BluRay/DVD Reviews

POSSESSED (WB Archive Collection)

By • Jan 13th, 2015 •

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Placed side by side with Hitchcock’s SPELLBOUND (1945), the ‘psychology’ of POSSESSED feels more grounded. Not to denigrate Hitchcock’s hyper-real visual style, or Salvador Dali’s wondrously surreal dream sequence, but Hitch’s use of pop-psychology usually feel surfacey, not only in this film, but in PSYCHO and MARNIE as well. Possibly his most realistic depiction of mental illness was in MARNIE, however, abetted by his real-life stalking of Tippi Hedron, which evinced a deeply felt performance from the actress.

As Noir is my favorite genre, I was surprised that this title had eluded me for so long. The Archive BluRay is a stunning piece of work, giving full body to Joan Crawford’s (if indeed it was Joan Crawford’s) four exquisite screams starting at 1:20:42. I love hearing them: it’s as if the Yma Sumac of screams had been set loose, and each of them runs the four-octave gamut from high, shrill fear to bass, soulful abandon. Take my word for it – you owe it to yourself to hear those screams. (And there’s a warm-up scream at 29:23.)

DP Joseph Valentine (and uncredited compadre Sidney Hickox) often capture the expressionistic frames of the genre at their most aesthetically compelling. But much of the time they light and shoot the film as high melodrama, using full-frontal lighting on Crawford’s face. Which is okay. The Noir alchemy is there when they want it.

Time, and her daughter’s autobiography, have painted a portrait of Crawford as not terribly dissimilar from the characters she portrayed in roles like this. And she’s chillingly convincing at it. I don’t recall seeing obsession more disturbingly captured on screen, by all the key characters save one, Van Heflin, and he’s in some ways the most culpable player in this progressively darkening web. As the narrative advances, it takes on more and more psychological weight, until we are actually brought into sympathy with Crawford’s pathetically demented characterization. By film’s end we can see that her problems began way before we entered the scenario.

Franz Waxman’s score is one of the best musical accompaniments to a Noir. Starting with the title sequence, it is loud and overpowering, but in those instances, we’re being given access to the protagonist’s jarring interior chaos.

Van Heflin is great in a role some have compared to what is usually assigned to the femme fatale. He displays several octaves of ambiguity towards Crawford, obviously having liked but not loved her, having used her sexually and allowed her to get hooked on him, taken full advantage of it, then having tried, albeit with some degree of genuine concern, to distance himself from her emotionally, firmly insisting that the affair is over. But their lives are inextricably linked, and try as he might to keep things honest, there’s violence and blood in the air. We can see it drifting in our direction from act one; we just don’t know when it will happen.

Other real characters, each with their own measure of obsession, weave in and out of her peripheral vision. Raymond Massey is seemingly all business toward her, but he has an emotional well that she inadvertently plumbs, much as Van Heflin has disturbed hers. In Van Heflin’s case, invading the well was intentional, he just didn’t anticipate how dark the waters at the bottom were.

There’s a Noir tutorial (9 mins) included on the disc, featuring some of the genre’s leading authorities (Eddie Muller, Drew Casper – who also provides the commentary – James Ursini, etc.), but of equal interest is the condition of the material they use to illustrate the mini-doc. I don’t know if this is how POSSESSED looked on DVD, but these clips are painfully over-run with wear. The BluRay looks pristine by comparison. The Archive team has done a laudable job.

Casper dwells on Crawford’s daring lack of make-up in the first scenes. Equally powerful are the naked, real city streets, shot in gray tones. Finally, when she enters a diner, we’ve transitioned to a studio set, but the upsetting, documentary-like street scenes are burned into our minds for the duration. They’re not the noir wetted down streets of most noirs, they’re just…the real thing. It makes us a lot less easy to detach ourselves from the emotions that follow since the opening is so eerily grounded and un-Hollywood.

An aside. At 7:07 minutes in, Crawford is strapped to a bed in a psychiatric ward. The lighting and setup of this shot is so dead-on similar to the shots of Brando at the end of MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY, where he has been fatally burned and stares up in shock from under some covers the mutineers have provided, that either he or someone in charge in the camera department must have seen POSSESSED and, even if only on a subconscious level, have resurrected the exact look. Marlon Brando playing Joan Crawford…what an odd idea.

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