1 Hr., 47 Mins.
A Woman's Face
or most of A Woman’s Face (1941), a gauchely written but superiorly performed melodrama, half of the angular visage of its female lead, Joan Crawford, is covered. In the film, she plays a blackmailer named Anna, whose face bears the evidence of a years-ago freak accident. One part is pristine; the other has been badly burned. When asked about the incident, she intimates that she doesn’t much consider herself a survivor. Because she’s been gawked at as an everyday Frankenstein’s monster for so much of her life, death, in a way, almost seems preferable to this sort of victimhood. She’s never been able to get a steady job; she's never
been loved. Her being a career criminal is not a result of moral rot: It’s her way of getting back at a society that has deemed her undesirable.
In A Woman’s Face, she is given a second chance. Told almost completely in flashback, the film introduces Anna as the woman she’s been for all of her adult life – a schemer whose vulnerability and crippling self-consciousness almost outshines her ability to intimidate – and watches as things take a turn for the better. Partway through the movie, she questionably gets acquainted with a plastic surgeon (Melvyn Douglas) who ultimately restores the beautiful countenance she once possessed.
The movie’s narrative aspirations are just fine. Here, the beast gets the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to become the beauty, inside and out. The film’s final act sees Anna taking a job as a governess so that she can bump off a millionaire’s (Albert Bassermann) toddler grandson (Richard Nichols) so that the man she loves (Conrad Veidt), related to the plutocrat, can get his paws on inheritance money.
But with this new face, Anna has become a new woman, and will no longer be able to be the sympathetic miscreant she once was. Of course she won’t go through with the fiendish plot. Of course she’ll get a chance at romance when the surgeon who saved her from ruin turns out to be interested, despite being married. Of course she’ll ride off into the sunset at the end of the movie as a changed woman.
It’s all more or less ridiculous, worsened by the reality that the chemistry between Crawford and her two love interests is nonexistent. Much of the film’s conflict derives from her conflicting romantic feelings, but we never quite understand them, since Douglas and Veidt are so stiff. The ending is particularly false: It’s frustrating, but perhaps very 1941, that the feature decides that Crawford can only truly be redeemed if she is loved.
But A Woman’s Face is still watchable, and that’s because Crawford, who was still in the middle of her “box office poison” period, is so terrific here. Way back when, she fought for this role. MGM head Louis B. Mayer discouraged her from taking on the part, worried that the long-winded obstruction of one of her greatest commodities would dissuade audiences from wanting to see the film. But Crawford saw the potential, and the ensuing performance is among her best and most understated. She’s working in a low-key, refreshingly susceptible mode she’d never really try out again that suits her surprisingly well.
Audiences took to her risk, too: The movie was one of the few commercial successes she saw before the release of her “comeback” vehicle, 1945’s groundbreaking Mildred Pierce. So while A Woman’s Face isn’t as sublime as Crawford, it is her performative dedication and attention to detail that makes it worth a look. C+