Like so many films noir, Possessed begins after most things have happened then backtracks to find out how we got there. A surprisingly unglamorous and decidedly untethered Joan Crawford wanders down the empty roads of early morning Los Angeles. When a tram driver stops to let her on, she can only ask for David. She’s eventually picked up and taken to a hospital where a kindly doctor recognises that her catatonic state is due to trauma and works to unlock the story from her shattered mind.
Eventually we make it back to a house by a lake and Van Heflin. It is my own shortcoming that I can never take him seriously because I always hear Jasper from the Simpsons demanding that a barber, ‘Gimme a Van Helfin.’ Fortunately he’s not particularly sympathetic here. The script by by Ranald MacDougall and Silvia Richards, based upon a story by Rita Weiman gives him a few terrific lines like ‘My liver rushes in where angels fear to tread’ and the telling ‘‘If you don’t leave me alone I’ll wind up kicking babies.’
The basic plot line is full of fun twists: Crawford’s Louise in love with Van Helfin’s David but he’s bored with her. She is a nurse to a wealthy woman with paranoid fantasies who commits suicide—or does she? Her husband, Raymond Massey, falls for the nurse, but his college co-ed daughter, Geraldine Brooks, believes her mother’s accusation that the nurse bumped her off to get with her father, and storms off back to campus. At the wedding she meets David and he cheers her right up. But has Louise only married Massey to try to make David jealous?
It’s almost as if caring for the mentally unstable woman unlocks Louise’s own mental breakdown. The film tries to foster a positive attitude toward mental health, with the doctor’s sympathy and criticism of the word ‘insane.’ When a worried Louise visits a physician to see if there’s really something wrong with her, he’s at pains to say that addressing these problems will head off a worse situation—the very one she fears.
However, Louise allows fear to take the reins and there’s some really effective scenes where what is real and what is imagined is hard for the viewer to determine. A terrific sequence focuses on the sounds around her as a part of the unsettling pathology, from the ticking of the clock to the pattering of the rain. The Franz Waxman soundtrack is quiet effective too, much of it resting on a repeated use of Schumann’s Carnaval. When violence erupts we’re never sure if it’s real or not, but it has a surprisingly brutal impact.
Crawford won a lot of (sometimes grudging) praise for this role. She manages to make poor Louise both sympathetic and dangerous. Well worth a watch.