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Warner Home Video presents
Possessed (1947)

"I told you once, I'd do anything to keep you from leaving me, and I will. Anything."
- Louise Howell (Joan Crawford)

Review By: David Krauss  
Published: February 16, 2006

Stars: Joan Crawford, Van Heflin, Raymond Massey
Other Stars: Geraldine Brooks, Stanley Ridges, John Ridgely, Moroni Olsen, Gerald Perreau
Director: Curtis Bernhardt

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 01h:48m:02s
Release Date: June 14, 2005
UPC: 012569708105
Genre: film noir


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A ABB+ B

DVD Review

Joan Crawford won an Oscar for Mildred Pierce, but she gave the performance of her career in Possessed, a terrific psychological melodrama directed by Curtis Bernhardt. As Louise Howell, a mentally unbalanced nurse-turned-society wife whose aching obsession with no-good architect David Sutton (Van Heflin) slowly drives her insane, Joan rivets our attention like never before, and received another well-deserved Academy Award nomination. With steely intensity, she inhabits this troubled woman, embracing her delusions, neuroses, and insecurities without becoming a raging harpy—quite a feat, given the popular perception of psychosis at the time, and the period's prevalent histrionic acting style. Crawford may lack the restraint that so beautifully distinguishes her work in the previous year's Humoresque, but wisely keeps any scenery-chewing instincts in check, and etches a fascinating portrait of a slow and systematic mental collapse.

Possessed is one of the first (and best) of the psycho-Freudian dramas that swept through Hollywood during the late-1940s and '50s. With interest in analysis on the rise, movie studios hopped on the psychological bandwagon and infused plenty of dark-themed films with various mental hang-ups, all of which were ultimately untangled by stoic yet sympathetic doctors and a series of telling flashbacks. (The Snake Pit and Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound are two such examples.) Possessed tackles schizophrenia, from its initial, barely detectable onset to the harrowing symptoms of full-blown affliction, and Bernhardt employs classic film noir techniques to explore his heroine's private hell. In one especially magnetic scene, he takes us inside Louise's tortured brain as she slips into a subjective reality, and makes us believe the dramatic events transpiring on screen are actually happening. Alas, it all turns out to be a delusion, but the device is extremely effective and flawlessly executed.

By her own admission, Crawford "worked harder on Possessed than on any other picture" she ever made, and the effort shows. She prepared for the role by tirelessly researching the plight of the mentally ill—reading books, visiting hospitals, and conferring with doctors. When we first see her on film, she's aimlessly wandering the streets of L.A. in a "catatonic stupor," with glazed eyes, a sickly pallor, and an unsteady gait—hardly the typical star entrance. Soon, her character winds up in a mental ward, and after a dose of truth serum, begins to tell her sad tale. We quickly learn her passion for David knows no bounds, as she shamelessly throws herself at him and beseeches him to love her. Though David is fond of Louise, he doesn't share her intense feelings. He tells her she's "hanging on too hard," and almost choking him to death with affection. "Everyone wants to be loved," he says, "but no one wants to be smothered."

At his suggestion, they break off their affair, and a distraught and devastated Louise returns to the estate of her employer, Dean Graham (Raymond Massey). Louise nurses Dean's mentally disturbed wife, and soon must weather further guilt and trauma when the woman commits suicide by drowning herself in a lake. After an appropriate interval, Dean proposes to Louise, an act that rankles his children, especially the college-age Carol (Geraldine Brooks). Louise doesn't love the wealthy magnate, but agrees to marry him in the twisted hope their union will arouse David's dormant passions and inspire him to pursue her once more. She's dead wrong, of course, and when David starts dallying with Carol, her new stepdaughter (shades of Mildred Pierce), Louise goes off the deep end, diving headfirst into the black abyss of madness.

Crawford made 54 films in 18 years at MGM, but her first three pictures for Warner Bros. (Mildred Pierce, Humoresque, and Possessed)—produced in a mere two-year span—eclipse almost everything she did for Leo the Lion. While MGM swathed her in designer gowns, piled on artificial airs, and saddled her with insipid dialogue, producer Jerry Wald brought out the real Joan—a woman who'd been around, survived her share of hard knocks, and could emerge victorious in a man's world. Sexy? Oh yeah. No matter how tough she became, Crawford never lost her sexuality. Yet in Possessed (and to a lesser extent, Humoresque), she also exhibits a heartbreaking vulnerability that's so raw, it can be difficult to watch. Rarely, if ever, does Crawford beg for affection in her films, so her impassioned pleas for David's love seem doubly pathetic. When she madly shrieks, "David, listen to me! You mustn't treat me this way! Don't leave me! Take me with you! David! David!!!," the brazen emotion sends a chill down our spine. And despite her persona as a ballsy broad, we buy it hook, line, and sinker.

Sure, Crawford is the quintessential movie star, but anyone who doubts her abilities as an actress hasn't seen Possessed. Hands down, it's her finest hour.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicno


Image Transfer Review: Unfortunately, the Possessed transfer doesn't quite live up to Warner's customary high standards, but it's far from a shoddy effort. A murkiness that's not always a result of noir accents seems to afflict the print, making it look a bit ragged. Grain is also more evident than usual, but black levels are appropriately dense, and good grayscale variance provides solid contrast. A flurry of faint circular dots blankets the image for 90 seconds or so around the 48-minute mark, but only minor nicks and scratches otherwise intrude. Long stretches, however, are quite clean and vibrant, with close-ups dramatically highlighting both Crawford's glamour and the ravages of mental illness.

Image Transfer Grade: B

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglishno


Audio Transfer Review: The mono track has been nicely scrubbed, eliminating any annoying surface defects. Crawford's tirades, tears, and small talk are all easily understandable, and several eerie audio effects—most notably, the relentless beating of Louise's heart during the subjective reality segment—effectively punctuate the action. Franz Waxman also contributes a dynamic music score that fills the room without overpowering the drama.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+

 

Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 28 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by film historian Drew Casper
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual
Layers Switch: 01h:09m:05s

Extras Review: A couple of noteworthy extras enhance the disc, beginning with a lively audio commentary by film historian Drew Casper. A professor at USC, Casper treats his commentaries like college seminars, teaching us instead of talking at us—and they're much the better for it. He respects the listener's intelligence, and avoids the brainless palaver that often permeates similar efforts by less qualified speakers. His discussion here actually focuses more on film noir itself than the particulars of Possessed—with lengthy tangents on Freudian psychology and how the politics of the brothers Warner influenced the studio's product—but he skillfully weaves his topics together into a cohesive whole. He also examines Crawford's contribution to noir, and how an objective camera sequence in Possessed directly influenced Martin Scorsese when he was making GoodFellas. In one of the track's most absorbing stretches, Casper recalls his personal meeting with Crawford at her New York apartment in 1975, and how even at the age of 71 (and dressed in a bathrobe and slippers), she was every inch the Hollywood star. Casper's passion occasionally reaches a fever pitch, making him sound more like a fire-and-brimstone preacher than an upstanding professor, but he's never dull, and serious film buffs will appreciate his insights.

A new nine-minute featurette, Possessed: The Quintessential Film Noir, brings together a number of noir experts to dissect the genre's inimitable style and relate it to Possessed. Those interviewed (including Casper) discuss the topic with enthusiasm, and convey how elements such as alienation, psychology, fatal attractions, and urban influences all play a role in noir. They also single out Warner Bros. as the only Hollywood studio that allowed women equal footing with men in such films. Warner knows how to produce a slick, snappy featurette, and the one included here is no exception.

The film's original theatrical trailer completes the supplements.

Extras Grade: B

 

Final Comments

A riveting psychological melodrama, Possessed supplies Joan Crawford with her meatiest role, and she plays it to the hilt, wringing every drop of emotion from her schizophrenic character. Director Curtis Bernhardt provides some stunning noir touches, but it's Crawford who shines in an Oscar-nominated, tour de force performance. Forget the shoulder pads, wire hangers, and Pepsi-Cola; this is what Joan Crawford is all about. Highly recommended.

 


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