This week Warner Archive has given us the gift of Joan Crawford on Blu-ray. As a woman haunted by mental illness and consumed with toxic love for self-centered homme fatale Van Heflin, she suffers deep, chin quivering anguish as only she could.
The power of this film snuck up on me. I first watched it years ago, when the library mistakenly sent the VHS to me instead of what I had ordered, the 1931 pre-code with the same name, and starring Crawford and Clark Gable. The mistake irritated me so much that I almost didn't watch it, but Joan is Joan, so I gave it a try.
I was about halfway through the film before I realized I was no longer disappointed by the mix-up. It isn't a happy story. In fact, it is frequently devastating and even cringe-worthy, but Crawford is so mesmerizing that you stick with her. She makes you feel the torment of her demons and empathize with her pain, though she creates trouble for everyone she meets.
She is Louise Howell a registered nurse who cares for the invalid wife the wealthy Dean Graham (Raymond Massey) at their lake house. Though she is in love with engineer David Sutton (Van Heflin), who lives across the water, he has tired of the relationship. Louise can't let go though, and is crushed when he moves away.
What Louise doesn't know is that she is mentally ill, likely suffering from schizophrenia. As she has not been treated, or even diagnosed, she lives in fear and agony, unable to control her actions. Sutton compounds this problem by being monstrously insensitive to her feelings, something he claims as his right, until he realizes this woman's pain is not to be ignored.
This is one of Crawford's best performances, an accomplishment that was recognized with an Academy Award nomination. In a role filled with opportunities to go over the top she maintains a precarious balance in her portrayal of a woman who has lost control of her emotions and the actions they inspire.
While she has plenty of opportunities here to play up to her glamorous image and wear pretty clothes, Crawford is not afraid to strip herself of these trappings. The film begins with Crawford walking forlornly down a city street, face pale, no make-up, looking weary and ill. It is fascinating that this actress so dedicated to playing the role of movie star in real life was able to abandon her vanity in this way. She felt a duty to be glamorous, but wanted to give everything to her craft.
Crawford is even more mesmerizing bare-faced and almost uncomfortably intimate with the camera. In Blu-ray you catch every nuance of her character's agony. You can actually see strings of spit stretching between her lips as she lies under a white sheet in a hospital bed, struggling to speak. This from our Joan! But it is details like these that make her performance so powerful. She is heartbreaking and raw.
I was also charmed by Geraldine Brooks as Graham's grown daughter Carol. She has a lovely, casual air that made her performance feel timeless. I was disappointed to learn that she made few films and spent most of her career in television. She was married to writer Budd Schulberg (On the Waterfront) for several years before dying of a heart attack while fighting cancer in her early fifties. I'm all the more grateful that she was able to show what she could do in a strong role such as this one.
All told, this is the kind of film where you feel sorry for everyone. Sure Heflin plays a jerk, but you sense his bewilderment when he can't get Crawford to leave him alone. The rest of the characters, and especially Graham and Carol, work to manage the situation as honorably as possible. There's no real villain because Louise's illness plays that role.
When it comes to pity, Joan always wins, even if she is being insufferable. It's her desperation, the way she feels with such intensity, those enormous, suffering eyes, the pulsing slash of lips. It's all so overwhelming that she always risks make herself a joke. Sometimes she did. In this case she played it just right.
Special features include a trailer and a brief clip in which familiar Warner disc contributors, including UCLA professor Drew Casper and film noir czar Eddie Mueller, discuss Crawford and her impact on noir. Though they are short, these mini film lessons always do much to increase my understanding and enjoyment of the films.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the Blu-ray for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.