Her Face was Her Fortune:
Changing Women’s Fates and Faces in Three Classic Films
In Sunset Boulevard (1950), Norma Desmond contends that silent movie stars “didn’t need dialogue. We had faces.” Indeed, motion pictures have been obsessed with faces from the very beginning, particularly the faces of women who, like the celebrated Helen of Troy, have launched a thousand films with their alluring looks, from Lillian Gish and Gloria Swanson to Lauren Bacall and Marilyn Monroe. Inevitably, however, the cinematic obsession with such beauty also provokes an irresistible urge toward distortion and destruction. Women’s disfigurement has long been a popular trope in film, going at least as far back as the infamous eye-cutting scene in Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou (1929) and the gruesome mutilation of the villainess in Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932). Aside from its shock value, disfigurement is a particularly effective cinematic symbol because the audience can literally see the ways in which appearance and identity inform one another, but for women the idea of facial disfigurement is particularly powerful because of cultural pressures that emphasize women’s beauty as their most important asset.
In both literature and film, this theme merges with more complicated gender issues because the creator and/or destroyer of female beauty is typically male. In some films, male characters wreck women’s faces as a way of establishing dominance, either over the woman herself or over others who witness the act. We might think of Lee Marvin scalding Gloria Grahame’s face with hot coffee in The Big Heat (1953) or the infamous Coke bottle scene in The Long Goodbye (1973). At other times, however, men assume dominance over nature itself by trying to repair female faces that have already been destroyed. Today, I will consider three classic films in which disfigured women are remade by male surgeons, with varying results: George Cukor’s Joan Crawford melodrama, A Woman’s Face (1941), Terence Fisher’s Hammer noir, Stolen Face (1952), and Georges Franju’s intellectual French horror film, Eyes without a Face (1960). Each of these films belongs to a different genre, but all three demonstrate a subtle relationship with influential stories of masculine creation, particularly Frankenstein and the Pygmalion myth. Men “play God” by altering the faces of female characters, but each film reveals that the women are more than mere creatures, and their own choices help to change or seal their fates in the aftermath of the surgeons’ efforts.
A Woman’s Face was originally made in Sweden in 1938, with Ingrid Bergman in the starring role, but the 1941 Hollywood remake with Joan Crawford is better known and more widely available today. Crawford plays Anna Holm, a woman who suffered facial burns as a child because of her drunken father and who has grown up to be a career criminal because her disfigurement bars her access to more respectable employment. Her life changes when she meets a plastic surgeon who repairs her features, thus giving her a chance to start her life anew. Unfortunately, Anna has already fallen under the spell of another man, who urges her to use her new identity to help him commit murder.
As a women’s picture, A Woman’s Face focuses on the emotional struggles of Crawford’s heroine, who is at first embittered by her disfigurement and lashes out at the world because of its rejection of her. When Torsten Barring, played by the sinister Conrad Veidt, first makes love to Anna, he does so because he thinks that her scarred face reflects a similarly twisted soul within. Barring likes the monstrous Anna because he believes they are birds of a feather, and it certainly seems plausible that Anna might allow her spirit to be irreparably corrupted in exchange for something like love. The noble-minded but unhappily married Dr. Segert, played by Melvyn Douglas, pulls Anna in the opposite direction by giving her a new face that he hopes her soul will grow to match. Of course, like any good Pygmalion, the doctor falls in love with his creation, although his sense of integrity prevents him from acting on his passion out of deference to his unfaithful wife.
Throughout the film, Anna is overtly conscious of her own role as Segert’s creation. Intelligent and well-read, she repeatedly connects her situation with that of Frankenstein’s monster and the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea; she worries that the doctor’s interference will only yield “a beautiful monster with no heart,” as opposed to the psychic transformation that Segert hopes for and eventually gets. Other aspects of the film further the comparisons, particularly with Frankenstein’s monster: Anna is shown to be afraid of fire, and her ultimate test involves her ability to harm a small child. At the end of the picture, when Anna says, “I want to belong to the human race,” she echoes the unrealized desire of Mary Shelley’s creature, but she enjoys a happier fate herself because her creator, Dr. Segert, never heartlessly rejects or abandons her.
Although the plot upholds the idea of the male surgeon as a successful shaper of fates and faces, Anna’s own awareness of her role as a symbolic, mythic figure gives her agency and makes this a woman’s story about her own transformation rather than a man’s story about transforming a woman. Crawford’s protagonist is complex and dynamic, far more than either an ugly or a pretty face. Even before her operation, she is presented to the audience as a deeply flawed but still sympathetic character, the kind of role that Crawford excelled at playing. She yearns for acceptance and love, and as she receives them she transforms into a better, more balanced person. Her new face allows her to get close to a child for the first time, and this relationship awakens her long-dormant maternal feelings, leading her to rebel against Torsten’s plans, even though he was the first person to accept her in spite of her disfigurement. In the climactic scenes, Anna proves her ability to make difficult decisions and take action. No mere clay in the potter’s hand, she has a powerful personality whether or not she has a beautiful face. Dr. Segert does not create her identity as much as he liberates it, and perhaps this is why the operation is ultimately a success.
The doctor’s efforts yield less sanguine results in Stolen Face, a 1952 noir picture from Hammer Films. Paul Henreid stars as the plastic surgeon, Dr. Philip Ritter, who remakes a female convict’s face to match that of a beautiful concert pianist with whom the doctor has become romantically obsessed. Initially played by Mary Mackenzie, Lily agrees to the operation because she naïvely believes that “any change would be an improvement.” Both the post-surgery convict, Lily, and the pianist, Alice, are played by Lizabeth Scott, but their physical resemblance masks their very different personalities. Having already married his creation, Dr. Ritter soon discovers that his best efforts to remake Lily into another Alice are doomed to fail, and his situation becomes even more problematic when the real Alice returns.
Unlike Dr. Segert in A Woman’s Face, Dr. Ritter really does end up creating “a beautiful monster, ” although Lily’s problem might be too much heart rather than too little. She trusts the doctor to make her life better, but he presumptuously decides that her identity is as malleable and disposable as her original face. Ritter’s transformation into another Victor Frankenstein doesn’t happen overnight. At first, his intentions are honorable; we see him working in a women’s prison even before he meets the alluring Alice. The doctor believes that disfigured women become criminals because of the psychological damage inflicted by their deformities, and a prison official initially confirms this opinion when he says that only one of Ritter’s patients has returned to crime after her operation and release. Ritter first meets Lily during this more altruistic phase of his efforts; badly scarred during the Blitz, Lily seems unhappy but not necessarily evil, and she lights up at the doctor’s offered hope for the new life that a new face can bring. Unfortunately, Ritter becomes smitten with Alice before he returns to operate on Lily, and by then his motivations have become corrupted by his desire to create a duplicate of the woman he lost by forcing Lily to take her place. Not surprisingly, Lily eventually rebels against this transformation, returning to a life of crime and making Ritter’s life miserable.
Stolen Face puts the conventional themes of film noir – obsession, fatalism, and betrayal - to good use in its exploration of the male creator’s doomed effort to control his creation. Ritter’s obsession with Alice twists his personality and his perspective, leading him to tempt fate by trying to transform Lily into Alice’s double, but Ritter betrays Lily’s faith in him by doing so, and Lily then betrays Ritter in return. Like Victor Frankenstein, Ritter comes to hate the thing that he has made, but Lily, like the monster, is more sinned against than sinning. Ritter, the noir anti-hero, is the character who makes a fatal mistake, believing that he can treat a living human being like a mound of sculptor’s clay, ignoring the very different personality that already exists beneath the changeable face. Ritter fails to understand, until it is too late, that his power to transform the face does not include the power to transform the person. He does not see Lily as an individual at all. When he tells his partner that he plans to marry Lily, Ritter says, “If I don’t believe in my work, what can I believe in?” Lily is not the woman he loves; she is his “work,” and she quickly realizes that he has no interest in her real self. “Why don’t you stop trying to make me something I’m not?” she asks him, sick of his control over her clothes, her hair, and her behavior. Like James Stewart’s Scottie in the later and more celebrated 1958 Hitchcock film, Vertigo, Ritter thinks women are interchangeable, malleable, and passive beings without any will or agency of their own. In both films, this mistake proves fatal, although not for the person who actually makes it.
In both Stolen Face and Vertigo, the created woman ultimately becomes the victim of her creator, unwillingly sacrificed on the altar of his ego. Like Kim Novak’s Judy Barton, Lily is doomed by a man’s attempts to control her face and her fate; at the end of the picture she falls from a moving train and is killed, while Ritter lives to be reunited with the far too forgiving Alice. This conclusion echoes the end of the 1931 film adaptation of Frankenstein rather than the end of Shelley’s original novel; for poetic justice and the ends of true noir fatalism to be served, Ritter ought certainly to have paid with his life, as well. The last spoken line of the picture is an ironic parting shot: “Well, at least she’ll never know what it is to go through life disfigured,” a bystander says as Lily’s mangled corpse lies beside the railroad track. The comment implies that disfigurement is the worst fate a woman can suffer, but the preceding story has shown only too well that Lily would have been much better off if she had never met Philip Ritter. She might have lived with a scarred face, but she cannot live with a stolen one.
If Dr. Ritter steals one woman’s face for another in a more benign way, then the plastic surgeon in Eyes without a Face does so in a much more horrific fashion. The 1960 film from French director Georges Franju follows the efforts of Dr. Génessier, played by Pierre Brasseur, to create a new face for his tragically disfigured daughter by cutting the faces off of other young women and grafting them onto his daughter’s mutilated features. Christiane, the daughter, is played by the lovely Edith Scob, but throughout most of the film her wrecked face remains hidden behind a disturbingly featureless mask. The doctor is assisted in his work by Louise, a devoted nurse played by Alida Valli, who traps and kidnaps the girls needed for the surgeon’s repeated attempts to make his only child beautiful again.
Franju plunges the altered face plot into the territory of fully realized horror, a genre shift that highlights the story’s affinity with Frankenstein even more clearly. The male surgeon’s transgressive, godlike act of remaking the woman’s face becomes even more disturbing when he is willing to sacrifice other innocent women in order to achieve his goal. Génessier’s obsession with his own surgical work has crossed the threshold into madness, but this doctor has more cause to be unhinged than the others because he is directly responsible for his daughter’s disfigurement. Having accidentally become the destroyer of his own daughter’s beauty, Génessier is determined to restore it to her, even at the cost of the numerous young women who become his surgical victims. He seems not to realize that he only continues acts of destruction, becoming more and more a monster himself. His experiments include grafts on a huge pack of dogs kept caged in the lower recesses of his compound, and Christiane recognizes the affinity between herself and the howling prisoners on whom her father operates again and again. The dogs’ relentless noise evokes both the cries of the damned in Hell and the clamoring of Fate waiting to catch up with the presumptuous surgeon.
Both of the earlier films offer the audience a good look at the disfigured woman before her transformation but draw a veil over the actual surgical process, while Eyes Without a Face does exactly the opposite. We catch only the briefest glimpse of Christiane’s ruined features, although a secondhand account of her accident suggests the full horror of her experience. Instead, the film’s great moment of shock and horror comes with a graphic depiction of the removal of another young woman’s face, a scene that reportedly caused audience members at the film’s debut to faint in droves. While the other two films offer demure bandage removal scenes that emphasize successful restoration, Franju’s picture overwhelms the viewer with the terrible destructive power of the surgeon’s work. We don’t see Dr. Segert and Dr. Ritter operate on their patients’ faces, although on some level we must realize that they cut, sculpt, stitch, and shape in a rather similar fashion. Franju, whose other films lay bare the horrors of the slaughterhouse and the insane asylum, grants us no reprieve from this ugly fact. The operation scene goes on, slowly and horribly, until all our hope of not seeing it happen has been lost. Génessier commits the act partly out of an obsessive masculine desire for control and partly out of guilt and love for his own disfigured child, but the camera forces us to see the destruction of the innocent girl who is his victim. Robbed of her face and her individuality, she eventually dies, and her blood is clearly on Génessier’s hands. In the meantime, the surgeon grafts the stolen face onto Christiane, but the dead girl’s sacrifice provides only a temporary restoration. When we finally see Edith Scob’s pretty features, they are disturbingly connected in our minds with the scene of mutilation and horror we have already been forced to witness. Beauty itself has become horrific.
Although she is not as erudite as Anna Holm, Christiane turns out to be all too conscious of the implications of her situation, and, like Lily, she eventually rebels against the masculine creator who seeks to control her destiny. Early in the film, Christiane confesses to Louise that while she is afraid of her face, she fears her shapeless mask even more. Her father has given her the mask and the commandment to wear it, presumably because he cannot bear to look at Christiane’s disfigured features. His guilt tortures him as much as her deformity, but Christiane, who is not guilty, feels less desire to hide from herself. Her father has pretended that Christiane is dead, using one of his faceless victims as a double for her corpse, and he has cut her off from the world, including the man she loves. She is literally a prisoner in her own home, hidden away, carefully controlled, as caged as the dogs in the secret kennels below. Even when she enjoys a brief return to beauty, her father controls her, telling her to smile, “but not too much.” Worst of all, her father’s monstrous acts implicate her in their horror because she wears the faces of the dead and mutilated girls, and she realizes that he will go on subjecting her and them to his operations forever. As her case is more extreme than Lily’s, so her rebellion is more violent. Determined to put an end to her own confinement and the suffering of her father’s victims, Christiane liberates the most recently kidnapped girl, murders Louise, and sets loose the pack of mutilated dogs. As Christiane, ghostly in white, floats through the final scenes, the dogs take their revenge on their tormentor. Having brought about her father’s destruction, the faceless girl vanishes into the darkness, much like the creature at the end of Shelley’s Frankenstein.
In each of these three films, certain elements recur. In the first place, the woman’s disfigurement is always, whether directly or indirectly, caused by men. Both Anna and Christiane are mutilated because of their fathers’ carelessness, while Lily is disfigured because of the Blitz, an instance of that most masculine of all institutions, war. Each woman becomes the patient of a male surgeon who wants to make her beautiful, the importance of which is so obvious that none of the films really feels the need to discuss it much. Each woman is also controlled by a man who wants to dictate her identity; for Anna, this man is Torsten Barring, but for Lily and Christiane the surgeon proves to be the one with an obsessive need for control. All three women rebel against the controlling men, although for Lily this rebellion proves fatal. Anna and Christiane both cause the deaths of the men who want to dominate them, thus successfully punishing them for their presumption. Not one of the women is willing to be a passive creature of her masculine creator.
The creator’s recognition of the woman’s agency proves to be a deciding factor. Of the three surgeons, only Dr. Segert is willing to let go of his patient and let her make her own choices. While he hopes to change Anna’s fate by changing her face, he does not control her decisions afterward, and his foil, Torsten, shows the folly of trying to do so. Dr. Ritter’s obsessive attempts to control Lily prove futile, although Dr. Génessier becomes the most extreme example, with the most extreme consequences. The extent and nature of the transformation also matters. The operation performed by Dr. Segert is the least extensive; he merely repairs the damaged part of Anna’s face and leaves the rest of it untouched. Joan Crawford plays the character both before and after her surgery, and for the most part she looks the same. Dr. Ritter oversteps his authority by completely changing Lily’s face, making her unrecognizable even to herself. He tries to rewrite her identity entirely, and the face that he gives her is already being worn by another woman. Ritter puts Lily through extensive and totally unnecessary operations to get the result he wants when a simple reconstruction of her real face would have served her much better. The change is so extreme that two different actresses play the character before and after her surgery. Dr. Génessier, the most experimental surgeon of the group, repeatedly tries to force other women’s faces to fit Christiane, ruining even more fates and faces in the process. His work is the most destructive and the most extensive, and it’s also the only attempt that fails from a surgical perspective.
All three narratives have come a long way from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story, “The Birthmark,” in which the presumptuous doctor removes his wife’s one facial flaw only to have her expire on the table when the last trace of the mark disappears. In that tale, the doctor pays for playing God, but the woman is merely a passive victim of his hubris. Her individuality and her identity vanish without a fight, and she becomes perfectly dead. Anna, Lily, and Christiane survive transformations both good and bad, and each possesses a powerful personal identity that struggles against oppressive masculine control. Unfortunately, their insistence on their own identities doesn’t always end well for the women. From a feminist perspective, the most backward film of the group is Stolen Face, which punishes the rebellious woman and actually rewards the presumptuous male. The picture’s ending represents a miscarriage of justice of the worst sort, not even in keeping with the conventions of its own genre. The melodramatic resolution of A Woman’s Face might strike some thoughtful viewers as overly sentimental, but at least Anna makes her own choice in the matter, and her identity as a woman who seeks and needs love is established very early in the film. The horror film, Eyes without a Face, surprisingly proves to be the most feminist take on the films’ common plot. Despite its graphic victimization of female characters, Eyes without a Face is ultimately a tale about Christiane’s self-liberation, her refusal to be shaped and controlled by her father’s obsession and guilt. She will not be his creature, and her rebellion brings about his destruction.
A Woman’s Face, Stolen Face, and Eyes without a Face are just a few examples of the different ways in which movies can address this common theme. Masculine films about facial change and identity, including Dark Passage (1947), Darkman (1990), and Face/Off (1997), have their own gendered concerns, but the three films discussed here show the ways in which women, in particular, are perceived as being defined by their faces. In real life as well as in fiction, women’s faces have all too often determined their fortunes, no matter what their other qualities might be. As these films show, men who seek to change women’s faces in order to control their fates do so at their peril.
This essay was originally presented at the meeting of the Popular Culture Association in the South in 2011. No Works Cited entries are provided in order to discourage plagiarism of this material. This essay is the intellectual property of Jennifer C. Garlen and may only be used with proper citation and credit.