Possessed (1947)

Directed by Curtis Bernhardt
Cinematography Joseph Valentine

Possessed is a 1947 American film noir psychological drama directed by Curtis Bernhardt, starring Joan Crawford, Van Heflin, and Raymond Massey in a tale about an unstable woman’s obsession with her ex-lover. The screenplay by Ranald MacDougall and Silvia Richards was based upon a story by Rita Weiman.

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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.

During production director Curtis Bernhardt accidentally kept referring to Crawford as “Bette” as he had just finished filming A Stolen Life with Bette Davis. Crawford tried unsuccessfully to convince Warner Bros. to change the film’s title to The Secret since she had already starred in a film by the same name (Possessed) earlier in her career.

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Critical reception

When the film was released, the staff at Variety magazine praised the work of Crawford, yet questioned Bernhardt’s direction. They wrote, “Joan Crawford cops all thesping honors in this production with a virtuoso performance as a frustrated woman ridden into madness by a guilt-obsessed mind. Actress has a self-assurance that permits her to completely dominate the screen even vis-a-vis such accomplished players as Van Heflin and Raymond Massey … Despite its overall superiority, Possessed is somewhat marred by an ambiguous approach in Curtis Bernhardt’s direction. Film vacillates between being a cold clinical analysis of a mental crackup and a highly surcharged melodramatic vehicle for Crawford’s histrionics.”

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James Agee in Time wrote, “Most of it is filmed with unusual imaginativeness and force. The film is uncommonly well acted. Miss Crawford is generally excellent”, while Howard Barnes in the New York Herald Tribune argued, “[Crawford] has obviously studied the aspects of insanity to recreate a rather terrifying portrait of a woman possessed by devils.”

More recently, film critic Dennis Schwartz gave the film a mixed review, writing, “In German émigré director Curtis Bernhardt’s melodrama Possessed, Joan Crawford plays a mentally disturbed person who can’t distinguish reality from her imagination. Through use of German expressionism techniques and many familiar film noir shadowy shots, the b/w film takes on a penetrating psychological tone and makes a case for a not guilty of murder plea due to insanity. Though Joan has a powerful presence in this movie, she played her mad role in a too cold and campy way to be thought of as a sympathetic figure. All the psychological treatment therapy sounded like psycho-babble and Joan’s acting was overstuffed, though some of her morbid imaginations were gripping and held my attention. Too heavy with German stimmung it still is fun to watch the melodramatics play out in this tale of overbearing love, painful rejection, paranoia and murder.”

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Film historian Bob Porfirio notes, “By developing the plot from the point-of-view of a neurotic and skillfully using flashback and fantasy scenes in a straightforward manner, the distinction between reality and Louise’s imagination is blurred. That makes Possessed a prime example of oneirism, the dreamlike tone that is a seminal characteristic of film noir

Excellent film, and a Good Lesson to Boot!

21 April 2006 | by guyzi (Salt Lake City) – See all my reviews

Having become quite the aficionado of film-noir over the past couple of years, I have had the pleasure of watching dozens of films in that fascinating genre. ‘Possessed’ is yet another great entry in this genre that has captured my attention during this period of time.
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‘Possessed’ is not your usual film noir. First, there is no brooding male narration, as one might expect from their typical film noir. Second, the picture almost entirely revolves itself around a lead female character, and this character is neither menaced (e.g. Laura), nor is she a femme fatale (a la Barbara Stanwyck in ‘Double Indemnity’). Finally, there are quite a number of perfectly rational and sympathetic characters in the film, something you come to *not* expect from your typical film noir.

Joan Crawford plays Louise Graham, a nurse who is introduced to us at the beginning as an extremely distraught and disoriented woman, calling for a man named ‘David’. Soon, she falls into a coma induced by psychosis, but is drawn out of this stupor by a sympathetic psychiatrist who wants to discover the source of her illness. Louise recalls her story, which mostly revolves around her unrequited love for a particularly callous man named David Sutton (played marvelously by Van Heflin). When her relationship with Sutton dissolves, she throws herself entirely into her work as a nurse for a certain Mrs. Graham, the mentally ill wife of a very wealthy man. Louise eventually steps into the role of ‘Mrs. Graham’ after the first Mrs. Graham commits suicide. Unfortunately, Louise’s unrequited passion for David, along with her guilt over the death of her patient, cause her to fall into an ever worsening spiral of psychosis.

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Joan Crawford is quite marvelous as Louise. She plays her role to the hilt, adding a touch of melodramatic flair that really works in this film. Oddly enough, I did not enjoy Joan Crawford much in ‘Mildred Pierce’, which I found to be an utterly inferior film. She should have won her Oscar for *this* performance. Van Heflin, as the self-absorbed and emotionally brutish playboy David Sutton, is perfect in this movie. Some of his lines, as insensitive and clumsy as they seem, are downright hilarious…it’s all in the delivery. Raymond Massey and Geraldine Brooks provide very nice supporting performances as well. The mood of this film is rather well set by the very much underrated director Curtis Bernhardt.

Finally, it must be said that this film is rather instructive and insightful in its depiction of the horrors of schizophrenia. In that regard, it may very well be a film well before its time.

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A Dark Moonscape of the Soul

9/10
Author: mackjay from Out there in the dark
19 May 2000

“Possessed” is one of the marvelous genre hybrids that appeared in the late 40s and early 50s. It is both Film Noir (admittedly, an “invented” genre) and woman’s picture. Elements of the latter genre include a female main character and her obsession with a lover who has moved on. The Noir elements (flashback, dark, moody photography, and a sinister, fatalistic edge to the proceedings) raise this melodrama to nearly tragic heights. It should not be dismissed as a throwaway Crawford vehicle, or overgrown B picture.

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Curtis Bernhardt directs the film with a compelling assurance. This movie knows where it’s going and it takes you along for the ride. Many scenes have an enthralling dramatic appeal. Early in the film, for example, Louise is overwhelmed by the Van Heflin character playing a section from Schumann’s “Carnaval” on the piano. There is a terrific admixture of closeups of Crawford’s face with the music. This music will play a subtle leitmotivic role in the rest of the film. Worthy of note as well is Franz Waxman’s intense, not too-romanticized score. And this film contains what must be an early use of electronic voice distortion to convey Louise’s gradual descent toward a nervous breakdown.

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All actors–Raymond Massey, Van Heflin, Geraldine Brooks–are good and bring more than a touch of conviction to their roles. But Joan Crawford is at the center of the picture, and she gives here what may be her very best screen performance. It is not surprising to learn that Crawford was nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award for this detailed, gradated portrayal of a woman travelling through a private hell. So convincing and inspired is this performance, that it is universal in its appeal.

“Possessed” could form a “trilogy” with “Born to Kill” (1947, with Claire Trevor and Lawrence Tierney) and “No Man of Her Own” (1950, with Barbara Stanwyck and Lyle Bettger): all immensely entertaining journeys through dark emotional landscapes of obsession, betrayal and desperation.

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A woman in love

8/10
Author: jotix100 from New York
29 March 2005
*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Never underestimate a woman in love. Such seems to be the message of “Possessed”, a film that was obviously tailor made for its star, Joan Crawford. As directed by Curtis Bernhardt, this film will not bore the fans of the genre, or its star.

If you haven’t seen the film, maybe you should stop reading here.

“Possessed” presents us Louise Howell, a nurse, for the ailing Mrs. Graham, a wealthy recluse. Louise’s charge is a woman from hell. When this woman dies under mysterious circumstances, it appears to herald the end of Louise’s employment. Prior to that, we see Louise during a tryst with a neighbor of the Grahams, David Sutton. They have had an affair and David decides to end it, much to Louise’s chagrin.

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Dean Graham, the rich widower, asks Louise to stay after his wife’s death. Will a marriage proposal be too far behind? Well, Dean proposes and Louise accepts. Her life is transformed from mediocrity into a life of luxury. The only sour point in Louise’s new found happiness is Carol Graham, the daughter of the dead woman who blames Louise for the accident and death of her mother.

Will Louise find happiness with Dean? Will David see how much Louise loves him and come back to her? Will Carol and Louise ever be friends? Those are the questions that will be answered in the movie, not by this observer. The film is involving, although having seen some of these melodramas prepares us for all possible answers.

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Joan Crawford does an impressive job as Louise. This woman gave the star one of her best characters ever. She goes through a range of emotions right before our eyes. Van Heflin, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have been the obvious choice for David, although he was an excellent actor, but in this movie doesn’t have much to do. Raymond Massey, as Dean, is enormously appealing. He shows us a Dean who is a generous man. A young Geraldine Brooks makes a good impression as Carol the girl that is deprived of her mother at an early age.

“Possessed” is a wonderful film. It will not disappoint the fans of this genre.

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