The woman is Joan Crawford, disfigured for her (and George Cukor’s) art. The unveiling begins with a shadow on a wall, then a medium-shot and a turned-away profile, finally a close-up for the full view of the melted rubber. (Conrad Veidt’s smile at the sight supplies the frisson.) "The world’s against me? All right, I’ll be against it." Crawford hides behind a slanted chapeau or a curtain of hair and presides over a blackmail ring, putting a mirror where she can find it is the cruelest prank imaginable. One of her victims is a straying young wife (Osa Massen) whose prettiness amplifies Crawford’s harshness; the dapper cuckold (Melvyn Douglas) is the plastic surgeon who promises to make the heroine whole again and wonders, once the bandages are off, whether he’s created a Galatea or a Frankenstein monster. The structure (pivoting on a Stockholm courtroom roughly the size of a skating rink) is a dry-run for Les Girls, dissolves and tracking shots are prevalent. Veidt’s scheming aristocrat is used as a thinly veiled Nazi ("The world belongs to the devil, and I know how to serve him if can only get the power") and, more interestingly, as the linchpin of Cukor’s positively oneiric study of Ufa Gothic, complete with the hands of Orlac himself on a piano superimposed over Crawford’s face. The wordless ski-lift sequence with Crawford and the cherubic heir suspended over the void draws comparison to Hitchcock, yet the sustained image of a clouded visage clearing into grace suddenly points to Ingrid Bergman awakening at the edge of Rossellini’s volcano. Elsewhere, Cukor grins from behind Donald Meek’s nimbleness as a maître d’ with a mocking streak, Albert Bassermann’s joviality with a Groucho jest ("To be 60 again..."), Marjorie Main’s fierce jealousy, Connie Gilchrist’s poker face exhaling cigarette smoke. The theme is Thoreau’s "beauty as moral test," the folk dance at the chalet is something for Polanski to make fun of. With Reginald Owen, Richard Nichols, Henry Kolker, George Zucco, Robert Warwick, and Henry Daniell. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce