A Woman's Face (1941)

A Woman's Face (1941) is a fantastical hard-luck-lady flashback courtroom film noir blackmail tale of gender expectation, bitterness and plastic surgery.

One of several plastic surgery miracle movies made in the era, it seemed like the trope and myth of the plastic surgeon and face exchange being ideal narrative material on the big screen.

Most meaningfully and in the terms of the noir universe these are Dark Passage (1947), Black Dragons (1942), Nora Prentiss (1947), Stolen Face (1952), G-Men Never Forget (1948), Dead End (1937), The Second Face (1950), It Happened in Hollywood (1935), and then She Demons (1958) a strangely far out genre find, Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), and with The Raven (1935), that might be enough for now, although others will materialise, that is certain.

Other examples of the film noir and horror capacity for the face change script will as noted materialise, but implications remain outstanding. It is in 1960 that along with Psycho we first see also the horror noir thriller Les Yeux Sans Visage

Multiple hands swearing in in courtroom noir A Woman's Face (1941)

Meanwhile, we are early in the cycle and midway through the supernatural awakening of the early 1940s when films began to expand in their fantastical and often scientific scope. Aliens had not yet landed, yet in 1941, the esteemed director George Cukor presented to the world this great idea, the wicked and the moral, the transformative and the almost medieval trope that to be ugly means to be bad.

Grove phantassie in film noir A Woman's Face (1941)

A Woman’s Face is a drama film noir of decent depth and decent intrigue. The illustrious Joan Crawford, alongside the distinguished Melvyn Douglas and the formidable Conrad Veidt, graced the screen with their presence. The narrative unfolds the poignant tale of Anna Holm, a woman whose visage bears the scars of disfigurement, leading her down a path of blackmail and disdain for all she encounters. Yet, fate intervenes through the skilled hands of a plastic surgeon, who restores her appearance, leaving Anna at a crossroads between the promise of a new beginning and the shadows of her nefarious past.

Joan Crawford in A Woman's Face (1941)

The film’s structure is masterfully crafted, with much of the story revealed through the recollections of witnesses in a courtroom, each testimony adding layers to the intricate tapestry of Anna’s life. The screenplay, penned by the talented Donald Ogden Stewart and Elliot Paul, draws inspiration from the play Il était une fois… by Francis de Croisset. It is noteworthy that this compelling story had previously been brought to life in a 1938 Swedish production, En kvinnas ansikte, featuring the legendary Ingrid Bergman.

The pinnacle of her illustrious career at Warner Brothers was undoubtedly her portrayal of the titular character in Mildred Pierce (1945), an adaptation of James M. Cain’s novel. In this film, she masterfully depicted a housewife ensnared in a web of murder accusations, orchestrated by her manipulative daughter. This unique blend of women’s film elements and the dark, shadowy aesthetics of noir earned Crawford the Academy Award for Best Actress, presenting her to audiences in an entirely new light.

Crawford, ever astute, recognized the niche she had carved for herself. In her late 30s, she embraced her mature womanhood rather than clinging to her past personas. With her broad shoulders accentuated by padding, her prettiness sharpened by thick brows and a formidable pout, Crawford exuded a tough beauty in the postwar years.

Anecdotal dissolve to Universal Restaurant Enterprises in A Woman's Face (1941)

Because o' her star power and big part in these films, she go beyond normal ‘femme fatale’ of noir – she got motivations and details not often given to other slinky dames.

In classic Hollywood movies physical disabilities and deformities equal a bad person. It's a terrible stereotype that is present in this movie. Joan Crawford grows up mean and cynical feeling ugly and unlovable after her drunken father burned himself to death and scarred up the right side of her face when she was a child. 

Osa Massen in A Woman's Face (1941)

She runs a gang of blackmailers until one night when she is blackmailing the wife of a plastic surgeon, he discovers her scars, takes her away for 6 months and 12 operations, until her face is beautiful and she ultimately finds love and happiness as a good looking unscarred person.

In The Damned Don’t Cry, Joan is very bad gun moll – kind of like Virginia Hill, Bugsy Siegel’s partner-in-crime. But she start the film as sad housewife whose kid die in accident, making her turn to crime. Bad copies of these roles show up again in Crawford’s career, like in The Woman Is Dangerous, which she later say was worst film she ever in.

But in 1952 – same year as that big failure – RKO project Sudden Fear come out. Crawford act scared and worried as woman who her own husband (Jack Palance) try to kill, and the result is scary, suspenseful film, full of shadows and suspect motives. She keep doing these roles with some success for years, with highlights like her role as bad southern matriarch in Queen Bee (1955).

Each of these films important in Crawford’s career – after her top MGM days but before she become self-parody, she seem very comfortable in smoky back-rooms of film noir. Or in this case the lightning dark and cold of the Swedish snowscapes of horse drawn sleighs and whip crack mania.

This toughness would later be exaggerated as she aged and took on more villainous roles. However, at this juncture, balanced between alluring sensuality and stern severity, she excelled in portraying ambivalent, independent women with a world-weary sensibility. 

This period marked the zenith of her career, a sweet spot she would inhabit for many years to come.

The film’s legacy extends beyond the silver screen, as its advertising was immortalized in a photograph by the renowned Robert Frank. An image of Crawford from this campaign found a second life as part of the album artwork for The Rolling Stones’ iconic 1972 album, Exile on Main St. 

Conrad Veidt in A Woman's Face (1941)

It worth to think about Hollywood in the 40’s that made the fatalism and sadness known with the noir era. During the crazy time before, during, and after the 2nd World War, the industry was changing fast.

With the danger of Fascism in Europe, Hollywood got many talented filmmakers like Robert Siodmak, Billy Wilder, Michael Curtiz, and Fritz Lang who moved there in big numbers.

A Woman’s Face is by your standards, and by your standards I mean now 100 years of mass media managed at a consumption rate of centuries per year, it is by these standards, 2025, 2030, and on, silly, but the pretty pictures of Crawford’s strong, convincing acting and Cukor’s careful, well-made film-making make it interesting. To those who seek the noir.

There is a sharp, exciting noir as 41 script by Donald Ogden Stewart, with the story told in flashback by people at the Crawford character’s murder trial.

Veidt is a good bad guy, a good bad good bad bad guy, and the MGM cast, especially Osa Massen (as Vera Segert), Reginald Owen (as Bernard Dalvik) and Albert Basserman (as Consul Magnus Barring), are production perfect. It is set in Sweden, like the original stage play.

The play Il Etait une Fois by Francis de Croisset, which it is based on. Just a bit of a sentence there, not much more. Christopher Isherwood and Elliot Paul helped with the screenplay, but only Donald Ogden Stewart is credited.

They brought their movie styles from home; like the special contrasts and shadows of German Expressionism – like the strange compositions and low-key lighting seen in noir. During the war, many women started working.

In the 1930s, art and confidence were closely entwined. Reflecting on the Depression decade in 1939, Malcolm Cowley, writing for Harper’s, lamented that for the American art community, the 1930s concluded with a sense of defeat and disillusionment, when [artists] saw the world falling into the hands of their other enemies, the generals and power politicians. 

Snow-powered mini scenery in A Woman's Face (1941)

The combination of the Depression and the rise of fascism provoked significant shifts in the art community. Ezra Pound responded to the convulsions of suffering democratic countries by aligning with the fascists. 

Tyrus Miller describes Henry Miller in the late 1930s as one of the many writers of late modernism who had become bereft of… any calling in which they might believe. Miller explains that modernist fiction … is predominantly epistemological: it seeks, despite the confusing webs … to disclose a coherent knowable world. In the late 1930s, modernist poetics begins to hemorrhage, to leak away. This occurs because of a failure of faith, and modernism’s desire to restore significance to a broken world [is] abandoned.

When one recognizes the stakes in Frederic Jameson’s description of film noir, which materialized near the end of the 1930s as a modernist art form, one begins to see the implications of the modernist phenomenon Tyrus Miller describes and how they illuminate the genesis of film noir, especially considering the phenomenon of the emergence of noir coinciding with a modernist crisis of confidence. 

Sleighin' it in A Woman's Face (1941)

Jameson discusses one of the central characteristics of both literary and cinematic noir when he addresses the issue of uncertainty in Raymond Chandler’s work: Inveterate readers of Chandler know that it is no longer for the solution to the mystery that they reread him, if indeed the solutions ever solved anything in the first place. His remark captures the loss of certitude that is at the heart of noir. 

He illustrates his point about uncertainty by describing an argument John Huston and Humphrey Bogart had one night over The Big Sleep. To settle things, they finally phone Chandler himself, with the result that he can’t remember. The problem of failed certainty, of not being able to disclose a coherent knowable world, and the anxiety that attends the problem, serves as a defining noir element.

The issue of when noir emerges on film is complicated by one of its oddities, its roots in the German Expressionist period, the high period of which ran from roughly 1919 into the early years of the international Depression (ending with the ascent of Hitler in 1933). 

Joan Crawford sleigh mania in A Woman's Face (1941)

This was an extremely anxious period for the Weimar Republic, marked by runaway inflation, street warfare, depression, and, eventually, the impending threat of Nazism. American film noir shares with German Expressionism its emphasis on subjective psychological states and its paranoia over authority as corrupt as the criminal world. Two of the most important Expressionist films, Caligari and Mabuse, illustrate both of these points. In both films, a psychiatrist may or may not be the villain.

So, when the men came back after the war, they brought new bad feelings towards family, lost hopes of the American dream, and a broken idea of national unity. The post-war view was very sad.

A Woman's Face (1941)

Directed by George Cukor

Genres - Crime, Drama, Thriller  |   Sub-Genres - Film Noir  |   Release Date - May 9, 1941  |   Run Time - 106 min. | On Wikipedia

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