Possessed (Blu-ray Review)10 Nov, 2014 By: Mike Clark
Available via Warner Archive
Stars Joan Crawford, Van Heflin, Raymond Massey, Geraldine Brooks.
Though I’ll remain a unbendable Johnny Guitar guy until the very end, more than one has made the credible claim that Joan Crawford’s career performance is right here in the movie that got her the second of three Oscar nominations, including the one that led to her earlier win for Mildred Pierce. This is Possessed-1947, it should be noted, because in a fluke of film history, Crawford had starred in a previous Possessed opposite Clark Gable at MGM in 1931. This one, though, is Warner Bros. all the way, from a decade when Jack, Harry & Co. promoted the idea of casting its actresses in strong roles.
This said, this Possessed features a Crawford as vulnerable as she ever let herself be on screen, a point raised on the featurette this handsome Blu-ray has imported from the old DVD, one that features several familiar film noir specialists known to those who like digging into bonus extras. In fact, I’m not certain what’s more striking about the very opening scene here: the fact that downtown L.A. is shown almost deserted in the next thing to On the Beach/The World, the Flesh and the Devil style — or the fact that Crawford allowed herself to be photographed without makeup. Always the star, Joan and her eyebrows were about to get mighty severe when before long she entered her male-castration period (on screen, but probably off as well) at Columbia Pictures.
Crawford is doing all this wandering because she’s a paranoid schizophrenic, pegging Possessed as one of several postwar psychiatric dramas: Spellbound, The Dark Mirror, The Snake Pit and the like. Looking for someone named “David,” she ends up in a psychiatric ward, where the resident shrink (Stanley Ridges in a prototypical role) tries to unravel her history — part of a long prologue that keeps the drama from kicking into gear as soon as it might. But once we actually meet David (Van Heflin as an engineer who dabbles in classical music), Possessed becomes more of a grabber — in part because Heflin’s character is, while not quite a heel, something of a slippery type. He’s been seeing the woman whose mind he helps mess up on her days off from tending the emotionally miserable wife of a power-that-is (Raymond Massey) and making her miserable as well because there’s no way he’s going to commit.
Well, one thing leads to another, including a dead wife who materializes earlier than she does in most movies of this type — whereas here, it’s a relative starting point. We also get a loveless marriage (with respect), a headstrong daughter and romantic triangle amid well-fixed trappings. Unless I missed it somewhere, I was never quite certain of what exactly Massey does for a living, but it’s something where he’s in need of an engineer with Heflin’s talents. But his job must pay well; his on-the-water pleasure home would have done nicely for anyone not named Howard Hughes, and when he later takes some kind of power job in the big city, their digs aren’t exactly some prefab job with those fiberglass curtains that Arthur Godfrey and Robert Q. Lewis used to hawk on daytime television. The script doesn’t flesh out Massey’s character very much but describes him as being “lonely.” So all he needs with all the work pressures he must face is a brand new troubled woman on the premises.
What’s more, his collegiate daughter has at least the potential for being a handful — Geraldine Brooks in the kind of performance that used to be called “silky,” and not unlike the one she gave in Max Ophuls’ The Reckless Moment (never available on a legitimate U.S. DVD but an even better movie than Possessed). Still, this is Crawford’s showcase all the way, and her sometimes chilling performance gets further below the surface than a lot of the acting does even in some of the best noir competition. The movie feels a little misshapen but does get under the skin, and some have speculated that it may have been too dark to earn Crawford a second Oscar so soon after Mildred Pierce (which was roughly in the same genre). Photographically, it’s seamless, though per the AFI Catalog, Crawford asked that an uncredited Sid Hickox (who had merely done The Big Sleep and The Man I Love just before) exit the project after he had shot for several weeks. Much later, Hickox ended his career toiling on “The Andy Griffith Show,” which was presumably a more harmonious atmosphere than a Joan Crawford picture. Then again, it’s been said that Frances Bavier (Aunt Bee) was something of a real-life terror herself.