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Noir-vember 2013: A Woman’s Face

Posted by martinteller on November 5, 2013

“I have played the charming, good-natured fellow, the amiable fool, because I was waiting. I was waiting to find someone like you, who had also been cheated. Yes, Anna, God cheated you when He gave you that scar. He cheated me when that little boy was born to take away from me what was mine by right, because, Anna… Anna, I can use this power. What others have done in other countries, I can do here. Because, Anna, the world belongs to the devil… and I know how to serve him if I can only get the power.”

Anna Holm (Joan Crawford) suffered a childhood injury that left a disfiguring scar on the right side of her face.  Unable to live life as a normal woman, she has grown into a bitter and cynical adult.  She takes up blackmail as a vocation, with her sinister new partner, the mysterious and dangerous Torsten Barring (Conrad Veidt).  While putting the squeeze on one of her marks, the cheating Vera (Osa Massen), she encounters her husband, Dr. Gustaf Segert (Melvyn Douglas).  Dr. Segert, unaware that Anna is there for the purpose of procuring funds for his wife’s love letters, takes an interest in her scar and offers to heal it.  Despite her new face and lease on life, Anna succumbs to Torsten Barring once again, and now she stands on trial for murder.

With my movie-watching diminished in recent months, I’m off to a slow start for Noir-vember this year.  And that makes it extra disappointing to sit through one that isn’t really noir at all.  Now I can’t reasonably blame the film for appearing on a list of films belonging to a genre, especially a genre that didn’t even exist as a concept at the time (and 1941 is right at the beginning of the noir cycle anyway) but I couldn’t help wishing for a little more edge.  The Veidt character is nasty enough to fit the bill, but Crawford’s arc is really the opposite of noir.  She starts out low and finds redemption, crawling out of the depths rather than descending into them.  There are a few compelling shadowy shots, but overall the movie has too much MGM sheen on it to capture the noir aesthetic.  And the dialogue isn’t that sharp.

And noir or not, the film seems to limp along, full of plot but empty of content.  Except for a couple of tense scenes, there are few thrills to be found, and the melodrama never really catches fire.  It’s almost sad to watch Anna Holm become so wholesome and conventional… and it makes a sad commentary on how a woman’s looks shape her character.  While the attraction between Holm and Barring is intriguingly dangerous, the developing romance with Segert is stiff and lifeless.

I don’t mean to make this out as a terrible film, it’s just something of a bland, toothless dud.  Crawford is in decent form (though Veidt steals the scene at every opportunity), but her talents are showcased much better in Sudden Fear, Mildred Pierce and Female on the Beach.  George Cukor’s craftsmanship is often exquisite, but the script fails to excite.  The commentary on the growing troubles in Europe is not with eloquence, but also feels tacked on at the last minute, an afterthought.

Trivial sidenote: this is a remake of a 1938 film starring Ingrid Bergman, and a few years later Cukor would remake Gaslight and would cast… Ingrid Bergman.  Rating: Fair (68)

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