Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.
USA, 1941. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Screenplay by Donald Ogden Stewart, Elliot Paul, based on the play by Francis de Croisset. Cinematography by Robert H. Planck. Produced by Victor Saville. Music by Bronislau Kaper. Production Design by Cedric Gibbons. Costume Design by Adrian. Film Editing by Frank Sullivan.
Joan Crawford gives one of her most emotionally affecting performances in this excellent remake of the 1938 Ingrid Bergman film made in Sweden three years earlier. A court case has Crawford on the stand investigating her for murder and the witnesses come in, one after the other, giving testimony that flashes us back to her deeply disturbing past. She is a woman whose face was badly scarred in a fire as a child and spends her adult life in the shadows, taking revenge out on humanity by partaking in blackmailing schemes with a band of fellow thieves. When one of her victims turns out to be the wife of a talented plastic surgeon (Melvyn Douglas), he performs an operation on her that restores her to perfect beauty and her outlook on life changes, though her life hasn’t. She’s still paired with the shady Conrad Veidt, who wants to use her new face to his advantage by getting her to take the job of governess to his four year old nephew, a child who stands between him and the inheritance of his uncle’s vast fortune. Crawford goes and lives at the old man’s country estate and takes care of the child, but soon finds herself at a challenging spiritual crossroads: can she escape her past, or is the scarring still there on the inside even if no one can see it on her face. Issues of image and character and the idea of people becoming how they are treated are folded intelligently into the dramatic structure of a compelling and entertaining film, one that provides the thrill of a breathtaking chase in its climax but also forces you to think about its deeper themes. It helps that Crawford gives the character a convincing sense of moral exhaustion, she plays with a resonance unlike her fiery melodramatic roles and is thoroughly convincing as someone who has been worn down so much by people’s rude stares and intimate questions that she has no spirit left in her except weary hatred (Cukor’s trick, it is said, was to get her to recite multiplication tables until she was worn out before turning the cameras on). This is the director and his star working at the top of their games, with supporting characters Bassermann, Veidt, Douglas, Marjorie Main and Connie Gilchrist delivering superb performances in support.