<p>She loves him when he goes away for months. She loves him when he refuses to marry her. But when callow David Sutton chooses to marry someone else, Louise Howell's love for him takes a darker turn. Give her a gun and she'll love him to death.</p>
<p>Joan Crawford reteams with producer Jerry Wald of her Academy Award-winning Mildred Pierce and claims a 1947 Best Actress Oscar nomination for her portrayal of tempestuous, mentally unstable Louise. "I love you is such an inadequate way of saying I love you," Louise says, "It doesn't quite describe how much it hurts sometimes." With Crawford at her film-noir-queen best, be assured it hurts so good.</p>
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 philandering architect David Sutton (Van Heflin) slowly drives her insane, Crawford rivets our attention and received another well-deserved Academy Award nomination for her harrowing portrayal of a woman teetering on the brink of madness. With steely intensity and admirable restraint, she inhabits the troubled Louise, 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 subtlety 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 aboard 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 disturbing 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, Louise 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 flings herself at him and beseeches him to love her. Though David is fond of Louise, he doesn't share her intense feelings, telling 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 her former studio. 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 collective spines. 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.
Film noir demands a transfer that features exceptional contrast and clarity to maximize the impact of the genre's shadowy, stark technique, and Warner Archive's treatment of 'Possessed' delivers in spades. Distinguished by rich, inky black levels, a nicely varied gray scale, and enough grain to accentuate the story's grit and duplicate the texture of celluloid, the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 rendering is a noticeable step up from the 2006 DVD. Any nicks and scratches that dotted the DVD have been erased, most notably the flurry of faint circular dots that marred the image for about 90 seconds at the 48-minute mark. The murkiness that afflicted the DVD's picture is also gone, so we're able to fully appreciate the elegance of Joseph A. Valentine's cinematography. Brighter, crisper, and bolder, with less grain and more contrast, the Blu-ray presentation makes 'Possessed' come alive like never before. Shadow detail is quite good, background elements are easy to discern, and marvelous close-ups highlight both Crawford's glamour and the ravages of mental illness. Without question, this is the best 'Possessed' has ever looked on home video, and those who own the previous DVD shouldn't hesitate to upgrade to this very impressive Blu-ray edition.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track sounds pretty much the same as the lossy track on the DVD, supplying clear, serviceable sound. The audio has been nicely scrubbed, eliminating any annoying surface defects, and a broad dynamic scale handles all the highs and lows with only a few hints of distortion along the way. 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.
All the extras from the 2006 DVD have been ported over to this release.
Audio Commentary - Film historian Drew Casper sits down for a lively and captivating commentary that really gets under the movie's skin. 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.
Featurette: "'Possessed': The Quintessential Film Noir" (SD, 9 minutes) - This absorbing piece 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.
Theatrical Trailer (SD, 2 minutes) - The original preview for 'Possessed' completes the disc supplements.
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 in this tale of obsessive love, but it's Crawford who shines in an Oscar-nominated, tour de force performance that grips the viewer from start to finish. Warner Archive's Blu-ray presentation significantly improves upon the previous DVD with an upgraded video transfer that beautifully showcases the movie's noir accents, solid audio, and a nice array of extras. Forget the shoulder pads, wire hangers, and Pepsi-Cola; this is what Joan Crawford is all about. Highly recommended.