Possessed (1947): Curtis Bernhardt’s Psychological Film Noir, Starring Joan Crawford in Oscar-Nominated Performance, Raymond Massey and Van Heflin

German emigre Curtis Bernhardt directed Possessed, an uneasy combo of a psychological film noir with strong elements of a typical woman’s melodrama, elevated by Joan Crawford in her second Best Actress Oscar nomination.


Theatrical release poster

Grade: B (*** out of *****)

Van Heflin and Raymond Massey co-star in this tale of an unstable woman’s obsession with her ex-lover.

The overwrought screenplay by Ranald MacDougall (Mildred Pierce) and Silvia Richards was based upon a story by Rita Weiman.

It was one of the first American films to play in the nascent 1947 Cannes Film Festival.

When the story begins, a woman (Joan Crawford) is found wandering in the streets of Los Angeles, unable to say anything other than one word, “David.” She is apparently seeking an old lover by that name.

The tale unfolds in flashbacks when, after getting admitted to a hospital, the woman recounts chapters of her troubled life and how she has descended into obsessive madness.

She reveals herself to be Louise Howell, an emotionally unstable woman who had worked as a nurse to the invalid wife of Dean Graham (Raymond Massey) in his home.

Louise fell in love with her neighbor David Sutton (Van Heflin), an engineer, who loathes her smothering passion for him; he ends the relationship and leaves the area.

Shortly after, Graham’s wife drowns, and it’s unclear whether she committed suicide or not. Louise remains with the family as they move to Washington, D.C., to care for Graham’s children: young Wynn and college-age Carol (Geraldine Brooks).

Time passes and David re-enters the scene, having taken an engineering job with Graham. He is surprised to find Louise with the family. Still obsessed with David, Louise makes a pass at him and is rebuffed–again.

When Graham proposes to Louise, she tells him that she is not in love with him, but she accepts his offer to salvage her pride. Graham pledges to make it work in spite of that.

Carol takes a fancy to David, much to the consternation of Louise, who tries to dissuade her from establishing a bond with him.

Louise’s mind begins to decline with her obsession over David; she starts hearing voices, experiences hallucinations, and believes that her husband’s first wife is still alive.

When David and Carol consider marriage, Louise tries to end their relationship. Graham is concerned about Louise’s mental state and tries to persuade her to see a doctor.

In the climax, believing that her husband is trying to put her away, Louise bursts into David’s apartment and kills him in a schizophrenic episode.

The psychiatrist pronounces her insane and thus irresponsible for her actions. He laments that he had not seen her sooner, as he believes he could have salvaged her.

Noir with Happy Ending?

In the forced (uncompelling) ending, the psychiatrist intends to help Louise get back her sanity, knowing that the process will be long and arduous, with pain and suffering.  Graham pledges his full support, vowing to always be there for her.

To prepare for her role, Crawford spent time visiting mental wards and talking to psychiatrists, later claiming it was the most challenging part she had ever played.

During production, Bernhardt accidentally kept referring to Crawford as “Bette” as he had just finished filming A Stolen Life with her rival, Bette Davis.

Crawford tried unsuccessfully to convince Warner to change the title to The Secret since she had already starred in a film of the same title (Possessed) earlier in her career, opposite Clark Gable.

Franz Waxman atmospheric score includes a piano piece by Robert Schumann, the “Chopin” movement from the Carnaval (Schumann) Op. 9. The Schumann piece is played by David near the beginning of the movie. And it is used throughout the score to underscore Louise’s obsession with David.

Crawford’s work is strong as a frustrated woman ridden into madness by guilt-dominated mind, possessed with devils and delusions.

Telling the story from a subjective perspective of a disturbed woman, who cannot distinguish between reality and delusion, is one of the stylistic devices of film noir. In its good moments, the film has the ambience of a dream/nightmare.

But Bernhardt’s direction–relying heavily on the vocabulary of film noir–is too explicit and overwrought, which emphasizes the shortcomings in the writing.  The film veers uncomfortably between a dark psychological noir and a preposterously plotted woman’s picture.

Even so, Jerry Wald’s well-executed production serves as a star vehicle for Crawford, in her new home studio, Warner, having getting fired by Louis B. Mayer after 18 years of loyal service.

As noted, Crawford earned a Best Actress nomination in a year that was notably weak for female performances.  The winner that year was Loretta Young for the comedy, The Farmer’s Daughter.

The movie was popular with audiences, earning over $3 million at the global box office ($1,987,000 domestic and $1,085,000 foreign).

Joan Crawford as Louise Howell
Van Heflin as David Sutton
Raymond Massey as Dean Graham
Geraldine Brooks as Carol Graham
Jakob Gimpel as the concert pianist
Stanley Ridges as Dr. Willard
John Ridgely as Chief Investigator
Moroni Olsen as Dr. Ames
Erskine Sanford as Dr. Sherman


Directed by Curtis Bernhardt
Produced by Jerry Wald
Screenplay by Silvia Richards and Ranald MacDougall, based on One Man’s Secret, Rita Weiman’s 1943 novella in Cosmopolitan (magazine)

Music by Franz Waxman
Cinematography Joseph Valentine
Edited by Rudi Fehr
Distributed by Warner

Release date: July 26, 1947

Running time: 108 minutes