One of Joan Crawford’s best movies, George Cukor’s A Woman’s Face (1941) is a powerful emotional cocktail. Crawford stars as Anna Holm, a lonely recluse living in Stockholm with a hideous scar on her left cheek. To avenge herself on a world that considers her a freak, Anna headlines a ring of blackmailers from her outpost inside a fashionable country inn nestled in the Black Forest that caters to the idle rich. There, she wages nonstop extortion on her unsuspecting clientele who have past secrets they would like to remain hidden.
At the inn Anna meets Torsten Barring (Conrad Veidt), an ambitious cutthroat masquerading as an aristocrat. Sensing Anna’s desire to be loved, Torsten exploits Anna’s insecurities about her face, breaks down her defenses, then sets about plotting the murder of his nephew, Lars-Erik (Richard Nichols) so that he can gain control of the fortune bequeathed to Lars by his late father, Consul Magnus Barring (Albert Bassermann).
At first, Anna agrees to Torsten’s plan. But then she accidentally meets Dr. Gustav Segert (Melvyn Douglas); a sympathetic plastic surgeon with a simpering wife draped on his shoulder. Gustav convinces Anna that he can reverse the effects of her disfigurement and does just that. Anna is remade into a ravenously beautiful woman – but one whose dark demons continue to possess the inner tabernacle of her mind.
Furthering Torsten’s plan to murder Lars, Anna assumes the post of Lars’ governess, but becomes so attached to the child that she is unable to carry out Torsten’s plan. Instead, in defense of the child, Anna accidentally kills Torsten. Exonerated at trial by the discovery of a letter she wrote much earlier explaining the plot to kill Lars, Anna and Gustav are reunited, he leaving his wife to pursue Anna instead.
Reportedly, director Cukor was unimpressed by what he perceived to be Crawford’s rehearsed mannerisms. In order to deconstruct these for the climactic moment when Anna regales Gustav with the explanation behind her wound, Cukor made Crawford run through the scene over 90 times. In a state of exhaustion, Crawford performed the scene for the cameras almost dead pan. Even today, this moment of revelation is remarkably stirring – showcasing Crawford at her most vulnerable and tragic; qualities rarely associated with the diva.
A superior film such as this deserves a superior transfer. Unfortunately, that isn't what we get from Warner Home Video’s DVD treatment. All begins well enough with a superbly rendered B&W image. The mastering of the gray scale is truly impressive. Age related artefacts are rarely present for an image that is remarkable smooth yet sharp. Fine details are evident even during the darkest scenes.
However, midway through this transfer excessive aliasing and shimmering of fine details begin to occur. It's bizarre - as though someone fell asleep at the mastering controls shortly after the sequence where Crawford's restored face is revealed for the first time. Certain scenes remain virtually free of these distracting anomalies while others - like the scene where Crawford contemplates pushing her young charge off a sky tram into the swirling waters below - are completely ruined by an excessive instability of the image. What a disappointment!
The audio is mono but presented at an adequate listening level. Extras include short subjects and a theatrical trailer. This disc is available only as part of Joan Crawford Vol. 2. Recommended for content - not presentation!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)