DIRECTED BY: George Cukor
FEATURING: Joan Crawford, Melvyn Douglas, Conrad Veidt, Osa Massen
PLOT: Anna Holm stands accused of murder; during the course of her trial, the court learns of her unhappy past as a woman with a hideous facial scar that has led her into committing crimes against the populace that scorns her.
COMMENTS: Anyone who thinks of Joan Crawford today is inclined to view her as a monster. A series of unfortunate films that concluded her career, including as Strait-Jacket, Berserk and Trog, could be to blame. It might be because of her role in the American Guignol What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and her rivalry with Bette Davis, mythologized in “Feud: Bette and Joan.” But let’s not kid ourselves. It’s mostly Mommie Dearest. Daughter Christina’s nightmare account of her upbringing and Faye Dunaway’s subsequent portrayal of Crawford as a legendarily campy villain cemented her reputation as an icy devil with the veneer of Disney’s Evil Queen.
This makes watching A Woman’s Face a peculiar proposition, because it acts as a kind of retroactive rebuttal to all the gossip and the negative imagery. Crawford’s put-upon heroine knows what you think of her (one poster for the film blares, “They called her a scarfaced she-devil!”), and she would only be too happy to play the part, if only her soul wasn’t so pure and broken.
A Woman’s Face (based on a Swedish film starring Ingrid Bergman, which itself was adapted from a French play) is at its core an examination of what makes someone do bad things. This film’s argument is that Anna isn’t bad, she’s just drawn that way. Her disfigurement at a young age has provided her with a life of rejection and derision, and she instinctively responds in kind. It’s no wonder that she immediately melts for Veidt simply for doing her the courtesy of not recoiling at the sight of her. And most of the people we meet early on seem to deserve her scorn, particularly the duplicitous Massen, upon whom Crawford vents her anger in a thrilling display of violence.
Unfortunately, this premise means that, once Crawford’s visage is restored thanks to Douglas’ ministrations, the machinations required to push her into a far more reprehensible crime feel extremely forced. Crawford’s heart is never really in the murderous scheme pressed upon her, especially after she meets the precocious moppet who is to be her victim. (It’s a genuinely heartbreaking moment when the kid displays a typical example of youthful insensitivity, and she reaches instinctively to cover her repaired face.) Veidt, meanwhile, is entertainingly evil but not actually that persuasive, an issue director Cukor would resolve more effectively four years later in Gaslight. So you just have to take it on faith that she might do this awful deed, even though there’s nothing to outwardly indicate this. Further examples of the film not playing fair with the audience: witnesses are interrogated in an order designed for maximum delay and misdirection (in what universe does the defendant take the stand in the middle of the trial?), and a decisive piece of evidence is withheld until late in the third act and further hidden from the film’s characters until the closing minutes.
A lot of this is silly carping on my part, because this is classic melodrama, pure and simple. The Phantom of the Opera-esque scar lends a veneer of strangeness to the formula (as does an amusingly odd Swedish folk dance that takes up a surprising amount of screen time), but the real centerpiece is Crawford deftly playing to both extremes of her reputation. Perhaps only she would be strong enough to wield a gun in the film’s climax while also weak enough to lash out at the perceived manipulations of everyone around her. Joan Crawford knows you think she’s a monster, and she’s not ashamed to shed a tear over it, either.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“A Woman’s Face is magnificently daft, but the gorgeously photographed Crawford’s intense, persuasive star turn and Cukor’s attentive, crafted film-making work make it compelling.” – Derek Winnert, derekwinnert.com
OTHER LINK OF INTEREST:
Six Degrees of Joan Crawford – Karina Longworth’s deservedly acclaimed Hollywood history podcast You Must Remember This devoted a sextet of episodes to Crawford’s career and her position as “the quintessential female star of the 20th century.”
(This movie was nominated for review by s, who calls it “pretty startling for a 1940’s ‘women’s picture’” and says “(t)he third act is a real stunner.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)