Sunday, September 22, 2002


This movie, which many think has Joan Crawford's best performance ever, is an interesting mix of noir atmosphere and old-fashioned "women's" melodrama, with a little Hollywood psychoanalysis thrown into the mix. I'm sure there's a good book out there somewhere about how and why Hollywood embraced themes of psychological distress and mental illness in the 40's. This, THE SNAKE PIT, and THE LOST WEEKEND all share certain elements, including visual style and an ambiguous attitude toward the power of medicine to explain and cure mental illness. Crawford is a nurse to the ill (physically and mentally, I assume) wife of Raymond Massey, a character whom we never actually see. Crawford's also carrying on an affair with engineer Van Heflin, who winds up working for Massey. Heflin wants to break things off with Crawford; to him, they're just having a casual fling, but he thinks she's become clingy with her talk of marriage and his rejection begins to unbalance Crawford. When Massey's wife kills herself, Massey asks Crawford to marry him, even though he knows she doesn't love him. He agrees to essentially a sexless union and they marry, though Crawford keeps one eye on Heflin. Massey's daughter, Geraldine Brooks, is slow to trust Crawford, but soon comes around. Unfortunately, she also begins dating Heflin, whose motives for the relationship may not be entirely pure (Daddy's rich). This sets the stage for Crawford's eventual full-blown fall into psychosis.

Crawford carefully walks an acting tightrope here; her character is high-strung from the start and goes certifiably mad by the end, but Crawford never goes over-the-top, tempting as that must have been, especially since she spent much of the 50's doing exactly that in her films. I'm not a big Heflin fan but he is fine here, doing a good job of keeping his character's motivations tantalizingly ambigious. In fact, none of the main characters are exactly "black or white" in terms of their actions or judgments. The relationship of Crawford and Brooks was reminiscent to me of the relationships of both Stanwyck and MacMurray to the daughter in DOUBLE INDEMNITY. The noir lighting and expressionist-style look really add to the film's atmosphere, especially in its opening and closing sequences (like INDEMNITY, it's told in a long flashback). Though this isn't quite as good as INDEMNITY or as compelling as THE SNAKE PIT, it is still very much worth seeing, and it contains maybe Crawford's last great role (?).

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