Two Joan Crawford films on Midnight Screenings this week.
Among a morass of Joan Crawford hysteria delivery mechanisms, 1947’s Possessed lures us in the most, in spite of, or maybe because of its clumsiness. It certainly “goes” for it, to say the least, stimulating a mildly heated potboiler in the post-war mold into a thoroughly maddened lure for wild-eyed cinema definitively crazed past the point of reason. Right from the opening flotilla of imagery, Crawford wanders dazed in an unoccupied city, and the film is up to some obvious but committed funny business diamond-cutting her in the frame as the sole black artifact in a grey tableau of social emptiness. She skulks through what resembles a half-remembered experience of a city, refracted through windows and cut off at the mid-section in the frame. The camera interweaves her, serving as the locus of concern, and the exterior world all while expressively sequestering her from that world by depicting her only in part, through other images, or as a pure-colored shroud skulking down a city, the camera silently expressing the dichotomy that she is our focus in this world but also intractably unmoored from it.
Soon enough, she’s declared insane, a victim of that most regressive feminine stereotype of madness. She claims her once-lover’s denouncement of their relationship is the cause. In an asylum, now plastered over in ghostly white clothing, a day-night-day shift (the lighting flares, diminishes, and flares again through a window) is almost subliminal or reflexive for how brutally downplayed it is. Crawford is now a concrete slab of post-romantic obsession on a drab hospital bed now surrounded in a field of ascetic, medicinal white. Even the shift from the overbearing blackness of her outfit in her entrance scene to the ennui-caked pallid prison of the asylum (and her new clothing) is silently startling; as obvious a gesture as it may be, it is a premonition that someone (a mental institution) has not only tied her down but dissolved her previous identity, replacing it with their neutral cloak of passivity and colorless vacancy. Freshman-stuff, but dare deny it when it’s got your soul in a bundle.
A cheeky dissolve paves the way for … we all know it … a flashback of her relationship with David, his hands playing piano and literally superimposing over her face remembering (or fictively constructing) him, the superimposition insinuating not only him “taking over her mind” but him tickling her noggin with pulverizing invidiousness. Of note: Possessed is absolutely drunk on outré dissolves, a wavelength you either cotton to or are repulsed by, but the film’s introduction channels us into its rules and edicts, asking us to get on board or go home.
The real showpiece throughout is the swiveling, phantom-like camera tracks emblematic of the film’s vexing fetish for characters prowling about, constricting or extending the gap between people as incarnations of their tentative relationship statuses. The piece de resistance, of course, is the drugged-out opening skulk through the hospital from Crawford’s perspective, the camera tilted up to pronounce not only the towering pillar of the mental institution erected above her but the swivels and turns in her path that prefigure the wrinkles and kinks in the medical staffs’ ability to actually diagnose a woman they’re liable to simply write off as just another crazed, caged-bird of a dame. Again, Possessed is a little looney, but at least it gifts us the pleasure of throwing us right in so that we don’t have to test the movie’s reflexes later on to see whether it’s alive or not.
That plot is a skeletal grill to hang on, sure, but the film dives right in, inconstantly committing to tones of torrid melodrama, psychotic visual subjectivity, near-horror, and thickly paranoid chiaroscuro without even bumbling into a dead zone between the styles. Crawford’s performance is a little reckless but undeniably spirited, swiveling from post-traumatic husk to anecdotal phantom prowling the halls of love only to fall prey to David’s malevolent pull (abetted by the oily Van Heflin in the role). And although the story can enervate form time to time under the gross pull of the talkative wraparound conversation between now distraught Crawford and her doctor, the more psychologically charged subjectivity of her version of the love story exerts a magnetic pull on the film that keeps dredging up the crazy the film is so good at delivering.
So when the film is on its worst behavior, loosening the shackles of reality and imbibing in delusional moxie, it’s actually on its best. Without a single over-baked line of “narration”, the film slides us into the understanding that this story is a splintered mind’s facsimile of reality, not a fabrication or a truth but an experience, which is always necessarily a dialectic of the two. Exorbitantly problematic gender relations speckle everything, but style speckles right back. Joseph Valentine’s camera slinks, sneaks, and stalks, and Franz Waxman’s score sounds like a dry-run for a drunken bender, delectably over-indulgent and riotously off its rocker. In particular, the sound design unfetters itself into an unmooring hot coal walkabout wrapped in barbed wire, with sounds losing their grip on the physical world and arriving from who knows where. Representational assumptions about sounds are even mangled, an action prefigured by an early shot where Crawford’s scream crashes into Heflin’s boat motor ready to run away. The two individual sounds not only overlap but mutate into a grotesque Frankensteinian concoction of the two as our categories for “human” and “metal” sound corrode before us.
It’s outré as all hell, an atomically riotous work of extraordinary style. But it sure beats, for instance, the same year’s lugubrious dogged trudge Gentleman’s Agreement, where a similar message movie (about anti-Semitism in this case, as opposed to mental illness) fell into a cavern of self-importance and calcified cinematic anti-energy. That film knew it was important and stopped there; Possessed knows that it is clinically a little wacked-out, and it runs with it. Not a moral depiction, nor an overly complex one, nor an astute depiction of gender by any means, but this act of infesting the safe-haven of message cinema with the impish bacteria of demented energy brandishes itself as a hideout for cinematic ghouls. Ineloquent it can be, but there’s a bodily force on display here, an animal charisma of sorts, like the film isn’t waiting around for us to get the point.
And there is, after a fashion, a point about toxic obsession, sado-masochistic relationships, now-sour love, and most importantly, the murky waters where memory and imagination commingle to birth a mutt version of both. Flawed it may be at the top-level narrative structures, but the neurotic, libertine energy of the piece does that latter point proud. For flavor, just indulge me the film’s finest leap, hop, and skip into style as a study in the ever-tenuous, perilous inconstancy of the mind. We’re roughly mid-way into the film when the camera stalks inward to the back of Crawford’s shirt until the cloth is alone in the frame, almost non-representationally – social femininity rendered abstract – before the patterns dissolve into waves and the waves are conscripted as a new dissolve back to the present-tense. The materiality, the tactility, of the mind’s representation of its own past unstitching visually in the film here, you sense an otherwise judicious haven of a film convulsing under the force of its subjective id and inability to properly materialize the story before us. The visual matter of the cloth is a physical detail that can’t sketch itself completely without arousing into a battle-ground of over-energized electrons flailing around into the distinctly unsolidified, ever-gaseous dialectic of memory, mental illness, and personal fiction. Remembrance itself becomes a war to retain the physical shape of the objects you say you remember, only to be teased by the threat that they might dissolve right before your mind.