Retrospective Review: Possessed

Year: 1947
Runtime: 108 Minutes
Director: Curtis Bernhardt
Writers: Silvia Richards, Ranald MacDougall (story by Rita Weiman)
Stars: Joan Crawford, Van Heflin, Raymond Massey, Geraldine Brooks

By Bianca Garner

Poor old Joan Crawford. She’s perhaps one of cinema’s unluckiest women to ever fall in love. In my previous retrospective review of the Joan Crawford vehicle “Sudden Fear”, we saw Joan fall in love with a dirtbag who only wanted her for her money and tried to kill her. Here, Crawford plays another intelligent woman who is driven to madness after falling helpless in love with a man who coldly rejects her. 

However, unlike “Sudden Fear”, “Possessed” sees Crawford’s character reduced to an empty shell, and completely retreats into her neuroticism. Although dated with its approach and understanding of mental illness, “Possessed” remains somewhat relevant in the ills of the patriarchy and the appalling treatment/misunderstanding of individuals suffering from a psychotic break (you only have to look at the treatment of Elisabeth Moss’ character in this year’s “The Invisible Man” to see how little society has come since 1947).

“Possessed” has a strong opening, which is by far the most intriguing aspect of the picture as a whole. Crawford plays Louise Howell, who is found wandering the streets of Los Angeles in a trancelike state, unable to say anything but the name “David”. This beginning is over all too quickly, and you almost wish that more time had been devoted to this aspect of the story.

Joan Crawford in Possessed (1947)

“As always, Crawford shines here in a role which she described as her most difficult to play. She actually spent time visiting mental wards and talking to psychiatrists to prepare for her role, and she’s by far the best element of the movie.”

It would have been interesting to see Louise wandering the streets for a little longer, and encountering more and more unsympathetic characters along her travels. There’s a social commentary to be made in terms of how we respond and react towards those who are suffering from a mental illness, but alas, it’s all over too quickly and Howell is taken to a hospital.

In the hospital, she recounts her story. David is David Sutton (Van Heflin), an engineer who was in a relationship with Louise. However, her intensity and devotion towards him puts him off and he ends the relationship. Louise is currently working as a nurse to the invalid wife of Dean Graham (Raymond Massey), Dean’s wife accuses Louise and Dean of having an affair and is becoming more and more unhinged.

Suddenly, Mrs Graham is discovered drowned, although the cause of death remains undetermined (did she take her own life or is foul play involved?). David leaves after getting a job working for Dean, and Louise is kept in employment for the Graham family, moving to Washington with them.

Joan Crawford and Raymond Massey in Possessed (1947)

Time goes by, and Dean falls in love with Louise. However, David reenters the scene. When Louise meets David again, Crawford captures the inner turmoil of her character beautifully, her hands trembling as she pours the man a drink. We get the impression that Louise is only a step away from falling into a murderous jealous rage and killing David. Helfin is also brilliant as the lowlife that is David Sutton, a charming and manipulative narcissist who seems to relish in the torment of Louise. If he genuinely cared about her then he wouldn’t keep reappearing in her life, but he’s so clearly selfish and apathetic that he just does whatever suits him.

“Crawford plays another intelligent woman who is driven to madness after falling helpless in love with a man who coldly rejects her.”

Dean ends up proposing to Louise, who reluctantly accepts as it’s really her only option. Dean offers her everything that David cannot, security and attention. However, there’s the issue of winning Dean’s daughter Carol (Geraldine Brooks) over, and David has lined Carol up in his sights. There’s also the threat of Louise’s troubled past and mental health issues which have been exacerbated by the return of David. Soon, Louise begins to lose track of what is fantasy and what’s reality, with devastating consequences.

Joan Crawford and Van Heflin in Possessed (1947)

As always, Crawford shines here in a role which she described as her most difficult to play. She actually spent time visiting mental wards and talking to psychiatrists to prepare for her role, and she’s by far the best element of the movie. Curtis Bernhardt’s direction at times feels very muddled, and the script penned by Silvia Richards and Ranald MacDougall gets too bogged down in the whole melodrama of the Louise/David/Dean relationship. The film’s second act seems bloated and is dragged out for far too long which diminishes the impact of the film’s opening and the third act.

“Possessed” lacks the thrill and the tension of “Sudden Fear”. Crawford is fantastic especially in the film’s first opening minutes but she’s clearly better than the material.”

In terms of the treatment and attitude towards Crawford’s Louise, the film feels more impactful now then perhaps it did in the 1940s when women were treated as second-class citizens and misogyny were rampant. The way the two doctors talk about Louise’s condition at the start of the film is disturbing, as they reduce her down to just being a ‘thing’ and not a fellow human being.

Upon reflection, we can clearly see the advancements made in society’s treatment towards women and those suffering mental illness as a whole, but at the same time we can’t help but be reminded that there is still this stigma about mental illness especially towards women who are often labelled as being ‘moody’ or suffering from ‘PMS’ and their mental health issues are played down. 

Joan Crawford in Possessed (1947)

It’s interesting to see the ‘Homme Fatale’ make another appearance in the form of David Sutton, a character who could give Jack Palance’s Lester Blaine from “Sudden Fear” a run for his money. However, as the film develops, David becomes a little two-dimensional. He’s not a pure sociopath like Lester, just an opportunist dirtbag, and it’s hard to see what Louise finds so attractive about him (maybe mathematical equations are just her turn-on?). 

Overall, “Possessed” lacks the thrill and the tension of “Sudden Fear”. Crawford is fantastic especially in the film’s first opening minutes but she’s clearly better than the material. However, there’s enough here which will make for an interesting discussion on society’s attitudes towards women and mental health, both in the 1940s and now.

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