One of my very favorite classic Hollywood movies is the 1941 version of A Woman’s Face, starring Joan Crawford and Melvyn Douglas. Anna Holm, an embittered woman with a disfigured face, blackmails women who cheat on their husbands. Caught in the house of one of her victims’ husbands, he turns out to be a plastic surgeon who offers to operate on her face. The operation is successful, but Anna is still mired in criminal schemes.
She agrees to take a job as the governess of a young boy who stands in the way of a wastrel’s inheritance. The deal is for her to gain the family’s trust and confidence and then kill the child. In her new life, she becomes less bitter and hard. But her old gang and their client are still determined to see the boy dead and collect their share of the inheritance.
Directed by George Cukor, it’s a beautiful production and Crawford seemed to me the ideal actress to play Anna.
How surprised I was to learn sometime later that it was a remake of a Swedish film starring Ingrid Bergman in the lead role.
Ingrid Bergman? Playing a bitter, hard criminal?
I had to check this out.
Based on a French play and directed by Gustaf Molander, the story of the original film is quite similar to the Hollywood version–to a point. (More on that a little bit later.)
I once read a review of the 1941 film that called it one of the best about the politics of beauty. (I wish I could remember the name of the critic.) I think that is a very apt description of the story in both versions. So much is wrapped up in how a woman looks it is not completely out of the realm of believability that disfigurement twists Anna into a heartless criminal. She enjoys blackmailing people–especially beautiful women–as revenge for all she doesn’t have because of the prominent scar on her face.
(Interesting factoid: for the Swedish version, it was Bergman’s husband at the time, Petter Lindstrom, who helped create the makeup for Anna’s scar.)
While it’s no surprise to see Crawford playing the head of a gang of blackmailers, Bergman is another story. It’s not that she never played complex or even antagonistic characters, but Anna is not only a criminal, she’s also the de facto head of her gang. She rules over them ruthlessly, is the one who takes risks, and seems to most enjoy inflicting pain on their victims.
It’s a performance that’s a little disconcerting at first, not just because we’re not used to Bergman playing this kind of part–but because she is so GOOD at it.
She also does a masterful job of showing Anna’s evolution as a character. She does not automatically become a good person the moment her beauty is restored. The bitterness and hatred remain a part of her personality at first. She even takes it out on the little boy, Lars-Erik. She can’t rid herself of the automatic gesture of covering her face with her hand. Though she falls deeply in love and comes to love the child, her toughness remains. It’s that very toughness that makes her sacrifice for the two people she has come to love believable.
Unable to carry out her mission, the man who hired her to do it takes matters into his own hands. When he takes off in a sleigh with the boy, she confesses everything to his uncle and begs him to save the child.
While there is something very sumptuous about the Cukor version, I find much in the the Molander version to admire filmically. The chase scene is so well done, using the sound of the sleigh bells and the light from the torches on each sleigh to convey much of the chase.
The major difference between the Swedish and the Hollywood version is Anna’s love interest, as well as the ending. In the Swedish version, he is Harald (Gunnar Sjoberg) the uncle of the little boy Lars-Erik. In the Hollywood version, he is the doctor who performs her surgery (Melvyn Douglas) who is inserted into the latter part of the story a bit awkwardly.
The Hollywood version implies Anna and her lover have a chance at a happy ending. In the Swedish version, Anna gives up Harald because she knows he will never forget she set out to kill Lars-Erik.
When he is injured during the chase after the killer, Harald is taken care of her friend the surgeon. After she says goodbye to Harald for good, the surgeon suggests Anna accompany him to China, where he is going to do charity work and where she can get another job as a governess. They leave Sweden together.
(While nothing romantic is suggested in the text of the film, I admit I like to ship Anna and the surgeon. I guess Americans can’t help inserting a happy ending even if one doesn’t exist. At least he knows all about her past and accepts her as she is.)
While I love Crawford in the Cukor version, Bergman brings something more to the role, something deeper. It makes me wish we could have seen her play an all-out villain. She would have been fabulous.