actually has some similarities to A Beautiful Mind. It's a romance as told from the perspective of a schizophrenic. But whereas Possessed fully gets into the concept of exploring the world through the eyes of a psycho, and presenting a subjective, emotional viewpoint, A Beautiful Mind attempts to have it both ways, splitting its time between "reality" and the goofy fantasy world of Russell Crowe's imagination.

Also, this movie is really really good and A Beautiful Mind sucks balls.

Joan Crawford plays Louise, a freaky mystery woman picked up by the police after wandering the city ranting and raving about a man named David. We see her story unfold in flashbacks as she's evaluated by a psychiatrist in the mental ward.

It turns out, this David character is a man named David Sutton (Van Heflin) who romanced her and then dumped her to take an engineering job in Canada. Louise loved David just a bit too intensely - in a strange initial scene, we see their awkward, painful break-up, and get some insight into Louise's capability for delusion.

It turns out, Louise is a ticking time bomb of nuttiness just waiting to go off. But it isn't David's abandonment that sets her off in the end - it's his return to her life, as the fiancee of her boss' beautiful young daughter (Geraldine Brooks).

Crawford is Joan Crawford in all her delirious, madcap glory. Modern audiences have a tough time with these sorts of performances, probably because they're so "big" and we're used to more contemporary, restrained, "realistic" performances in movies. We praise Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind because he depicts insanity as we believe it really exists - as a syndrome affecting an otherwise normal individual, causing him bouts of confusion intermingled with a desire for a stable, real life. (And I'm not knocking Crowe at all...he's good in that otherwise miserable, thin, obvious, cloying movie).

But Possessed isn't about realistically taking on the subject of a woman driven to the edge by unrequited love. It's an impressionistic, subjective view of madness. We see the world through Crawford's eyes as it slips away, and her performance communicates the concept of losing ones mind, if not the objective, simple reality of an everyday person mentally losing touch with the world. I sense this explanation would still not prevent modern audiences from laughing when Crawford starts screeching, pulling out her hair and bugging out her eyes, but what can you do? Old movies aren't for everyone.

Aside from the acting department, the film is dated by some of its attitudes towards women. Sutton himself is a horrible cad, breaking Louise's heart without ever seeming to regret it for a moment. He knows she loves him far more than he loves her (and tells her so upon their break-up), and he uses this information to manipulate her and make her feel worthless.

Bear in mind, he's hardly the villain in this story. Louise's inner demons are what really haunts this particular narrative - she's eventually driven to violence not by David's cruelty or animosity towards her, but by her own uncontrolled and delusional mind. David's cruelty is seen as unfortunate, for sure, but not really as amoral or wrong. It's only the impetus for Louise's insanity, which would probably have shown itself eventually anyway. (There is some indication that Louise was already unstable earlier in her life, and that's why she had never had a serious relationship before meeting David).

The entire concept of a woman losing her grip on reality after being dumped by a womanizer is kind of anti-feminist merely as an idea, but the movie's vision of women as fawning over a man, and as incomplete without a good man's affections, really seals the deal.

Changes in our social outlook aside, Possessed is hugely effective if seen as the personal story of Louise and her mental illness, and dazzling from a cinematic standpoint.

The direction from Curtis Barnhardt is ceaselessly stylish and full of cool little film noir touches. The opening sequence in particular, with Crawford wandering around the streets of LA and being admitted to the mental hospital, is some really knockout visual filmmaking - no dialogue (except the occasionally muttered "David!"), Crawford's really looking spaced out and creepy (she's wearing no make-up at all in the scene!), and the angles Barnhardt chooses are perfect. As she's being wheeled down a long corridor in the hospital, there's a shot from her perspective of the ceiling rushing back.

And the use of a piece of Schumann music, which had sentimental value for Louise and David, is particularly delightful. It's the kind of small touch, a brief musical interlude to tip the audience off to Louise's mindset, that really propels a movie like this forward, really drives home the emotion. Terrific, classy stuff.

I was hoping to check out a lot more of these Crawford films (and some of the Bette Davis movies that came out this week as well), but I ran out of time. Oh well...

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