In a time where mental illness was rarely spoken about, and when it was it was in hushed tones, Possessed takes the bold step of examining a woman’s breakdown and the story behind it. Classed as a film noir, much has been made of the shadowy German expressionism style the film has, which makes sense as the director Curtis Bernhardt was German and didn’t make an American film until 1940 at the age of 41.
This film brought Crawford her second Academy Award nomination and although she didn’t win it’s easy to see why she was nominated, she is quite frankly magnetic in this film, she owns the room, the camera and us at home watching her. We are in the palm of her hand. Crawford was not known for her emotion onscreen and towards the end of the 30’s she was labelled “box office poison”. However once Joan moved to Warner Brothers she was offered roles that helped to build back her reputation and Possessed did so with such gusto. Her performance is electrifying. Crawford spent time visiting mental wards and talking to psychiatrists to prepare for her role and said the part was the most difficult she ever played.
Possessed begins with a practically catatonic Joan Crawford wandering around L.A. Unable to speak other than to say “David” she collapses and is taken to hospital where her doctors administer a drug to help relax her. Once relaxed she’s able to speak and she reveals her name is Louise Howell and from here on in the film is told in a series of flashbacks. Louise is a nurse who looks after the unseen invalid wife of Dean Graham, a magnate. Louise has fallen in love with local architect David Sutton but David doesn’t see Louise as anything other than just another woman looking to tie him down.
The casting of Van Heflin is perfect as the dialogue could have been said in a much softer, appeasing tone or perhaps even said harshly, wanting to hurt her but Heflin delivers these lines that break Louise’s heart with such easy going passivity, which makes him a proper scumbag to us, the audience. He breaks off their relationship and Louise is distraught to say the least. This coupled with the unexpected death of the woman Louise cares for starts to have an impact on Louise’s mind.
Louise’s boss Dean Graham proposes rather unexpectedly and she sees this is as a chance to win back David, she’s very honest with Dean, explaining that she doesn’t love him but he convinces her that he can make her love him after time.
Dean’s daughter Carol, played by Geraldine Brooks is furious that her father wants to remarry. Carol doesn’t know quite how ill her mother was but knows about her delusional beliefs that her husband had fallen in love with Louise. Over time Carol learns the truth about her mother’s illness and accepts Louise as her step mother.
On the day of the wedding who should appear but David, turning up like the bad penny he is, perhaps Louise could get on with her life if he didn’t keep turning up only this time he’s more interested in Carol,they get on like a house on fire which fuels Louise’s jealousy and her mind fractures further.
After a night out with Carol and bumping into David Louise goes home saying she has a headache, she goes home and later sees Carol arriving home with david in tow. Louise listens as Carol gloats that they have fooled Louise.
David kisses Carol and leaves as Louise watches from the shadows. Louise tries to explain that Carol is being naive, that David is bad news, he doesn’t care about her but Carol sees through this warning and accuses Louise of being jealous. They continue to argue and Louise admits that she killed Carols mother just before Louise pushes Carol down the stairs. Louise is horrified, Carols body lies lifelessly at the bottom of the stairs, then slowly disappears. It’s a glorious moment. It’s all been a hallucination. But she did admit to killing Carols mother, did she?
Possessed is bold for it’s time when discussing mental illness, using flashbacks as a storytelling device was unusual for the time and this story keeps you guessing from the minute it starts to right at the end.
What I wasn’t prepared for the swift swerve into horror the film takes towards the end of the film. It genuinely made me skin crawl a little to see something as innocent as an arm closing an open window.
There is an underlying or perhaps rather blatant subtext of love drives women crazy so despite the film dealing very openly with mental illness and even making the victim of the mental illness sympathetic rather than scary, there is still an air of ‘them bitches be crazy’. That said Possessed is a brilliant film, full of unexpected surprises and one I’d recommend.
Possessed is now available on Blu-ray via Amazon.