Conrad Veidt has been slithering around my head all day after catching A WOMAN’S FACE (1941) out of that new Crawford set. The story of a disfigured woman ensnared in blackmail and child murder schemes, A WOMAN’S FACE is an uneven but highly original and enjoyable mix of melodrama and madness. What makes it a cult classic is the obvious affinity that gay (as far out as you could go at the time) director George Cukor and Veidt (Wikipedia notes that he starred in a 1919 gay rights film) had with the film’s villain, the embittered (coded) homosexual Swiss aristocrat, Torsten Barring. What could have been a rote turn of Nazi trumpeting turns as shadowed and twisted as you like it.
Watching Veidt’s monologues flow leisurely but unstoppably towards Nazi-flavored misanthropy and megalomania is one of the darker delights of my recent cinema viewing. While vamping for Joan on his salon piano, Veidt at one point indicates a painting of his ancestral homestead with waterfall high in the Alps, where lives the little boy heir that stands between Torsten and an ancestral fortune. Giddily, he plays a small leitmotif to illustrate the river’s “treacherous” current. A nihilist of the old Nietszchean school, Torsten’s evil willingness to murder a child seems understandable and Joan’s complicity is exciting. Veidt’s Torsten is so charismatic he’s sickening; he comes coded in so many different ways the signifiers break off like booster rockets in reverse and he morphs into a throbbing mad swirl of grandeur and delusion. No matter how twisted he gets, he keeps his intelligence on point. He never cracks under his own pressure. Initially absorbed by Crawford’s burnt ugliness, he seems genuinely saddened once she’s all pretty and normal again and he’s able to convey this with only a vague flutter of a smile.
In a later scene, Joan and Conrad wander up to an attic room at the chateau to discuss the rapidly unraveling plot. Some dusty old flags throw all sorts of protean fascist shadows on the dimly lit wall behind Veidt as he confesses his evil heart out. It’s a scene of such powerfully heartfelt venom that we can’t help but be lured along as he dives into the mire of Teutonic, egomaniacal, closeted, genius homicidal insanity; he flowers into a poisonous bloom worthy of Sebastian’s garden in SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER. And despite our loathing and horror at his third act unveiling of his fascist streak ( a horror which we share with the newly “normalized” Joan [she’s fixed courtesy the scalpel of a gallantly underplaying Melvyn Douglas]) we still feel a deep, pitying connection for our twisted Torsten; he’s so decadent he’s nearly transcendent. In a way we’re glad to see this Nazi side surface at last: it gives us a platform on which to pull ourselves out of his slime and join the side of the bland and the good.
Simultaneously, Crawford captures the horror of facial disfigurement–not the “don’t look at me!” pain of the moment, but the bitter result of long-term social isolation–and she raids her private stock of real-life narcissistic insecurity with thrilling recklessness. These two parts were tailor made for great actors with bone-filled closets like Crawford and Veidt, and they wring their lines until they snap like the necks of weaker mortals. It’s a conspiratorial thrill to despise the banal masses with them and relish their artistic snobbery; the twist comes with the plastic surgical “curing” of Joan’s ugliness, which turns her traitor to the cause, so to speak, like Hickey getting sober in THE ICEMAN COMETH.
Maybe I’m still reeling from the beauty of Heath Ledger’s performance in BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, but to my ever-widening eyes it seems like the messages I’ve seen lately seems to indicate that the twisted end product of sexual repression can actually be beautiful; longing even at its most wretched and stunted can still be transfigured into art. Is this what Ang Lee and Wong Kar Wai and George Cukor and James Whale have been trying to convey all this time? I’d say in Veidt’s case, the proof is in the poisoned pudding! He’s a cookie filled with arsenic and I just want to take a bite.