Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Crazy Joan Crawford

Films: Possessed
Format: DVD from NetFlix on rockin’ flatscreen.

Say what you want about Joan Crawford and the reliability of the “Mommie Dearest” memoir, the lady could act. There’s lots of good Joan Crawford out there, but for me, the best Joan Crawford is crazy Joan Crawford. And so it was that I was really excited about the possibilities contained within Possessed where she plays a woman suffering from schizophrenia. It was either going to be an entertaining but complete train wreck or it was going to be sublime. The truth, as with most things, falls between those two possibilities, of course, but Possessed is more success in some ways than failure.

The film starts with a woman named Louise Howell (Crawford) wandering the streets of Los Angeles looking for a man named David. She’s eventually rounded up and sent to a hospital where it is determined that she’s got some significant mental issues going on. A little medication later and Louise is ready to recount her life story, which means that the rest of the film is going to be in flashback to get us to Louise showing up in the hospital.

So we jump back a few years to Louise being employed as a nurse. She is employed by a man named Dean Graham (Raymond Massey) to care for his invalid wife. While in that capacity, Louise begins spending a great deal of her time with an engineer named David Sutton (Van Heflin). Louise is madly obsessed with David, who finds her smothering. In fact, he is so put off by Louise that he takes a job in Canada to escape her. Without him around, Louise’s obsession with him goes into simmer mode. Eventually, Graham’s wife kills herself since she was more than a bit on the nutty end, too. Graham’s daughter Carol (Geraldine Brooks) is convinced that Louise was central in her mother’s suicide and that Louise has designs on her father.

In fact, the opposite is true. Dean Graham keeps Louise employed to look after his young son, and eventually, he proposes to her. Louise doesn’t want to accept his proposal and admits that she doesn’t love him. But she manages to iron things out with Carol and she does eventually marry Dean despite still being in love with David. This would be a dull movie if we stopped there, though, so David naturally shows up. Louise continues to make a play for him and he continues to be disgusted by her. Worse for Louise, David and Carol show and interest in each other and begin a slowly building romance.

Where Possessed succeeds is in the depiction of Louise’s madness. We get a few entire scenes that are shown to be hallucinations and taking place entirely in Louise’s head. For instance, at one point Louise leaves a concert early, leaving David and Carol alone at the theater. We see Carol come home, kiss David, and then confront Louise about her mother’s death, to which Louise admits being complicit. And then, we see Carol come home again, not kiss David, and express concern for Louise’s health. It’s done seamlessly, and we buy the first version because there’s absolutely nothing that indicates that the first version is entirely inside Louise’s shattering psyche.

The sell of Possessed is clearly Joan Crawford, who is magnificent. Crawford is at her best in the flashback scenes when she isn’t near-catatonic in the hospital bed. We’re able to track just how much her mind is starting to fragment simply by the way she is acting in each scene, and she plays these scenes beautifully. I wasn’t kidding at the top when I said that the best Joan Crawford is crazy Joan Crawford. In fact, Possessed is exhibit A.

Everyone else, though, is merely serviceable. We don’t get a great deal of reason for David’s pure contempt of Louise, for instance. Yes, she comes on a little strong in the first scene and in 1947 the idea of a married woman this aggressively pursuing another man was distasteful, but David moves from loving Louise in some respect to loathing her immediately, and manages to keep up that loathing after years of separation. For his part, Van Heflin is fine, as are Raymond Massey and Geraldine Brooks, but none of them is particularly enthralling.

The film also dips heavily into melodrama, and most of the cast simply can’t make that work. Crawford pulls it off, but the rest don’t.

I enjoyed Possessed a great deal, but I did so entirely because Crawford is brilliant and on screen for virtually every frame. It’s a film that is greatly improved by playing around with the idea of film noir and hitting some of those same sensibilities. Make it a little less melodramatic and clean up the very unsatisfying last few minutes, and we’d have a film that would be a lot more talked about today than it is.

Why to watch Possessed : Joan Crawford in full psycho mode.
Why not to watch: The ending is unsatisfying in the extreme.


  1. I agree that without Crawford this would be nothing and it was the last of the one, two, three punch of high quality films preceded by Mildred Pierce and Humoresque that resurrected her career. Parts of it are very dated but Joan's intensity makes up for that.

    I thought Massey was well cast, his solid solemnity and measured warmth fit his patient loyal character who puts up with an awful lot because he senses Louise's distress but doesn't know quite how to help her. Geraldine Brooks didn't have much to do but she appealing, my problem with the film is Van Heflin.

    I'm normally a big fan of his but he was an unprepossessing, stand up kind of guy and the role of a roué who could drive a woman to madness was outside his scope. It's a big deficit and hurts the overall picture, if only they had cast an actor with a bit of the rat about him along the lines of Charles Boyer, Kirk Douglas or Robert Mitchum it would have strengthened the film immeasurably.

    Still Crawford considered this her best performance, it's very good but I think her best was in her previous film Humoresque, and you can tell she really committed to it.

  2. Robert Mitchum would've been great in this and Kirk Douglas would have been a really interesting choice. I think John Garfield could have pulled this off as well. Garfield had that kind of sense about him--he had a sort of animal magnetism that would've worked for the David role. Now that you state it this plainly, I think you're right--Van Heflin really doesn't fit in this role and he's the biggest failing of the film. Like you, I tend to like Heflin, but he's miscast here.

    I guess I should track down Humoresque when I get the chance.

    1. I think you'll really like Humoresque especially with your comment about John Garfield since he's her co-star in the picture. They do have a very complicated dynamic in the film and I could easily see him working his wonders (he was a great actor-my favorite actually-and could work that magnetism both for a tender effect or put a dangerous edge to it) with David in Possessed.

    2. That was my thinking with Garfield. He could be magnetic in a way that made him entirely sympathetic and he could just as easily be someone dangerous, and David requires that sort of actor. Mitchum could do the same, and to be fair, so could Kirk Douglas.

  3. "...and crazy Joan doth keel the pot."

  4. I love this movie! It's not even among my Top Five Favorite Joan Crawford Movies, but it's still pretty awesome.

    Which doesn't mean that I disagree with anybody who has a few issues with the proceedings outside of Joan being so awesome.

    As for the title for this post, you should have used a line from the Blue Oyster Cult song "Joan Crawford." How about "The junkies down in Harlem are going crazy."

    Or "Catholic schoolgirls have thrown away their mascara."

    I love that song. I wish I knew which Joan Crawford movies they were referring to.

    Anyway, now you know the song exists and you can use one of the lines next time you review a Joan Crawford movie.

    1. I do make a lot of music references in my titles, but I can't admit to being a huge Blue Oyster Cult fan, which would be why I missed it.

  5. I'm not generally enamored with Joan Crawford or her acting but I have to agree she could do crazy! I liked this one too.

    1. I always like her a little more than I think I'm going to. Shw was a natural in this one.