Possessed (1947)

Possessed (1947) is high period paranoid woman family mystery amnesiac film noir with complexities galore, and starring Joan Crawford, Van Heflin and Raymond Massey.

Working wonders with the flashback structure, Possessed starts in dramatic style with a woman on the wander through some vacant city streets, murmuring only the name 'David' to herself.

The opening, which punches hard upon the perennial themes of urban isolation and amnesiac or damaged individuals lost within these concreted jungle confines, opens the door to frame an entirely flashback-told story of a woman called Louise Howell, played by Joan Crawford, who is presumably the possessed character of the title.

Possessed is of course a neat film noir title. The word captures plenty that the style has to offer, from the vulnerability of the individual and their lack of control over the psychological forces that play their hands and drive them to the wild deeds they commit. 

Joan Crawford — urban alienation and psychosis in Possessed (1947)

At the same time, Possessed also captures the fatal dealings of the mind. There is no specifically spiritual or demonic element to this possession, as this is the 1940s, zooming psychiatrically towards the 1950s — and so the elements at play are purely mental.

Interestingly. when Joan Crawford's character is taken to hospital, she is deposited in a department named PSYCHOPATHY. The psychopathy department may in fact be an invention of the writers of this film, Silvia Richards and Ranald MacDougall — but if it was ever a real thing, it was short lived.

Joan Crawford in Possessed (1947)

That said, film noir psychopaths alone would have kept the psychopathy departments of American hospitals busy for the entire decade, and a delight it would have been to have seen Tommy Udo in one bed, with Bruno Anthony on the next cot.

Director Curtis Bernhardt, one of the many German emigres who fostered, created and championed what became the unique film noir style, employs many of the trademark expressive motions that made noir what it was. 

On top of this he also plays with a subjective camera style and may have indeed been the first to employ what is now as regular a dramatic trope as can be — the patient-eye-view shot from the moving gurney, as it travels through a hospital. This may well be the first use of this famous and expressive camera.

The Department for Psychopaths? Possessed (1947)

Later, there arises some even more daring camera work in the form of the handheld camera, walking through the spooky house. The use of the handheld camera is exceptionally rare for the 1940s, and so suddenly employed in this paranoiac noir that it seems a huge surprise — which it is.

Joan Crawford in Possessed (1947)

Louise's mental instability is of the purest noir character. She receives some of the earliest and finest successful psychiatric treatment in all of cinema. It has to be film noir — it's only in noir that we discover the range and effects of the new pseudo-science about to avalanche the common manetal landscape.

First of all, Louise's condition — or whatever it may be — is rather ill-defined — described at one point as schizophrenia, it is a state typical to many of the films that crossed over between the so-called woman's picture of the day, and the film noir staple which may well be called the paranoid woman picture

The paranoid woman as a concept is rather vaguely spread across the style, but retains several consistent tropes and ideas. For one, the hero of a paranoid woman film will generally be married to an older man — as Joan Crawford is married to industrialist Raymond Massey here — and always she will be ,living in a large and sprawling marital home, which will somehow dwarf and frighten her, presented as it is, as a luxurious but cold, cold prison.

Joan Crawford and Van Heflin in Possessed (1947)

Another staple of the form is also present in the form of the deceased ex-wife — and in this case, Louise starts off as the bullied and maligned nurse of this woman, who commits suicide — or is murdered? — early on in the picture.

Paranoid or truly insane, the character of Louise in Possessed remains a woman captive to male circumstances, prone and vulnerable but at least in the eyes of authority — exonerated. Possessed is a movie which features one of these closing medical explanations, which is intended to offer some empirical framing to the proceedings and explain to the lay person what is happening.

Joan Crawford and Van Heflin in Possessed (1947)

The psychiatrist in question in Possessed — perhaps he is a pscyhopathist given the name of his department — explains that Louise might have in previous or in alternative cultures have been considered to be possessed of demons. Instead however she is possessed of males. 

The rather careless and unfeeling man she loves, followed by the wealthy master whom she marries for vague reasons — in her mind it is to attract the man she really loves. Finally she is in earnest male psychiatric care — and this is where she is exonerated in a speech which includes not only the side notes on demonic possession — but in which she is declared to be 'neither mentally nor morally responsible for any of her actions' — which have included murder.

Joan Crawford in Possessed (1947)

Possessed concludes as morally as it can, a necessity in the film noir paradigm. Louise is barely a woman — barely a person —  a catatonic item that is capable of nothing, not even moving. This is the person who is neither mentally nor morally responsible, hardly a person at all, a woman reduced to a vacant frame — a noir anatomy from the void, an embodiment of female morality that is only capable of lying on a bed and staring at a roof.

If this is film noir's take on the woman's picture, the fears that any woman could face are stretched to such regimes of misery that she is bound to want to place herself in the responsible care of a coterie of professional males. She is not to be trusted, and can't even love without this backfiring into a bullying kind of rejection.

Possessed presents a woman who at the first appears treated rather poorly by the man she loves, played by Van Heflin. His lack of commitment and issues around this are deflected hard upon Louise (Joan Crawford) whose problem this becomes. Their romantic opening scenes are painful for Van Heflin's lack of care, and general selfish attitude, and for the weight of the responsibility for his failures falling squarely on to the woman's shoulders.

The wealthy industrialist she runs to should probably merit some sympathy too, as Louise does not love nor particularly trust him. Despite the inherent obvious problems of a man marrying the nurse of his recently suicided wife, the industrialist played by William Powell does seem to love Louise, and want to offer her what she needs.

But he cannot, and this is her fault too — her madness — her mania — perhaps her inability to become the possession of such a person, and all the loss of individuality that might entail.

In terms of classic film noir, there is a strong attachment to psychiatry and idea of mental illness which most especially in the 1940s, uses the fantastic and depth plunging human details of the style to explore the fact that even without proof, that mental illness is something that is real and to be contended with.

Raymond Massey in Possessed (1947)

Many people have been under the care of psychiatrists and generally the outcomes have not been good, despite what the film noir titles offer. The brain damaging effects of many drugs used to treat such ailments have become increasingly clear over the decades, and while wild theories abound so do diagnoses and treatments, although the 1940s was not an era of psychotropic drugs and was more a time when brain surgery and electric shock treatment, incarceration and talking cures we used — and of course the only one of these that actually works, is the latter, the therapeutic talking treatment, compassionately delivered.

According to film noir then psychiatry is a pseudoscience, as opposed to a hard science which can be employed with accuracy. Psychiatric illnesses are not only impossible to define in simple terms, but they are not empirically testable and falsifiable. Strangest of all, the more that such illnesses are defined and treated, the more prevalent they become. Bio-psychiatry does not qualify as a science on any account, and yet the real traumas of the returning veterans, and the real traumas of women trapped in increasingly difficult social roles, did seem to demand some kind of medical action.

There may even be a civil rights issue around involuntary confinement which is a common theme in the noir psychiatric canon — and an issue in Possessed (1947). Attendant to this same issue is the fact of enforced medical treatment, and both continue to be common — despite finding their merry origins in the film noir stories of the 1940s, in an age of innocence, in which psychiatry was much closer to the fantasy it truly represents. 

Geraldine Brooks in Possessed (1947)

In 1963, the Community Mental Health Centers Act created government funded academic community mental health centres across the US, and in 1965 reimbursement by medical insurance policies began paying a huge amount more money into psychiatry.

In the 1970s the psychiatric lobby was so powerful in the States that it was able to demand medical insurance polices must be obliged to pay for psychiatric coverage — something not driven by the market or by demand, but by an industry keen to grow on the back of mandatory government enforced psychiatric cover. 

Joan Crawford and Van Heflin in Possessed (1947)

By the 1980s mandated mental health coverage laws were included in all policies and in most states, and in fact between 1984 and 1988 the number of psychiatric institutions — like the Department of Psychopathy in Possessed (1947) — had doubled. And when insurance began to pay, people began to be hospitalised at a massively increased rate. 

The bare fact that is in inflationary adjusted dollars, between 1955 and 1977, the amount spent on psychiatric treatment of mental illnesses jumped from $1.2 billion to about $20 billion — all of which stemmed from a pathway primed with film noir tales from the 1940s. Similarly Foster Higgins an insurance benefits consulting firm found that mental health costs for the average US company doubled between 1987 and 1991 — figures that are rising all the time.

Joan Crawford in Possessed (1947)

Of course, before the mandate on mental health cover, those who felt it was worth the cost could have paid a premium to purchase this — but before the 1970s, this was not considered by most to be worthwhile. The final tragedy is the model of today, which has been the same since the late 1980s — that medical practitioners find it much more profitable to spend 15 minutes with a patient and prescribe some medication, than spend an hour compassionately researching the issues and healing in that fashion.

If the 1940s offers anything via the medium of noir, it is the observable first few steps in this direction, as the various pseudo diagnostic aspects of psychiatry are delivered inevitable by earnest men with pipes, who are not to be disagreed with. The authoritative pipe is more important than you may think, as it stands for a kind of permission and prerogative, a way of enforcing an argument that is in fact in this case — a speculation. 

Joan Crawford — paranoid woman? Possessed (1947)

The money flow today is much starker than the footering about of psychological ham in film noir. Today the government obliges people to pay for mental health coverage, which in turn bolsters an industry which creates quite dangerous pills from a profitable pharmaceutical industry, which in turn funds, research, psychiatric journals, and even the American Psychiatric Association itself — as opposed to talking cures which help people focus on their lives and explore their thinking.

In its nascent form, and brought to life through film noir, psychiatry and the subsequent pharmaceutical industry were in the 1940s, simply fantasies. Many of these were to become realties, and there are more than a few film noirs — including Possessed (1947) — which mention but do not discuss schizophrenia — an illness that even far into the 21st Century, does not have a stable method of diagnoses, does not have a clear and regular definition, and does not even have any explanation as to cause. 

Hallucination and fantasy of murder in Possessed (1947)

The catatonic woman of film noir is a figure of high fantasy — switched off from reality and traumatised into medical conditions that are more than a little out of date — these are conditions simply created to match the behaviours of the patient. 

In contrast to this, Joan Crawford plays a huge amount of different personalities here, being enthusiastically and passionately in love and then then depressed — as innocent as she is scheming — as wicked as she is sweet and as violent as she is vulnerable.

Geraldine Brooks and Van Heflin in Possessed (1947)

Her worst moment in this voyage is a staircase murder fantasy, which seems in the context of Joan Crawford's acting, eminently believable. It's believable because all this scene does is show us what she wants — it articulates the depth of doubt which she has reached, mad with jealousy and trapped in a loveless marriage by her own bad decision making. The fantasy is as real as it gets in film noir — Joan Crawford's staircase killer moment is perfectly expressive of her mind and figures so real in her imagination that it is enough to hospitalise her.

It's a towering show of emotion and angst — and certainly classic film noir. 

Joan Crawford and Van Heflin in Possessed (1947)

She is seemingly normal but as we find out, all of this adds up to a solid mental case, and although the film is framed by the mental health processes of the day, as rough and wild as they are fantastic, the story of the woman who is the focus of this is one of passion and jealousy, poor decision making and at the end of the day — love for the wrong man.

All of which adds up to mental health — 1940s style. 

Does Van Heflin's character have it coming? This is a fascinating question. Normally in noir, one must kill to be killed, or otherwise be an innocent victim. Van Heflin's character is arrogant, perhaps, and self-centred, but these are not usually triggers for murder.

What we must accept also is that everybody else in this movie, no matter what their faults, are in fact sane and healthy as opposed to the protagonist, whom we are supposed to accept is anti-social, and irresponsibly insane. 

Possessed (1947) at Wikipedia

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