The movie’s faux Scandinavian backdrop can be traced back to its origins in an early vehicle for Ingrid Bergman back in her native Sweden that was released in 1938. Since I haven’t seen the original, I cannot attest to Bergman, but she doesn’t immediately spring to mind in a role that calls for some amount of moral ambiguity — at least on screen.
Still, A Woman’s Face was a stepping stone part for Joan Crawford, from her effervescent flapper days and pertinacious working gals to something vulnerable and bold for a fresh decade. She sheds all glamour, something used so often as a mask in Hollywood, and willfully puts on a different facade of scars and perceived ugliness. It’s a move her rival Bette Davis readily made as well.
Here Crawford is a creature tormented and self-conscious about her own appearance. She’s crawling with shame. Mildred Pierce always gets the plaudits, and rightfully so, but surely there’s room in the conversation for this picture. Still, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
We stand by as a prisoner is marched through the hallways of a court. A menagerie of witnesses has been called to testify in the wake of a murder trial. The very same woman, her face hidden by her hat brim, stands accused, and the film effectively uses each of these disparate individuals to elucidate her story for the sake of the jury (and the audience).
It’s not an unheard-of device, but it’s rather clever, starting on the outer ring with a peculiar sort of character before getting closer and closer to who she is as a person with each subsequent flashback. As such, a sprightly waiter (Donald Meek) and a more guarded manager (Reginald Owen) recount their days serving at a local tavern.
One of the guests, Torstein Barring (Conrad Veidt), is a curious fellow. He’s the life of the party and expects certain privileges. One of those is running up an overflowing tab at the establishment after a merry night of wining and dining. He exhibits a piercing kind of magnetism, sleek and somehow unnerving.
When the lady of the tavern steps out of the shadows and excuses his bill, he’s immediately taken by her. She’s scarred over her face, and yet all he sees are those striking Joan Crawford eyes. There’s something immediate between them, and it comes out in the courtroom that the whole tavern was essentially a set-up for petty blackmail. When people get giddy their tongues loosen, and they are availed of all their faculties.
There’s a level of dubiousness and doublespeak with her underlings providing another layer to the film involving both humor and intrigue. Because they ran a fine and highly lucrative con game complete with all manner of deception. Now they’re looking to save their necks.
The ready victims are the adultress Vera (Osa Massen) — wife of reputed surgeon Gustaf (Melvyn Douglas) — and then her latest beau. The joy of A Woman’s Face is how there are building blocks for melodrama. In literary form, it might come off as convoluted and unclear, but the cinema screen makes it sing.
In one moment Anna (Crawford) is trying to peddle some stolen letters for a weighty sum with a level of vindictiveness. She scoffs at others. In another, she meets Gustaf, who returns home unexpectedly both catching this woman in the act and becoming genuinely interested in her. His wife doesn’t want any of her dirty business getting out so she reluctantly plays along.
Almost everyone has an enigmatic side, some sort of angle or self-serving motive we’re trying to detect. Melvyn Douglas is the one character who is straightforward and easy to read. He offers to transform her face. Not with an ulterior motive, but out of a sense of decency.
There’s a fine level of suspense waiting to see Anna’s face reconstructed. We know what it will be and yet are forced to wait for moments with the camera working to evade a direct shot of her; it adds something, a level of expectation.
It’s yet another soap opera contrivance that works wonders. Because Joan Crawford takes this blemish and turns it into something powerful and ultimately beautiful. With it comes new confidence and new life. Anna and Torstein grow closer and closer and he’s even more drawn to the vision of her rebirthed self. Also, her disposition shifts.
Still, he has almost a Nietchzean charisma, and he coaxes Anna into playing nursemaid to a young relative who’s set to inherit a large fortune. She’s become a governess of the Phyllis Dietrichson persuasion.
Watching Crawford come down the stairs with the precocious little kiddy, I couldn’t help but think of those old glossies of Marion Davies parties except this is a party at a Scandinavian version of Hearst Castle. Images of piano and dancing superimposed over Crawford’s face say everything.
Actually, I misspoke earlier because aside from the young tyke and the kindly Gustaf, the Consul Barring (Albert Bassman) is a jolly old man, who welcomes Anna cordially even as his housekeeper (Marjorie Main) remains distrustful of their latest guest. In truth, they’re both right. They see the two different sides of Anna on display.
There’s an old Hollywood axiom about getting an actor’s good side, and I couldn’t help noticing how A Woman’s Face plays with this practically. Crawford’s right side is kept hidden for much of the first half of the movie and traditional 180-degree filming means it’s all but masked from us.
I noticed the change at the party when she meets the good doctor again. Finally, she’s on the left side of the frame fully unmasked and open to us. It’s true we see her in a different light just as he does too. Perhaps she’s changing — softening even — and he has something to do with this.
Arguably the best scene of the entire movie comes when Crawford’s with her charge in the trolley over the waterfall. It’s the moment akin to Gene Tierney letting the crippled boy drown in the lake in Leave Her to Heaven. There’s the intent. We know what’s happening, and we watch the mechanisms on the face of Crawford. It’s totally wordless and, thus, so effective because the whole sequence is borne on her features. She has a choice to make — caught in a moral conundrum — and it’s a showcase for the total evolution of her character.
In some strange sense, it feels like the dissolution of a femme fatale starting out one way and then slowly changing and eroding until she has a heart of flesh and blood again. She chooses her inclinations to protect over those to destroy. It comes with consequences. Watching a crazed villain disappear into the snowy rapids below is mesmerizing in black and white. Somehow something so deadly looks equally gorgeous.
The ending itself is pat as Anna is exculpated in the courtroom, and yet it somehow works contrary to a whole generation of noirs made in its wake. In other words, I don’t mind the happy resolution because it leaves just enough to the imagination.