Saturday, August 30, 2014

Stalkers: Possessed (1947) and The Prowler (1951)

a demon of the mind
Joan Crawford in Possessed

Joan Crawford was riding high in 1947 when she starred in Possessed, coming off an Oscar win for the classic crime drama, adapted from the James M. Cain novel, Mildred Pierce in 1945 and another great performance in Humoresque (with John Garfield) in 1946. Though unjustly snubbed by the Academy for Humoresque, Crawford for her role in Possessed received her second of three Oscar nominations.

Crawford's role in Possessed often is compared to that of Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction (1987). One can see why, even though ultimately I think this comparison is unfair to Possessed, a more serious--and dare I say less trashy and exploitative--film.

In Possessed Crawford plays Louise Howell, a personal nurse for the neurotic wife of wealthy businessman Dean Graham (Raymond Massey). Early in the film we see Louise getting dumped by the local man with whom she had been having a covert sexual fling, a sardonic construction engineer named David Sutton (Van Heflin). Louise immediately goes all "Fatal Attraction" on David, telling him she won't let him go.  David, no fool he, gets the hell out of Dodge, taking a job in Canada with one of Dean's companies.

she won't be ignored....
a distraught Louise (Crawford) gets the old
heave-ho from an indifferent David (Heflin)
Meanwhile, Dean's wife, for whom Louise had been professionally caring, is found drowned in the local lake, and her death is ruled a suicide. Louise eventually marries Dean, becoming a rich man's wife, but she is still obsessed with David, the man who scorned her.

When David returns and Dean's attractive, college-age daughter, Carol (Geraldine Brooks), becomes smitten with him, Louise is not pleased, not pleased at all....

As stated above, one can see similarity in all this to Fatal Attraction, but Possessed is not so tawdry a film.  It opens with a dazed Louise wandering the streets of a city in the early hours, accosting men, calling them by the name "David."  She is quickly taken to a hospital and is soon undergoing psychiatric treatment from an earnest doctor who periodically gives sermonettes on What Psychiatry Can Do For You.

We are soon launched on that favored forties film noir narrative device, the flashback (Possessed made Crawford's third film in a row where this device was used), where we learn just how Louise went off the deep end.  I commend this film for not turning its mentally disturbed female lead into an over-the-top movie monster, as I feel Fatal Attraction did with Glenn Close, but nevertheless I have to admit--maybe I'm just hard to please--that I found Possessed a bit dull.  There are several evocatively filmed, eerie sequences, but overall the affair seemed flat to me.

I found it hard to feel much sympathy for Louise after she has married Dean, who, as portrayed by a quite distinguished-looking Raymond Massey, is a veritable saint on earth--and rolling in dough to boot! In the cinematic world, most humbly circumstanced women marrying rich "old" men--Massey was merely eight years older than Crawford, who herself was six years older than Heflin--should do so well!


The talented Van Heflin took a lead role in the 1951 noir thriller The Prowler, a superlative film that I enjoyed hugely.  It's often compared to another classic forties crime film adapted from a James M. Cain novel, Double Indemnity (1944), but I was more reminded of yet another Cain crime novel/film, The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). Personally I liked The Prowler quite a bit better than the forties film version of Postman.

just checking things out, ma'am
Evelyn Keyes, Van Heflin, John Maxwell
In the film Van Heflin plays Webb Garwood, a disgruntled cop, and the late Evelyn Keyes (a fine actress who deserves greater fame) plays Susan Gilvray, a dissatisfied wife.

In the early morning hours Webb and his ingenuous partner, "Bud" Crocker (John Maxwell), are sent to Susan's big southern California Spanish mission-style house after she reports having seen a man peeping at her through a bathroom window.

Webb is instantly smitten with Susan (and her house) and he visits her again, without his partner, a few hours later--just to check up on things, you know. He learns that Susan's radio personality husband is absent at nights, and that she gets very lonely in the big house.

Webb and Susan find they are both from the same part of Indiana, and that she used to see Webb when he played basketball for a rival high school (Susan lived in a much wealthier neighborhood). Both Webb and Susan are unhappy with their respective lots in life; Webb feels he lost his chance at college and big success when after one game he was kicked off the basketball team for insubordination (a poor boy, he was in college on an athletic scholarship), while Susan's marriage is literally sterile, her older husband not having been able to provide her with the children she had so desired.

Webb Garwood on the prowl....
Soon Webb is putting the move on Susan, her appeal to him only having been enhanced when he discovered that she stands to inherit a tidy sum upon the death of her husband, an amount that would allow him to buy a Nevada hotel and live the good life with Susan while other people do the hard work....

Directed by Joseph Losey and scripted by Dalton Trumbo, highly talented leftists blacklisted in the 1950s, The Prowler is an excellent film with a bigger message about the potential corrosiveness of the celebrated American dream. Clearly the film aims to indict the "success at all costs" ethos that an aggressive, amoral individualist like Van Heflin's Webb Garwood represents.

Yet the film also can be enjoyed tremendously simply as a splendid exercise in the art of noir cinema. There are numerous brilliant touches, such as the use of Susan's radio announcer husband's disembodied voice as a sort of herald of doom and judgment ("I'll be seeing you, Susan," is his closing radio tag line).

The final third of The Prowler has one of the greatest film noir situations and settings I have ever seen, reminding me not just of crime drama but William Faulkner's doom-laden tale The Wild Palms (1939); and the highly symbolic ending is unforgettable.  This is a great gritty crime movie, film noir at its best, and the performances by Heflin and Keyes are mesmerizing. Better yet, the film is available on DVD in a wonderfully restored edition, with nifty special features, including discussion of the film with James Ellroy.

This one is a real winner that you should not miss seeing.


  1. What a fantastic Heflin double bill (well, triple if you include BLACK WIDOW of course), here seen very much as a feeble man hopelessly in thrall to his moral laxity. I always thought he got a bit of a raw deal in POSSESSED, with la Crawford gettign off comparatively easy purely by dint of star power as his character definitely doesn't deserve what happens to him - and there is that fantastic point of view shot that I remember being really impressed by. I have been meaning to write about THE PROWLER for ages as it is such an amazing film - thanks Curt really enjoyed these reviews.

    1. The point of view shot with Crawford and Heflin was one of the parts I liked in the film, definitely. Heflin's reaction was memorable. It's frustrating being limited by spoilers going into more detail! I thought the opening, with Joan wandering the streets in a daze (and in black) was good too.

      The film made David into something of a jerk, I suppose, but I still found him much more sympathetic than Michael Douglas' character in Fatal Attraction! It was hard for me to identify with Louise after she married Dean, as I said, because she really had a good life at that point, but I know she's supposed to be going crackers.

  2. Thanks for a pair of fine reviews. My re-watching of Black Widow has reminded me how much I enjoy Heflin's acting; I may dig out Possessed for another look; I don't remember the dull bits you mention! The Prowler is, as you say, a cracker of a movie.

    1. Yeah, I have to admit I was somewhat disappointed with Possessed, but then tastes vary!

    2. Watched that last sequence in Prowler with Heflin and he really is extraordinary. Amazing gamut of emotions. I often read people saying of noir novels, oh, you *really* identify with X, the psycho serial killer and, without trying to be priggish, really, I'm like, oh really? you may have, but I didn't! I don't believe I've found a Jim Thompson "anti-hero" sympathetic.

      But I actually found myself feeling sorry for Heflin's character on some level. I suppose they did give him some slivers of redeeming qualities. In a way, his human qualities were what brought him down in the end.

  3. I saw THE PROWLER a couple of years ago and wrote it up on my blog. I think it's the ultimate noir film. It outdoes all the "classic" noirs and tells an unusual story shirking nearly all the tropes of most noir films in the process. I talked to Megan Abbott about it at Bouchercon in St Louis. We both gushed over it.

    1. I'll have to check out your review. I really enjoyed it tremendously. I looked up the best actor Oscar nominees for 1951 films, and I have to admit it's a group of strong actors (Humphrey Bogart, African Queen, Marlon Brando, Streetcar Named Desire, Montgomery Clift, A Place in the Sun, Arthur Kennedy, Bright Victory, Fredric March, Death of a Salesman), but I think Helin was certainly worthy of a nomination. So was Keyes for actress. I'm surprised this doesn't show up more on "classic" noir lists. I was surprised how bold the script was in some ways (didn't want to include too many spoilers!).

    2. John, just read your piece from over three years ago, thanks. I corrected above about Hugo Butler; I hadn't realized Dalton Trumbo only gave credit to him because of the blacklisting (imdb lists them as co-scripters). I have yet to listen to the commentaries and interviews, but definitely will, they look great.

  4. Sounds like a great viewing evening. I love Joan Crawford, she is always herself - that top picture is a generic JC look...

    1. I especially like her performance in Humoresque. Sadly I can't review it here, because it's simply not a crime film, darn it! Her third Oscar nomination, for Sudden Fear, was for a role in another crime film, however.