Directed by George Cukor, A Woman’s Face is fundamentally a remake of the 1938 Swedish film of the same name. This 1941 picture features a screenplay by David Ogden Stewart and is based on the play Il Etait Une Fois by Francis de Croisset. It veers between controlled, emotional melodrama and flaring camp and the performances that keep things clicking reasonably.
Much has been made of Joan Crawford taking the lead in A Woman’s Face, as the part calls for her to play a “disfigured woman” for a fair chunk of the proceedings. Said disfigurement is the work of Jack Dawn, who provided makeup effects for The Wizard of Oz, and was supposed to have diminished the appeal of the glamourous actress. It had the opposite effect.
Crawford stars as Anna Holm, a woman on trial for murder. The events are unravelled in flashback, with the wealthy Torsten Barring (Conrad Veidt) holding a party at her tavern. Among the guests are Vera (Osa Massen) and her husband Gustav (Melvyn Douglas), who just so happens to be a plastic surgeon. Vera is cheating on Gustav and Anna, who runs a ring of blackmailers, starts to extort the woman.
Anna is scarred due to a fire. Torsten seems to look beyond any ostensible horridness. When Anna is extorting Vera, she is caught by Gustav. He offers to perform a procedure on her that will treat her scars and she emerges “beautiful,” ready to take on the world. Torsten reappears and wants her to handle a situation involving money and a boy named Lars-Erik (Richard Nichols).
Crawford is a vision, with and without the scarring. She emerges in gloriously photographed shadow, with Robert Planck’s lens giving her enigmatic texture. The actress keeps half of her visage concealed as best she can, whether with her hat or with a mould of raven hair, and she reacts to the sight of a mirror with murderous intentions.
Anna’s appearance has apparently given her a penchant for the murkier corners of existence and she shuns civility. She has no problem feeding off of the misfortunes of others and hangs around some shady characters, like the waiter Herman (Donald Meek).
A Woman’s Face goes on to suggest that Anna has a change of heart and conscience when her scars are healed, furthering the notion that attractive people are inherently better people. It could be argued the healing of Holm’s wounds results in some kind of psychic makeover, but nothing in Cukor’s picture runs that deep.
Crawford is good, so good, in the part so it becomes relatively easy to overlook the questionable pronouncements of the film. She embodies the love-starved Anna with a sense of tragic anguish and ferocious disdain and both elements come together when she’s introduced to the boy, who tugs at long-dried heartstrings.
The aura of A Woman’s Face suggests something European and the precipitous environs of the closing sequences nod to the Swedish original, but relationships are still at the core. Anna’s relationship with Torsten stands in contrast to her relationship with Gustaf, with the former a warped union borne of reciprocated seclusion and dominance.
It is through Cukor’s game direction and the performances that A Woman’s Face overcomes any histrionic prattle and moral slippage. It has a distinctly noir quality in its shadowy immersion and attention to preordained details, but it’s also a Gothic parlour tale – complete with hoary dénouement, Nordic susceptibility and a little of that malicious magic.