Possessed (1947) Blu-ray Review: At Last, Gender Equality in Film Noir!

Joan Crawford takes the wheel in a classic thriller that has received a startling new HD release from the Warner Archive.
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It's always the same. One minute, you're wandering aimlessly down the surprisingly empty streets of Los Angeles, searching for a man, mistaking every other stranger you meet for said individual, startling hard-working American folks by meandering into coffee shops and acting strange. The next minute, they're hauling your ass into the psychiatric ward. Well, maybe that's not a common occurrence for you, but I'm sure I have come closer to being in the exact same predicament Joan Crawford finds herself in at the beginning of her 1947 starring role Possessed than most other people who have would freely admit to. In fact, re-reading that last sentence, I'm overdue for a routine mental evaluation.

The same also applied to Joan Crawford's character in the film. After becoming catatonic in a cafe (note: never eat there, wherever it is), a woman is rushed to the hospital, where doctors attempt to figure out who she is and what brought her to the current unfortunate dissociative state. From there, we learn the psychotic plight of Louise Howell: a private nurse for the equally deranged crazy wife of wealthy businessman Dean Graham (the great Raymond Massey). Louise is already growing uncomfortable with her demanding, paranoid patient as it stands, but when her romantic interest - womanizing borderline alcoholic mathematician (huh?) David Sutton (Van Heflin) - decides it's all off, citing Louise's severe case of clinginess as the cause, well, the already snapped bits in her noggin then just shatter completely.

Through flashbacks, we see Crawford's character's story from her own insane point of view, experiencing her lucid moments of happiness, sudden manic bursts of unjustifiable jealousy, and even murderous hallucinations. Following the death of Mrs. Graham, her widower husband grows to be quite fond of the caretaker. But Louise simply cannot let the lingering memory of David go; a treacherous yearning that only grows once the beautiful college-aged Graham daughter Carol (Geraldine Brooks) comes to visit and tries to bring her adolescent crush on the older charming mathematician to life. Stanley Ridges is the doctor trying to piece together the mad woman's identity, John Ridgely (who was also in Arsenic and Old Lace along with Massey) is a detective who investigates Mrs. Graham mysterious death, and serial icon Tristram Coffin has a small bit as a theater goer.

While Louise's Possessed side came dangerously close to resembling several women I have dated over the years, it's still a fascinating ride all the way. But perhaps most interesting of all with this notable contribution to the film noir subgenre from Warner Bros. (one of the few - if not only - studios to cast women in the starring roles of these dark dramatic thrillers that only get better with age) is its unique casting. From the get-go, it's obvious that this is not a Warner Bros. film as much as it is a Joan Crawford film. She dominates the title (even appearing without makeup on in the beginning - something few actresses would have done in 1947), and her on-screen adopted family as much as she is notoriously (allegedly) famous for having done in real life to anyone who ever picked up a copy of Mommie Dearest.

While witnessing a noir film with a female protagonist is a refreshing change of pace from a dramatic perspective, it actually took me a while to realize that Crawford - though batshit insane through and through - is nevertheless our heroine. Like the many male performers that preceded her, her character is a heavily flawed one; dangerous and hopelessly in love with the wrong kind of sex symbol. Not only will that probably be the only time in my life I'll refer to Van Heflin as a hunk, I would also like to sheepishly confess to not realizing Van was the enemy until well after the movie was over.

Not only am I long overdue for a psychiatric evaluation, but I may have missed a few gender sensitivity classes along the way, as it has revealed a new source of light o'er the film noir canvas to me. We've always assumed the women in these films are evil simply because they don't have dangly bits; possessing much shapelier attributes that bear the road sign "Dangerous Curves Ahead". Meanwhile, those lead characters who do possess dangly bits seem to demand admiration and respect not for the terrible decisions they repeatedly make or the dangerous situations they usually gets themselves into, but solely on account of the fact that they have dangly bits. Well then, I guess it has taken me a lifetime to figure out that film noir is sexist. Who knew? (And is this case of role reversal an example of gender equality?)

Of course, that newfound revelation shall not dissuade me from continuing to dive into movies like Possessed. And the Warner Archive Collection's new High Definition Blu-ray release of this 1947 classic (interestingly enough, Crawford starred in another film of the same title in 1931) offers up a vast improvement over the old 2005 SD-DVD. This is the sort of movie wherein the employment of shadows and lighting make all the difference - so a 1080p transfer must be handled with a great deal of care. Fortunately, the care given to this Possessed Blu-ray is far greater than the any top-notch psychiatric care either Louise or myself could ever find.

Joseph A. Valentine's rich black-and-white cinematography hits paydirt here, with every single moody and subtle detail being presented admirably while never jumping off of the screen like many of today's lifeless thrillers tend to do. Accompanying the feature presentation is a DTS-HD MA 2.0 remix of the original monaural English soundtrack being offered up with nary a hiss or hitch, presenting dialogue, sound effects, and Franz Waxman's score (Possessed was one of the first films to ever use electronic vocal effects as well, I believe) as perfectly as possible. Removable English (SDH) subtitles are also available, as is an audio commentary by film historian Professor Drew Casper, featurette (which includes Casper as well as several other historians/critics), and trailer.

All three special features have been ported over from the 2005 DVD and are presented in Standard Definition. A quick look at the clips of Possessed in the featurette will give you an idea of what the movie looked like before the substantial restoration was done for this Blu-ray release - which, in case I haven't hinted at it before yet, comes highly recommended.

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