A Blog Possessed

A blast from the past. I was writing about this movie in an email to my friend, writer and defrocked saint B. Kite, and he suggested I should expand my comments into a “piece”, as I believe they’re called. The finished thing ran in celebrated e-zine The New-York Ghost, and I was inspired to begin this blog. I always intended to run the thing that started it all, and today being a slow news day, here it is!

(Contains spoilers. In fact, one might more accurately say, IS spoilers.)

brack in time 

POSSESSED, directed by Curtis Bernhardt, starring Joan Crawford, takes a long sultry look at the hot topic of what the movie medicos call “skizzo-phrenia”, an affliction prevalent among frustrated career women.

There’s a perhaps-unintended encapsulation of the experience of the mentally unorthodox right at the start as Joan C wanders, with a broken walk, the streets of LA, which are dotted with such things as BRACK SHOPS and another establishment decorated with a sign which reads METAL TAPES REPAIRED. We nodded at this skilled evocation of the world glimpsed through the eyes of the psychically confused.

Wandering into a diner (another sign: C

                                                             H

                                                              E

                                                               E

                                                               S

                                              BURGER    E), Joan is unable to order, her vocabulary being limited to the word “David”. As that doesn’t correspond to anything on the menu, an ambulance is called.

hambone

The prostrate diva is rushed, sirens blaring (an emergency mental breakdown?) into what I presume must be the Leon Theremin Memorial Hospital for Melodramatic Diseases(POV looking up at ceiling as she trundles in on a gurney).

She seems unresponsive to the question “How many fingers?” Even Joan senses that “David” is not the right answer here. Snap judgment from doc with pencil moustache: “Look like a coma to me.” So they wheel her to the PSYCHOPATHIC WARD.

Now kindly doctor Erskine Sanford (the huffing puffing editor from CITIZEN KANE) appears, combining the kindliness of Santa Claus with Freud’s magical ability to pull a spurious diagnosis from his ass at the drop of a pipette. “Almost complete nudism,” he pronounces, and we boggle briefly before realising that the word he used was actually “mutism”. He’s so Freudian he causes slips in others.

Pumping the recumbent drama queen full of “synthi-narcosis”, the good doctor soon has her narrating flashbacks, (a positive sign!) and we learn that Joan, a nurse, was fond of “swimming” with a studly young mathematician. This Don Juan of the slide rule is played, preposterously, by Van Heflin, who obviously saw the character as wide-headed. I can picture the personals ad: “Clinging nurse in early stages of psychosis seeks gangling, frog-eyed mathematician for breast stroke and music recitals.”

hyperbolic titling

Van plays Schumann on the piano, or rather he sits in front of it and moves his shoulders as if walking jauntily, while Joan gets dressed after her “swim”. Joan loves Van but he plays it cool, bragging about the new parabola he’s invented (can this be right?), stressing his free-and-easy approach to life and love, and throwing in the phrase “mathematically speaking” every now and then by way of characterisation.

This touching tryst is transacted in the lake house of wealthy industrialist Raymond Massey, who spends much of the film packing Van off to Canada, which shows what a sympathetic man he is. Joan is looking after Mrs Raymond Massey, who is bedridden, offscreen, and suffering from pathological jealousy. Soon she’s being fished from the lake, “much too late”, leaving widower Raymond free to woo Joan after he’s launched Van at the Canucks.

There’s some strife with Ray’s comely daughter, the film’s token female non-lunatic, who resents Joan, having had her ears poisoned by her nutty mom, but this is resolved. But. Joan starts to crack up, hearing scary electronic voices from the buzzer that used to summon her to Mrs Massey’s bedside and forming erroneous memories of murder.

scenery chewing

Van Heflin doesn’t help (when has Van Heflin ever helped?), continually popping back down over the border to irritate us, woo Raymond’s teenage daughter, and continue to deny that he loves Joan. Joan is unable to accept this – “No consideration of his point of view,” diagnoses the doctor, sternly, as we dip out of flashback for a moment. And here the films scores points, as we are genuinely unable to make up our minds about Van. True, he’s smug, oleaginous and intrusive, and fond of talking mathematically, but he’s pretty straightforward about what he’s after, and is the only character with a sense of humour.

Joan’s gradual loss of marbles is also evoked with some skill, and the scene where she pushes Massey’s daughter downstairs, followed by her realisation that she HASN’T pushed anyone downstairs, is an arresting turn of events. Movies back then did not usually lie to their audience in this way, presenting hallucination as fact before revealing the truth. It’s super.

Things come to a head as Joan bananas around the room, drawing the helpless camera after her in a psychotic ellipse, and then pulls a gun on Van. Perhaps unwisely, he sneers. He questions the sincerity of her desire to terminate him (a risky gambit considering that she’s Joan Crawford, for God’s sake, and he’s Van Heflin, for God’s sake) and opines that she has a minimal chance of hitting him (at point blank range?), “mathematically speaking.” Joan’s POV as he ambles into wide-headed close-up and grabs for the gun. Bang. He’s a horrible mathematician, he’s dead, and I bet his parabolas were all crooked.

Van the Man

A hopeful ending: concerned Raymond traces Joan to the Psychopathic Ward, where the doc reassures him that the patient will recover, though it will take months of terrible agony (this is, after all, Joan Crawford we’re speaking of). She will have to be tried for murder, but it is to be hoped that a jury may realise that she was in no way responsible for her actions (and besides, it was only Van Heflin). Raymond nips in to see his nutty wife and we drift off down the antiseptic Corridors of Reason. The End. A Warner Bros Picture.

exciting woman

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11 Responses to “A Blog Possessed”

  1. You forgot the best line! When Van Heflin is fashioning some girder or other for the project he’s constructing and a peeved Joan quips “I’m prettier than a girder.”

    That is, needless to say, a matter of opinion.

    Geraldine Brooks is quite teriffic as the daughter. A Geraldine Brooks film festival would include Ophuls’ fabulous The Reckless Moment and Dieterle’s Volcano — a marvelous piece of nonsense starring Anna Magnani.

    It seems that Roberto Rossellini originally wrote Stromboli for Magnani. But then he met Ingrid Bergman. Magnani was dumped from his life and (worst of all) from the film. But nobody dumps Anna Magnani and gets off scot free. So she confected Volcano — a rival production shot at the same time at an adjoining island. Every evening during the shoot Magnani would climb the highest peak of her island and rain curses down on Rossellini and Bergman. Co-starring Rossano Brazzi with a script by Erskine Caldwell, Volcano ain’t bad. But it ain’t Stromboli.

    Clever Anna finished her film in advance of Rossellini’s. And there she was at the first press screening ready to answer questions when all of a sudden the news everyone had been waiting for flew through the room — Berman had just given birth to her “love child.” The place emptied out like that, leaving La Magnani to rage curses at the empty air.

  2. dcairns Says:

    Wow, it’s like Bette & Joan Go Italia!
    I like the sound of Volcano, Dieterle is very good at OTT histrionics in exotic places. We got a kick out of Elephant Walk when we ran it last year.

  3. Anna Magnani would have turned 100 years old today.

    Dieterle is a fascinating figure. His silent Sex in Chains is fascinating. Love Portrait of Jennie and Love Leeters. His Max Reinhardt collaboration on A Midsummer Night’s Dream is spectacular. And he’s quite good in an acting role in Murnau’s Faust.

  4. dcairns Says:

    “He was a big guy, not talented. We called him the iron stove,” says Edgar Ulmer. But The Devil and Daniel Webster is an amazing piece of expressionist Americana, deploying many of Welles’ tricks, and many of his crew. His Hunchback of Notre Dame made a huge impression on this kid. “He hits a shade of purple few can match,” says B. Kite, which is true enough, but he’ll always have a place in my heart.

  5. Hello, you may have noticed me lurking around this blog before….leaving the odd comment here or there…anyway..

    I was browsing my local bookshop today and I came across The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood by David Thomson and I nearly bought it but…..you stopped me.Yes you!! I remembered you writing that he used to be good but that he had become lazy or something to that effect. I have Dictionary of Film and read Rosebud when I was maybe 11. Im 22 now. I also read The Guardian in which he has an irregular column. I was just wondering what you meant by ‘Lazy’ and ‘Tired’

    I wasn’t sure if this was the right place to ask so apologies!

    Thanks

  6. Hi again!

    The Whole Equation MIGHT be good. Thomson still writes well, but he seems to have lost his enthusiasm for film. When he writes about actresses he’s just sleazy and makes himself ludicrous. The more recent edition of the film dictionary has a piece on Kiarostami where he basically says “Everybody’s talking about how this guy’s the great new poet of cinema. I looked at one of his films and, I dunno, doesn’t seem that great to ME.” Based on ONE film! That shows contempt for the filmmaker, for the critics who have praised him, and for the readers of the book. So, yes, although I called him “tired” (I was feeling polite), “lazy” is good too.

    I think it shows in Rosebud too — he really just rolls out all the Hollywood cliches about Welles. He’s good on Kane, then increasingly sloppy on everything else. Fortunately Simon Callow’s Welles books seem to be improving, actually growing in sympathy ashe moves through the career, and we have lots of other good stuff like This Is Orson Welles and Whatever Happened to…? and I’m told Welles at Work is terrific too.

  7. Shane Clifford Says:

    Thank You! I’ve been informed about Callows’s books before so I’ll check them out. Great site by the way.

  8. dcairns Says:

    Callow’s are the fullest biographies, but the best Welles books aren’t bios — even though his was a full and fascinating life.

    I like the sound of Orson Welles at Work, myself.

  9. “The prostrate diva is rushed, sirens blaring (an emergency mental breakdown?) into what I presume must be the Leon Theremin Memorial Hospital for Melodramatic Diseases.”

    Sir, my hat is off to you.

  10. Why, thank you! My hat is off too, but then I just had a bath.

  11. [...] the same genre as Curtis Bernhardt’s Joan Crawford vehicle POSSESSED, which I appreciated here. And isn’t it interesting that these somewhat campy melodramas, under the guise of educating [...]

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