Sunday, November 16, 2014

Tonight's Movie: Possessed (1947) - A Warner Archive Blu-ray Review

This seems to have been my day for watching movies about troubled souls! First up was Robert Blake as the incorrigible MOKEY (1942); that was followed tonight by Joan Crawford as a mentally ill woman in POSSESSED (1947).

POSSESSED was just released by the Warner Archive on a beautiful new Blu-ray. Crawford, a previous Oscar winner for MILDRED PIERCE (1945), received her second Best Actress nomination for her performance as Louise Howell, a nurse whose romantic troubles are magnified by her mental instability.

Whereas MOKEY was just sad, POSSESSED was such a top-of-the-line production in every way that it was completely absorbing, if a tad long at 108 minutes. POSSESSED is a polished, well-acted, and engrossing production which reels the viewer in for the duration.

The movie begins with Louise (Crawford) walking through the near-deserted streets of Downtown Los Angeles in the early morning hours. She looks haggard and is clearly disturbed, asking more than one man if he's "David."

She ends up in the psychiatric ward of County General Hospital, where kindly Dr. Willard (Stanley Ridges) gradually learns Louise's story. Louise loved David (Van Heflin), an engineer, but he wasn't interested in more than a casual fling and threw her over when she grew possessive.

Louise is devastated by David's rejection but eventually marries kindly Dean Graham (Raymond Massey), whose first wife had been her patient until committing suicide. As Louise's mental state crumbles she comes to think she helped the wife kill herself, until she's assured it was an impossibility.

When David returns to town and falls in love with Dean's young daughter Carol (Geraldine Brooks), Louise's condition worsens further; at one point she even imagines she has pushed Carol down a flight of stairs.

Louise also believes she shot David to death -- was that real or did she imagine it too?

Crawford is outstanding in this, giving an agonizing portrayal of a woman who is, put simply, falling apart. Crawford walks a careful line and never pushes the performance too far over the edge into absurdity; her bewildered pain is thus quite affecting, as she is beset with false memories and uncontrollable impulses.

Heflin, as the featurette on the disc points out, plays the role that in other films would be played by a woman -- a male version of the "femme fatale." He's not terribly wicked but he's not a good man, either; he's self-absorbed and careless of Louise's feelings, having clearly used her when it was convenient. When he falls for Carol, he freely admits her wealth doesn't hurt.

Geraldine Brooks, who was so good in EMBRACEABLE YOU (1948) the following year, is excellent as Carol. It's a non-cliched role as Carol starts out resenting Louise, being suspicious of her motives and her role in her father's life, yet Carol admits when she is wrong and eventually comes to like and accept her stepmother. Brooks also believably makes the transition from teenage schoolgirl to a young woman in love.

I'm not sure I've ever seen Raymond Massey in such an appealing and heartfelt role as Dean, the wealthy but lonely widower who grows to love Carol. He too is written in an unconventional fashion. When first seen he is critical of Louise's job performance, apparently the scary type of character Massey was so good at portraying. However, Dean quickly apologizes and over time reveals himself to be charming and immensely supportive of Louise, even in her darkest hours. Part of the reason I'll be wanting to watch this film again in the future is because Massey is so wonderful.

The screenplay by Silvia Richards and Ranald MacDougall provides a variety of richly written characters. It can be a tad hard to follow at times, between the flashbacks and Louise sometimes "remembering" things which didn't happen, but on the whole it's a very good job with a complex plot and subject matter.

I've often mentioned Hollywood's '40s fascination with psychology, especially from the years 1944 to 1947, and this film is a prime example. Someone really needs to write a book on the topic!

The large supporting cast includes Moroni Olsen and Don McGuire as doctors, Douglas Kennedy as the D.A., John Ridgely as a police investigator, Griff Barnett as the coroner, and Gerald Perreau as Dean's son.

The outstanding talents behind the camera included director Curtis Bernhardt, cinematographer Joseph Valentine, and composer Franz Waxman.

A couple of years ago Robby did a wonderful post on the film's Downtown Los Angeles locations at Dear Old Hollywood. Those who are interested in the movie will want to be sure to check it out.

The Warner Archive Blu-ray is a really beautiful print which adds to the pleasure of watching this film. There are substantive extras carried over from a prior DVD release, including the trailer, a featurette, and a commentary track by USC professor Drew Casper.

Thanks to the Warner Archive for providing a review copy of this Blu-ray. Warner Archive releases are MOD (manufactured on demand) and may be ordered at the Warner Archive website.


Blogger Moira Finnie said...

Laura, I am so glad that you noted the evolution of the character played by Geraldine Brooks as well as the amoral self-interest expressed by Van Heflin's character in Possessed (1948). I have sometimes wondered if this role may have affected Joan Crawford more deeply than generally acknowledged since, imho, her screen persona became much darker after this role.

I found the marriage of Crawford & Massey in this movie one of the few incredible turns in the story--and right up to the last scene, I expected Massey to show his "true colors" regarding his feelings for his second wife.

BTW, Silvia Richards, one of the screenwriters of Possessed, was the amanuensis of Fritz Lang for some time. She also contributed to the baroque screenplay of Secret Beyond the Door and Rancho Notorious. Unfortunately, she was eventually caught up in the HUAC investigations, and became a "friendly witness," but based on the films she contributed to, she had a distinct flair for incorporating abnormal psych concepts into popular entertainment!

I believe that there are several weighty tomes about psychology in the movies (I'd recommend the well-researched textbook-style overview found in "Psychiatry and the Cinema" by Glen and Kim Gabbard, which I've used as a source several times), but I think YOU should think about writing a popular study of the incidences of psychology in Hollywood movies in the '40s. I'd be among those who would love to read it.

On another topic, I just listened to the podcast of your visit last month with Alicia Mayer & Will McKinley of Hollywood Time Machine at the link below and was delighted that your speaking voice matches my idea of how you would sound. Kudos on garnering some of the attention that your hard work deserves. So happy to encounter you there.

Others can listen to this podcast here if they would like:

3:53 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Moira, how wonderful to hear from you! Thanks so much for sharing your detailed thoughts on this really interesting film as well as for the welcome information on Silvia Richards and books. I will seek out PSYCHIATRY AND THE CINEMA!

Thank you for listening to the podcast and for your very nice comments, as well as sharing the link!

Hope all is going well with you and that you have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

Best wishes,

8:30 PM  
Blogger KC said...

I hadn't considered the possibility that Louise had only imagined shooting David. That makes sense though, given that she seems to imagine being violent, but doesn't act on those impulses. Very good analysis!

9:15 AM  

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