***/**** Image B- Sound B Extras C+
starring Joan Crawford, Van Heflin, Raymond Massey, Geraldine Brooks
screenplay by Silvia Richards and Ranald MacDougall, based on a story by Rita Weiman
directed by Curtis Bernhardt
by Alex Jackson Although it's both talky and obvious (problems, I think, that have always threatened the noir genre), Possessed is propelled by a brilliant prologue and achieves momentum through an abundance of positively electric individual moments. Possessed is not strong enough to initiate any new addictions or produce any new highs, but it's enough to qualify as a fix for the existing addict of cinema. After watching it, I felt that I could go on and face another day.
As the film begins, Crawford (named Louise Howell in the film) is wandering the city. A streetcar stops for her and opens its door. "Where's David?" she asks the driver. "He's not here lady," the driver responds, shutting the door on her as she looks on, confused, devastated, and, as Crawford is not wearing any makeup, old and world-weary. Louise tries to pinpoint David in a crowd exiting a church, but alas David isn't there, either--and being good Christians, none of the churchgoers will help her find him. Louise meanders some more before floating into a diner where the patrons, realizing that she's gone bonkers, call an ambulance.
This promising introduction is then followed by a stretch of frankly magnificent cinema. Though two panning shots of ambulances racing to the hospital is hardly complex filmmaking, combined with Franz Waxman's venomous '40s-thriller score, there is something spontaneous and kinetic about the sequence that really shakes you up. This is followed by a lengthy unbroken subjective shot of Louise being wheeled into the hospital as ceiling fans and gossiping doctors move past her (and us). Once the shot comes to a stop, a moustachioed doctor breaks into the frame and hovers over her, shining his light in our eyes. Butter, man, pure butter.
The shot is a distillation of the cinema as dominatrix: we have submitted ourselves to the control of the filmmaker, and when he moves the camera we have no choice but to passively follow along. When Adrian Lyne appropriated this sequence for his 1990 film Jacob's Ladder, an explicit connection was drawn between hospital imagery and the descent into Hell, albeit one that exists within the protagonist's mind. Possessed has a similar, if somewhat more benign purpose. The sequence signifies that Louise has reached a point of no return in her insanity. Now at the end stage of her mental breakdown, she has become a barely conscious object, ready to be dissected by a pack of coldly clinical doctors and scientists. Louise's dissection happens in the form of psychoanalysis. Through the questioning of a concerned psychologist, we soon discover what has led to her pathetic state, not to mention who David is. The rest of the film alternates interrogation with expository flashbacks, providing a certain objectiveness that is rather flat and boring relative to those first ten minutes. This is, in part, what I am referring to when I say that Possessed is "obvious."
I think that Martin Scorsese has spoiled my generation of cinephiles. What he did was to make gritty noir pictures that were narratively subjective all the time. Not some of the time, all the time. The whole thing existed within the head of the protagonist and everything was filtered through his sensibility. This not only gives his films a greater visceral impact (they are, of course, awesome to behold for longer than ten minutes), but it also shows a greater trust in the audience. It expects them to figure things out for themselves. At the end of Possessed, the psychologist says that Louise is not morally responsible for her actions, rendering this an utterly gratuitous exercise for an audience weaned on Taxi Driver and its descendants.
Anyway, via the flashbacks we learn that Louise and David (Van Heflin) are lovers. Their relationship means considerably more to Louise than it does to David--he's in it for kicks and she's smothering him, so he breaks it off. Louise is the nurse to Mrs. Graham, the mentally ill wife of wealthy oil tycoon Dean Graham (Raymond Massey). Mrs. Graham drowns on a night that Louise happens to have off, and even though she had nothing to do with the death, the Grahams' daughter Carol (Geraldine Brooks) blames Louise. Despite this, widower Dean marries Louise and Carol warms up to her. And in comes David. Carol has had a crush on David ever since she was a little girl--and as she is now an attractive, college-aged heiress, David has little trouble returning the sentiment. None of this sits well with Louise, who gradually grows insane. She has violent fantasies and begins to believe that she let Mrs. Graham die. She also believes that Mrs. Graham has returned from the dead to remind her of her imagined misdeeds. Her mental health finally reaches a breaking point when, after David taunts her about marrying Carol, she shoots him.
This is pretty soapy stuff and there's probably too much of it. As previously inferred, the film is certainly at its best when Louise's crumbling state of mind is realized cinematically--and it is at its weakest in dealing with this ridiculous backstory. Again, the movies of the Sixties and Seventies were able to streamline things and focus on what was really important. They didn't have to juggle quite so many balls in the air. Still, this set-up seems necessary in order to illustrate the complexities of the Crawford persona. Why does Louise kill David? Yes, she's jealous of David's relationship with Carol, but there is more to it than that. The first thing Louise says to David after she pulls a gun on him is, "You're not going to marry her. You're not good enough for her." What a strange thing to say! While David may not be good enough for Carol, Louise regards him as being just good enough for Louise. She is protective of Carol; she believes that David is exploiting her. And yet she only wishes she could be exploited like that! She's keeping Carol from getting hurt for some of the right reasons and a lot of the wrong ones. The masochistic Louise wants to keep all the suffering for herself.
Issued in conjunction with the studio's 5-disc Joan Crawford box set, Warner's DVD release of Possessed sadly honours a weathered source print. The 1:33 full-frame transfer has water damage, scratches, grain, flickering, and pubic hairs galore. The image isn't consistently bad (from time to time, it sparkles), but that these artifacts intermittently recur reflects a certain lack of professionalism on Warner's part. That said, I'm somewhat conflicted on this issue: Given that the idea behind Possessed is to deglamorize Crawford and to abstract what we accept as reality, I'm not sure that a "good" transfer is a preferable one. Clean up the video and you clean up some of the funk and pessimism that constitutes much of the pleasure of the noir pictures. Then again, I'm not dismissing those who actually take the time to restore film, and I understand that critiquing a DVD transfer is not the same as critiquing art. My opinion on the Dolby Digital 1.0 mono audio is less controversial: The soundtrack has faded slightly, but it's clean and, as Possessed is a very aural film, it has punch where it counts.
For extras, we have an audio commentary by Dr. Drew Casper, a film professor at the University of Southern California. Casper is enthusiastic and fills up the track with lots of solid information, though I'm not a big fan of the "film studies" crowd. I assure you that my objection is philosophical as opposed to anti-intellectual. Casper is essentially a structuralist, and the problem with structuralism is that it doesn't consider ethics. With structuralism, films are good or bad based entirely on how they illustrate or subvert their genre conventions and critiqued on the premise that essentially all genres and their conventions are created equal. I think of it as lauding a sentence because of how it conveys meaning through its use of subject and predicate: but what is the sentence about? What is its actual meaning? While Casper facilitates a start towards understanding film, far too often it is seen as the endpoint--that once a film is deconstructed, we are finished with it. Besides, Casper seems to get Jung and Freud confused (saying that the idea of conflicting light and dark sides is a Freudian construct--well, not exactly), and he says that the tracking shot with Lorraine Bracco and Ray Liotta into the nightclub in Goodfellas was a subjective shot inspired by Possessed. Sorry, Dr. Drew, but that was not, strictly-speaking, a subjective tracking shot. Meanwhile, he overlooks Jacob's Ladder entirely.
The featurette "Possessed: The Quintessential Film Noir" (9 mins.) is probably a better primer for the uninitiated. Several film noir experts discuss the genre and how Possessed fits in. An offhand comment about how David is really an homme fatale caught my interest, but it's not elaborated upon very well beyond the idea that David is an "object of obsession." The femme fatale, as I understood it, was essentially a monster just like the men in the picture, only she used sex and guile to gain power. Studying the back of the DVD case and seeing this featurette before viewing the picture, I originally believed that Possessed would follow the Medea myth with David marrying for power. That would have possibly been a meatier movie for analysis, don't you think? A theatrical trailer rounds out the disc. Originally published: August 15, 2005.