Sunday, April 19, 2015


Warner Bros., 108m 8s

Like most movie genres, film noir tends to focus on male concerns, with plots built around male protagonists. But there have been some noir exceptions, a number of which feature Joan Crawford, i.e. MILDRED PIERCE (1945), SUDDEN FEAR (1952) and POSSESSED, the impressive psycho-noir under consideration here. There have been other leading ladies cast as the main protagonists of noir narratives, for instance WHIRLPOOL (1949) showcases Gene Tierney, THE RECKLESS MOMENT (1949) belongs to Joan Bennett, WOMAN IN HIDING (1950) features Ida Lupino and THE BLUE GARDENIA (1953), perhaps the purest example, stars Anne Baxter. The talent of those fine ladies notwithstanding, Crawford stands out as the most recognizable female lead ever to compliment a film noir. For the observer to take an interest in Mildred Pierce, Myra Hudson or even the tragically flawed Louise Howell is easy enough. Crawford's characters always embody an appealing combination of weakness and strength. In a landscape of females who mostly fall into inflexible archetypes, the noir characters Crawford creates seem the most human as they are drawn to the wrong men.

There is little doubt we are immersed in film noir when POSSESSED opens with its disoriented featured female staggering around L.A. streets, her sanity seeping away. Louise Howell (Crawford) is desperately in search of someone named "David," but nobody in the impersonal noir city is prepared to offer any assistance. She finds herself in an ambulance headed for the Los Angeles Municipal Hospital's psychopathic department. First-person perspective shots from the gurney make it clear in the early going this is Crawford's movie and we are meant to identify with her, even if she is in an inexplicable state of psychological anguish. Once properly medicated she begins to regain her senses and relate her story, as the frame dissolves into the past. Expressed in familiar film noir terms, only past events can explain present situations.

The calculated introduction of the incapacitated Louise and the medical team that surrounds her prepare the viewer for intense psychological drama. The psychological theme was a popular Hollywood convention of the post-WWII era. With so many of its characters presented as castaways suffering internally, the film noir genre is inherently psychological. Sometimes noir protagonists are absolute headcases put forth for filmgoer evaluation (i.e. WITHOUT WARNING! and THE SNIPER, both released in 1952), but seldom are such characters presented without significant background detail offered as an attachment. The noir film shows consistent concern for why characters behave the way they do, and why they tend to get caught up in dire situations. Thus the viewer is encouraged to empathize, even with some pretty undesirable types. The psychological theme sometimes extends to include major characters who are psychologists, i.e. SPELLBOUND (1945), THE DARK MIRROR (1946), SHOCK (1946), NIGHTMARE ALLEY (1947), THE DARK PAST (1948) and WHIRLPOOL (1949). POSSESSED director Curtis Bernhardt also helmed CONFLICT (1945) and HIGH WALL (1947), additional noir films steeped in psychological matters.

In its acknowledgment of unproductive relationships, POSSESSED is representative of a lot of film noirs. Nobody is happy, and married couples seem particularly embattled. Louise would like to marry structural engineer David Sutton (Van Heflin), but he is not open to the idea. An icy ex-GI, David shows zero interest in any type of long-term personal contract. He loves his work, not Louise. A very problematic marriage is that between Dean Graham (Raymond Massey) and his invalid wife Pauline, who never is shown clearly. Pauline is an insanely jealous, demanding woman who wrongly believes her husband is having an affair with her caregiver Louise. Her suspicions are not totally without merit, though, since Dean eventually marries Louise to form still another unproductive marriage. The interpersonal dynamics at work in POSSESSED are rooted in psychological issues. Critical character actions emerge from inaccurate assumptions and wrongheaded ideas.

The oft-used noir trope of water emphasizes rejection, disappointment, depression and death. David transports a brushed-off Louise home via his boat, water takes the life of Pauline, and a rainy evening forms the backdrop for an ill-fated connection between David and the much younger Carol Graham (Geraldine Brooks), Dean's pretty 20-year-old daughter. The schizophrenic Louise really loses it the night of a piano recital, when a lengthy downpour reflects unwelcome mental trauma that threatens to push her too far.

The 1080p dual-layered Blu-ray version available through the Warner Archive presents an ideal transfer of what must be well-preserved source materials. The original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1 is observed, where the DVD version released by Warner in 2005 was cropped to 1.33:1. The Blu-ray disc retains the essential audio commentary track from the DVD with film historian Dr. Drew Casper. Professor of Critical Studies in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California, the excitable Casper goes into great detail about film noir determinants that are heightened in POSSESSED. He elaborates on the influence of German Expressionism, Freudian psychology and social realism. Casper notes that no other studio specialized in social realism the way Warner did. That is why so many of the studio's star players were average-looking people the common man could identify with, i.e. Joan Blondell, Humphrey Bogart, Bette Davis, John Garfield, Edward G. Robinson, Barbara Stanwyck. Of course glamour was a big part of Crawford's game, but as Casper points out, in POSSESSED she is introduced almost completely debranded, wandering around an unfamiliar environment without makeup or any sense of self-worth.

Also carried over from the DVD is the featurette "POSSESSED: The Quintessential Film Noir" (2005, 9m 33s) and a theatrical trailer (2m 5s). The featurette offers a good, succinct analysis of how POSSESSED fits into the world of noir. The talking heads in attendance are Dr. Casper, Glenn Erickson, Eddie Muller and James Ursini. Muller contends lots of people believe Crawford delivers her greatest performance in POSSESSED. Crawford is terrific as Louise—she received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress in a Leading Role—but I prefer Crawford's work in the classic film noirs MILDRED PIERCE and the lesser-known but outstanding SUDDEN FEAR, as well as the superb melodrama HARRIET CRAIG (1950). The 1931 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film entitled POSSESSED, also headlined by Crawford, is the same film in title only.

Van Heflin starred in other pivotal film noirs such as THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS (1946), ACT OF VIOLENCE (1948) and THE PROWLER (1951). Brooks appeared in THE RECKLESS MOMENT, another film noir I recommend highly.