A Woman's Face - 1941
A Woman's Face - Released May 23, 1941. Directed by George Cukor
Told via flashbacks while a court trial is underway, we learn that Anna Holm (Joan Crawford) is in a mess. She was unhappily running her out-of-the-way rural restaurant in Sweden, staffed by a petty gang of second-rate confidence men and women, with Anna as their erstwhile leader. Specializing in blackmail, preying upon the customers using her business as a rendezvous spot for trysts and adultery, Anna lives life in a state of either anger or fear. With one side of her face scarred from a horrible childhood accident, she practices her unethical business affairs from the shadows, flinching if anyone tries to look upon her mostly hidden mass of scars on the right side of her face.
In walks Conrad Veidt (as Torsten Barring) who not only doesn't flinch when he looks at her full on in the face, but once he learns of Anna's high level of intelligence and her educated cultural tastes in music and the arts, Conrad acts like he has found a soul mate. He launches a low-energy campaign wooing her that quickly gains heat once Anna's bitter and sarcastic defenses start dropping.
Meanwhile, Melvyn Douglas (Dr. Gustaf Segert), a brilliant plastic surgeon that wants to put Anna under the scalpel and repair the damage from her childhood burning episode, has implemented an unorthodox moral rehabilitation program. He discovered Anna in his apartment and thought she was a simple burglar, not realizing she was there to execute blackmail on the his (unknown to him) adulterous wife. The wife (Osa Massen) quickly rushed to Anna's defense, begging Gustaf to not call the police, and this false sympathetic gesture (she had just a few minutes earlier been cruelly laughing at Anna's disfigurement before the Doctors arrival) turns the Doctor's interest into a determination to use his skills to heal those scars.
Anna laughs at the Doctor's middle-class morality but lets the painful operations take place, and when they finally conclude with a triumph of bringing Anna's (i.e., Joan's) two facial spheres into mirror harmony, Anna is overjoyed and even briefly grateful. Dr. Gustaf's worry is that by only healing Anna's outside wounds he may have created "a Frankenstein."
Anna then returns to visit Torsten Barring who is astounded at the physical change, and for a very, very short period of time they seem happy together. Unfortunately, Veidt's Torsten is obsessed with obtaining the inheritance of wealth from his elderly industrialist uncle. The hitch is that there is someone else in line ahead of him in the family, and if Anna would only help him with a little homicide, they could be so happy together. Anna allows herself to be placed into the Uncle's home as a governess over the small child who is the person in line ahead of Torsten. As the date for the murder approaches, she begins questioning what it is she is exactly doing under Conrad's tender but obsessive management.
A Woman's Face benefits from George Cukor's direction, which keeps the film almost entirely within the genre of melodrama (showcased primarily through flashbacks from a courtroom) with hints of perverse madness around the edges. Though the material might have just as easily suited a director like Tod Browning (who made the Lon Chaney / Joan Crawford film The Unknown, which also deals with disfigurement and craziness), Cukor keeps A Woman's Face under control like the high-end M-G-M melodrama that it is. The real tension of the tale is inside Crawford herself, with her staring off to the side of the screen, thinking, and Cukor letting us only vaguely know which way the good-and-evil angels of Conrad & Melvyn are leading her.
Crawford was a master at playing damaged goods, and the deep pain her character carries under the cynical mask of a career criminal gives weight to the sharp choices Anna Holm must make as Cukor ambushes her with one tough spot after another.
Conrad Veidt generally specialized in playing villains, but his dapper, crooked-gentleman with a yen for Joan (whether scarred or made over from plastic surgery) seems just blithely self-serving at the beginning, but then becomes a portrayal of madness. We know Torsten Barring is a crook and a man on the make, but as time passes, Veidt is able to communicate the twisted ulterior conditions of Barring through facial expressions, an underplayed internalization that balances with Crawford's Anna Holm.
By the end of the film Cukor will let the story finally go a little berserk to fuel the climatic ending, and the gang of petty criminals that Crawford rules from her restaurant are composed of rather humorous caricatures which lets the air out of the melodrama from time to time. But between Crawford, Veidt and Melvyn Douglas there is a nicely made tale of a romantic triangle that is quite unlike the typical M-G-M production.
A Woman's Face synopsis
Joan Crawford is a bitter, scarred, oddly sentimental restaurateur and leader of a gang of petty thieves operating in Sweden. Chiefly engaged in blackmail, they use their "out of the way" restaurant as a tool toward gaining information on straying wives and husbands.
Conrad Veidt (as Torsten Barring) is an amoral womanizer and playboy who is second in line to inherit a fortune from his industrialist uncle. First in line is Richard Nichols, a small boy who must be eliminated, and the weapon Conrad intends to use to achieve this is Joan Crawford's character and her malleable morality. Crawford's character (Anna Holm) experiences something bordering on love for Torsten, the first man to ever look at her without flinching, and something like love springs up between them.
However, after Melvyn Douglas (as plastic surgeon Dr. Gustaf Segert) donates his talents as a plastic surgeon to repair the scars on Crawford's face (he happened across her thinking her a burglar, while in fact she was in the middle of blackmailing Segert's wife), Crawford begins to experience a personal renaissance that will soon pit her against Conrad and his plans.
Written by Donald Ogden Stewart and Elliot Paul from the play Il Etait Une Fois by Francis de Croisset
Starring Joan Crawford, Melvyn Douglas, Conrad Veidt
Run Time: 106 Minutes
Released in USA on May 23, 1941
A film version of the play was made in Sweden in 1938 also titled A Woman's Face with Ingrid Bergman who played the role of Anna Holm, aka Anna Paulsson.
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Original page Feb 2014 | Updated October 2020
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