My Classic Movie Pick: A Woman’s Face, with Villainous Conrad Veidt

My post today is for the Great Villain Blogathon and it is hosted by 3 wonderful bloggers who also love, love, love classic movies: Ruth of Silver Screenings, Karen of Shadows & Satin, and Kristina of Speakeasy.  Be sure to visit these blog sites to read about all of the great movie villains written about by other movie loving bloggers.

Great Villain Blogathon

A Woman’s Face, made by MGM in 1941, was not MGM head honcho Louis B. Mayer’s cup of tea.  Joan Crawford had learned of the Swedish movie version of the stage play.  The play had been written by Francis de Croisset and a screenplay for MGM’s version was to be written by Donald Ogden Stewart.  Ingrid Bergman had starred in the 1938  Swedish film and now Crawford wanted to star in an  American version.  Mayer didn’t like the fact that one of his beautiful stars would have to be “uglied” up for the role since the movie’s plot is about a disfigured woman who turns to a life of  crime since society has  rejected her because of  her deformity.   A Woman's Face movie poster 2 Anna Holm(Crawford) was burned on one side of her face when she was a child.  Her widowed, drunken father accidentally set the house on fire while Anna was asleep.  She was rescued but her father died in the flames.  Throughout her growing up years she felt rejected by society as people would stare at her face or try to avoid her altogether.  Upon reaching adulthood, Anna decides to make money off of the weak and foolish of the world so  she becomes a very good blackmailer. Simultaneously owning a tavern/restaurant in a secluded, wooded area outside of Stockholm proper, she draws in a rich clientele who like to meet at her business for rendezvous away from prying eyes.  It is to this clientele that she finds customers to blackmail.   She is aided by 3 con artists who are under her employ: Bernard Dalvik(Reginald Owen), his wife Christina Dalvik(Connie Gilchrist), and Herman Rundvik(Donald Meek).

Gilchrist as Mrs. Dalvik

Gilchrist as Mrs. Dalvik

Owens as

Owens as Dalvik

Donald Meek as Rundvik

Donald Meek as Rundvik

One evening as a loud party of 10 people are preparing to leave, the host of the party wants to put the bill on his tab.  He is told that he’ll have to discuss that with the proprietess.  When this fellow saunters into Anna’s office, he is polite, charming, and very suave.  It is this man, Torsten Barring(Conrad Veidt) who is the main villain of A Woman’s Face and his character will soon have the vulnerable Anna under his spell!  Through my reading about this movie, I came across a snippet that when Veidt was asked to describe his character, Torsten Barring, Veidt smiled and replied that he was  playing  Satan in a tuxedo!

Conrad Veidt as Torsten Barring

Conrad Veidt as Torsten Barring

In Torsten’s party is Vera Segert(Osa Massen), the  young and beautiful wife of Dr. Segert(Melvyn Douglas).  Dr. Segert wasn’t at Torsten’s party which is how Vera wanted it.  She used the party to flirt with another man the entire evening, and it is soon noticed by Torsten that Vera and this other man have a thing going on.  All of this potential for blackmail is on Torsten’s mind when he meets Anna in her office.  He surprises her as he doesn’t flinch in horror when he sees her face but treats her gallantly, kisses her hand, and her reaction is one of utter shock, that a man would treat her so kindly.

Anna soon agrees to work with Torsten and his schemes because she loves him

Anna soon agrees to work with Torsten and his schemes because she loves him

Seeing Anna's deformity and not shunning her.

Seeing Anna’s deformity and not shunning her.

Torsten soon has Anna working for him in the blackmailing game.  She goes to his lavish apartment at first just for business and assignments but soon Torsten pours on more charm and Anna finds herself falling in love with him.  Veidt, in real life, had piercing blue eyes and he used them to great effect in his acting.  Crawford was so impressed by his skills that she said in her later years that she had rarely met another actor who had shown such dramatic skills and depth as Veidt.     Torsten next tells Anna that a big prize awaits them.  He has the love letters that Vera Segert had foolishly sent to the man at the party Torsten hosted.  Torsten arranges for Vera Segert to go to Anna’s 3 con artist employees to beg for the letters and to get an idea of how much money it will cost her to get them back.  Anna then goes to Vera’s home at an agreed to time that evening with the letters.  Anna demands more money from Vera for the letters.  Vera hotly refuses and then cruelly shines a light on Anna’s face, exposing her deformity.  Anna then unloads a slapfest on Vera’s face and unexpectedly, Dr. Segert arrives home.   He thinks Anna is an intruder, intent on swiping his wife’s jewels and Vera begs him to just let Anna go.  He notices Anna’s scars and tells her that he is a skilled plastic surgeon and he thinks he could take her scars away.  He shows her books of successfully treated patients and Anna does agree to and does have the surgery.  It is a long, two year process but Anna and Dr. Segert persevere and develop an admiration for one another.  He for her survival skills in a cruel world and she for his compassion for his fellow man.

Dr. Segert and Vera with Anna pre-surgery.

Dr. Segert and Vera with Anna pre-surgery.

Anna delights in showing Torsten her new face.  She feels like a brand new woman as she is now beautiful.  Torsten seems happy for her but then he tells her about his extended family.   His aged Uncle Magnus Barring(Albert Bassermann) is very wealthy and has sadly decided to leave all of his fortune to a 4 year old grandson, Lars-Erik(Richard Nichols).  It is at this point in the film where Veidt’s Torsten becomes truly mad, in a stealthily,  quiet  way.  No screaming or tantrums are thrown.  He just sidles up to Anna and quietly explains to her his plan.  He tells Anna that he will recommend her to his Uncle Magnus for a governess job for little Lars-Erik.  Then, after a time, Anna will kill Lars-Erik and he, Torsten, will be the only one to inherit his uncle’s fortune.  Anna is in shock over this information, but doesn’t react hastily.  She seems to know that her love for this man is now over, but that if she lets on that it is, he’ll probably try to kill her. too.  So, reluctantly, Anna agrees to being a new governess for Lars-Erik.

Torsten intoning to Anna  his evil plot to inherit the money.

Torsten intoning to Anna his evil plot to inherit the money.

After several months have gone by working in Uncle Magnus’s household, Anna has grown to be quite fond of the old man and her charge, Lars-Erik.  A birthday celebration has been planned for Uncle Magnus, a weekend-long event and to Anna’s dread, Torsten arrives at the party in time to scoop her into his arms on the dance floor, to kindly snarl in her ear his questions as to why Lars-Erik is still alive?  To add to the stress Anna is now under, Dr. Segert also arrives for the party.  He is delighted to see Anna again and they share a dance or two.  She discovers that he is in the process of divorcing his unfaithful wife, Vera.  Anna and the doctor have a growing attraction to one another which adds to the noirish aspects of this drama: does Anna tell the man she is falling in love with about her life as a blackmailer, about her relationship with Torsten, and also reveal the evil plan to kill a child in order to inherit a fortune?  Would that new man even want to be around her if he knew about anything from her past?  Will Torsten keep reminding Anna to kill the child and if she doesn’t, will he take the matter into his own hands?

I won’t reveal the answers to these questions as I want you, the readers of this blog, to seek this film out!  It has aired from time to time on TCM so keep your eyes alert to their monthly schedules to see if it will be airing sometime this year.  A Woman’s Face is availabe to buy at Amazon, but it is in a Joan Crawford 5-dvd set and it’s pricey.  It is available in a European dvd that is lower-priced and in VHS format, which is even lower in cost, but VHS?  I want to add that in the cast is the always awesome Marjorie Main as a grumpy housekeeper, so watch for her when you do see the movie.

The villain of the film, Conrad Veidt, had a successful and interesting acting career.  He died too young, at the age of 50, suffering a heart attack on a golf course in Los Angeles in 1943.  Born and raised in Germany, he served in the German Army in WWI, rising to the rank of NCO.  Becoming very ill during the war, he was sent to a war hospital on the Baltic coast and received a letter from a girlfriend, Lucie Mannheim.  She had just been hired to work with an acting company based in Libau, Latvia.  Intrigued, he put in for a transfer to Libau and the Army agreed, stipulating that he work to entertain the troops.  When the war ended, Veidt moved to Berlin to study acting in earnest.  His skills paid off as he became a popular and busy actor in the German silent movie industry.  Probably his most famous role at that time was as the sleepwalking Cesare in 1920’s  The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.  With his success in Germany, it was time to make a try in Hollywood, and he did, famously appearing in 1928’s The Man Who Laughs.  Some even believe that Veidt’s “look” for this film inspired the look for one of Batman’s villains, The Joker.

Veidt, possibly the face that inspired The Joker?

Veidt, possibly the face that inspired The Joker?

As talking movies came into the forefront and silents went away, Veidt had trouble learning to speak English and his accent was deemed too heavy so it was time to return to Germany.  Veidt’s career continued there until he and his second wife, Illona Prager, a Jewish woman, moved to England to avoid the grasp of the rising Nazis.   In England, Veidt continued his acting career and improved his ability to speak the  English language.  I have seen some of the films he made in England and he got to play the heroes, which was a refreshing view of Veidt.  He played a Jewish man in 1934’s Power, playing Josef Oppenheimer,  who in 1730’s Germany,  helped a  duke rise in power, and in the process made a way for himself to leave the Jewish ghetto behind.  Then, when the duke tries to harm a member of Oppenheimer’s family, it’s revenge time.   In 1935 he starred in Passing of the Third Floor Back, which some kind soul has put on Youtube!  Veidt plays a mysterious and yet kind man, almost a messianic figure, who only wants to help the fellow boarders at a rooming  house he has moved to.  In 1939, he was the lead in The Spy in Black.  It was called U-Boat 29 for U.S. audiences.  Veidt plays U-Boat Captain Hardt , WWI is the time frame.  He is to meet a spy on the Orkney Islands, who turns out not to be what she seems.  Veidt is a conflicted man in this piece, not an out and out villain, falling in love with the spy who isn’t who she is pretending to be.  Valerie Hobson plays the spy and this was an early Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger creation.  It was back to playing a villain in 1940’s The Thief of Bagdad.  A technicolor masterpiece from the Korda brothers.   Veidt plays the evil Jafar and I really think the Disney animators used his image in creating the Jafar for their version of the story.  Veidt was very tall and slendor which seems to be the inspiration for the animated  Jafar.

Veidt as Jafar, probably casting a spell on someone!

Veidt as Jafar, probably casting a spell on someone!

After this film, Veidt tried Hollywood again.  With WWII raging, he stipulated that if he played Nazis, that he play baddies, no conflicted Nazis with a hint of goodness.  His most  famous Hollywood film is 1942’s Casablanca, where he plays with great relish the villainous Major Strasser, out to catch any freedom fighters trying to leave Casablanca.

Veidt, as Major Strasser, messing with Victor Laszlo, aka Paul Henreid.

Veidt, as Major Strasser, messing with Victor Laszlo, aka Paul Henreid.

It has been quite fun for me to read about Conrad Veidt for this blogathon.  He was a very skilled actor who could play the villain with the best of them, using his piercing gaze and his voice to smoothly convey his manipulative form of evil that his characters just seemed to wear like an aura around them.  In closing, I’ll post this neat video tribute to Veidt as Torsten Barring in A Woman’s Face, found on Youtube.   In fact, there are a ton of clips of Veidt’s work over the years, both silent movie scenes as well as talkies, so plan on putting your feet up and getting comfortable if you decided to view all that Youtube has for viewing Veidt’s scenes.

Studio publicity shot for A Woman's Face

Studio publicity shot for A Woman’s Face

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23 responses to this post.

  1. Sorry to pop in so randomly, but since people were bemoaning the fact that the movie was so rarely on–I found out it’s going to be on TCM on the 3rd of September.

    Reply

  2. I greatly enjoyed your post, especially the information about Veidt — there was so much about him I didn’t know! Really good stuff, all around. I hope you’ll join us again for our journey into villainy next year!

    Reply

  3. I’ve been wanting to see this for ages but, as you mention, it can prove to be elusive! Veidt sounds like a wonderful villain, I love him in Casablanca but really didn’t know much else about his career. He certainly looks like he’d make a wonderful Jafar. Thanks for sharing, I’ll keep your post in mind when I do get round to watching it!

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  4. i LOVE this movie, and always point to it as being one of Joan’s top couple of roles. BUT it wouldn’t be much without Veidt either. He was truly great and in an era when a lot of the villains had that “foreign” look, he stood out with an extra elegance and sophistication that made him really appealing and dangerous 🙂 Thanks so much for being a part of this event!

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  5. As a massive Veidt fan, I’d say it’s definitely his best performance–and it’s not easy to pick out just one from a career of over 100 films! And more people really should see this film just for the writing, the direction and the amazing performances from both Crawford and Veidt (and the entire supporting cast). Both Anna Holm and Torsten Barring are characters who have stayed in the back of my mind to haunt me, and I can’t say that about many movies–I really feel it does understand the female psyche on a deep level (and how women are judged so much by their looks), even if I’m not that big a fan of the last five minutes.

    But oh, Torsten, Torsten. What Veidt does so brilliantly in this movie is that despite being such a completely evil bastard, he’s still so incredibly attractive that that becomes the frightening thing–not the fact that he’s evil because it’s easy to be evil and despicable, but that he is still so mindblowingly sexy. That becomes the source of horror, for me at least–how can I swoon at this murderer just because of the way he walks like a cat and purrs like one? What he does with just his eyes and his touches on Anna’s arm–little, yet incredibly erotic and controlling gestures–it’s because of its subtlety and sensuality that his evil charm becomes all the more powerful.

    So, yes, thanks for blogging about this movie and Connie–both he and the film deserve more love.

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    • You have hit the nail on the head with your description of Veidt. Perhaps that why I chose to write about him. Often playing evildoers, but so compelling and so sexy. I also find him attractive in his role of evil Jafar in Thief of Bagdad. If he had a good singing voice, and if a musical of Phantom of the Opera had been made back in his day, he would’ve been excellent as the Phantom, no doubt in my mind!

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      • Oh, absolutely! He really would have been a fantastic Phantom–he was great in those tragic, yet Romantic and seductive villain roles. And while I find Torsten to be his best performance, Jaffar is the king of my heart, pretty much–I’m sure he’d be a better husband candidate than Torsten. I mean, Jaffar probably wouldn’t have gone as crazy if it weren’t for his unrequited love. No way would I have chosen Ahmad over Jaffar if I’d been the princess!

        It’s wonderful to see someone else appreciating him for those two roles–I think people overemphasise his silent horror star image when he was so incredibly magnetic and sexy in the talkies. In the silents he was beautiful, but often a victim and often possessed; in the talkies, he was the demonic force possessing, seducing others. In the silents, he was cramped and anxious; in the talkies, he glided around like a panther and was so confident he made other men look like boys. And from such an androgynous guy, too–which made it even more powerful. He possessed this vamp-like, possessing, feminine quality but it was never effeminate; it made him no less powerful, it only added to his power like he was a strong man and a strong woman at the same time–it’s hard to explain, but it was like he was more human because of that, having the most powerful characteristics of both sexes. I mean, in this movie, he is the vamp lounging on a piano in fine clothes and purring away and Crawford is the tough gangster boss who even walks in a more masculine way than he does, which just adds to the movie’s fascination for me. It’s all very subtle, but it goes a bit beyond those usual gender stereotypes (without underlining it too heavily) which makes it more interesting. More human and broader in its way. Those two were a great combination and I loved the chemistry they had–I am still stunned neither of them even got nominated for Oscars. Connie should’ve nabbed one for the attic scene alone.

        But, yes, Connie. So hypnotic and so attractive and so powerful. I’ve never seen anything like it. And all on such a wonderful human being, too. *sigh* He really was taken from us too soon.

  6. Veidt certainly left us a rich filmography. “A Woman’s Face” is an odd duck, but extremely compelling. An unforgettable villain elevates the proceedings.

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  7. I love this movie! It’s one of my favorite Crawford performances, and Veidt is such an amazing baddie! What a shame he died so young.

    I recently saw the Swedish version with Ingrid Berman–well worth seeking out. Very interesting to compare it to the Hollywood version.

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    • I did notice that the Swedish version with Bergman is on Amazon streaming and I do plan on viewing it to compare it to the Crawford version. Glad you also love this film, it’s a great one that I don’t mind watching again and again.

      Reply

  8. Posted by Vienna on April 26, 2014 at 7:53 AM

    I love this movie, such a terrific cast and story. Wish it was better known.
    Conrad Veidt is a smiling manipulative villain, what a fine actor.
    Great review.

    Reply

  9. Years ago in grad school I saw Veidt in “Different from the Others” about Germany’s Paragraph 175. What an interesting man and career. Thanks for the research! I never realized he had those blue eyes.

    Reply

    • You are very welcome. Something I didn’t put in my post, but when Veidt starred in the British film The Passing of the Third Floor Black, co-star Anna Lee said his eyes would just grab you and hold onto you during scenes with him!

      Reply

  10. […] Portraits by Jenny: Conrad Veidt in A Woman’s Face […]

    Reply

  11. I’ve heard a lot about this movie, but have never seen it. Your post has prompted me to scour the TCM schedule!

    I’d love to see Joan Crawford in this role – and Conrad Veidt also. Such a talented man, with an interesting life.

    Thanks for participating in our blogathon! 🙂

    Reply

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