A Woman’s Face is a unique entry into the noir canon as I’m sure someone could say it’s not actually noir; it’s a woman’s picture. It’s both and that’s a testament to the power of Joan Crawford who did many of these hybrid features that both appealed to women specifically but utilized noirish filmmaking techniques. A Woman’s Face isn’t nearly as engaging as something like Mildred Pierce (1945), but it is a fun noir with a theme about beauty being skin deep.
Set in Sweden, the movie takes the noir route of starting with a trial. That being a trial to determine whether Anna Holm (Crawford) is a murderer or not. Through the various testimonies provided we go back in time and meet Anna as a blackmailer who lives her life in the shadows due to a facial disfigurement. When a kindly plastic surgeon named Gustave (Melvyn Douglas) fixes the issue Anna believes her life is better, but a past relationship with the evil Torsten Barring (Conrad Veidt) threatens everything.
I’m of two minds (faces?) about A Woman’s Face. On the one hand it’s a fun, if slight noir, but it’s also a highly intriguing women’s picture. You might have seen the movie air during TCM’s recent look at body image in film and if George Cukor captures anything it’s the self-loathing women so often find when they don’t conform to beauty standards. Make no mistake, Joan Crawford is beautiful and it’s easy to see the disfigurement of her face as a gimmick, which it is, but Donald Ogden Stewart’s script doesn’t write Anna as some “sainted monster” whose tragedy is that her face is marred. She’s a woman of low status already, who’s used her facial issues to effectively say, “Well, what’s the point” to life.
It’s why Veidt’s Torsten is so evil. He plays on her insecurity, acting kind and flirtatious to make Anna feel like he’s the only man who could care for her. It’s gaslighting in a way that doesn’t directly call to it. I’ve never seen Veidt as a romantic/dashing leading man, but he so expertly plays a guy who can be charming because he wants something from you. In this case, he wants Anna to murder his young nephew to claim his inheritance.
But, really, when you’re acting opposite Joan Crawford you have to bring your A-game and I’d say she outright carries A Woman’s Face. It’s not that Veidt and Douglas aren’t big stars, but the Crawford does feel like the Movie Star of this feature and really doesn’t have an equal. Crawford made this during a successful string of early-1940s feature pre-Mildred Pierce and in some ways this feels like a test for that feature. Like Pierce, this story is told in flashback with Anna showing how society has treated her and her attempts to get back at it.
In comparison to Mildred Pierce, Crawford’s Anna is far more hardened when we meet her. She’s been underestimated and ignored, and as someone who grew up disabled I empathized a lot with the film’s portrayal. Society has been indifferent to Anna so why should she act like a pious saint? When she’s given the opportunity to be have her face be returned to its original beautiful form she finally gets an opportunity to live again, but the movie doesn’t say that her problems are solved.
Torsten comes back into her life and because of her past she believes there’s genuine affection there and she owes him. I love that this movie doesn’t fall down the standard disability narrative route of saying “it was her all along” and “being pretty doesn’t fix things.” It goes for a more complex answer by emphasizing the societal nature of things.
If anything, Anna’s noirish relationship with Torsten and the question of whether she’s going to off the adorable Lars-Erik (Richard Nichols) is far more compelling in the second half than the entire first half of the movie. And as much as Crawford sells things, she can’t really sell the love story with her and Melvyn Douglas’ kindhearted doctor, Gustaf. It’s not that either one is bad, it just feels like they don’t have chemistry together. Crawford needed a performer equally dominant as her and Douglas comes off as too soft.
A Woman’s Face is lower-level noir with Crawford but it’s still worth watching. Joan is beautiful and the narrative takes some unique paths in how we perceive beauty.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.