Not 1960s Elizabeth Montgomery good-witch territory; this 1940s psychological noir involves multiple-personality disorder. Why is this type of victim always a woman? Anyway, Phyllis Thaxter plays the afflicted Joan Ellis. Audrey Totter (actually just her voice) is Joan’s other personality, ‘Karen’. Joan’s parents are Mrs. Ann Ellis (Kathleen Lockhart), and John Ellis (Addison Richards). Doctor Bergson (Edmund Gwenn) is on-call. Joan finds a lover, Eric Russell (Stephen McNally). Along the way, she (Karen, that is) kills her fiancee Bob Arnold (Henry J. Daniels, Jr.).
Her execution is slated at midnight; it’s 11:00 pm. So, let’s have a flashback. Back in small town USA, Bob and Joan are at their engagement party. “What have you got to be afraid of?” he says, as she looks worried, apprehensive. And the parents are talking with Doc Bergson in hushed tones. She’s ‘unwell’; hearing voices that is.
“Joan” says the creepy voice; she’s right here “in your head.” A motormouth that Karen; “I won’t go back in the dark!” But then Joan/Karen feints. Bob confers with the Doc, and with the dog. At a picnic, Joan tries to assure Bob that she’s not losing it. Kind of a cute scene follows, in which a little girl (Sharon McManus) talks them into taking her to look at the zoo animals. In the very different world of seventy-plus years ago, not a big deal for a kid to automatically trust decent-looking strangers. It’s also the occasion for a fresh freakout as Joan’s spooked by the tiger.
More rest prescribed for Joan. But, what’s this? She sneaks out to a seedy downtown area. Karen wants to “take over.” Joan’s told to run off by herself. “What do you want Bob for? You want a man!” Bob wouldn’t be amused. Anyway, poor Joan ducks into a theatre, escaping Karen’s “crazy! crazy!” taunts. On stage, there’s beautiful rendition of an appropriately melancholy Stephen Foster Song. Outside, more taunts from Karen; Joan actually does split, and leaves a note.
In New York City, Joan’s getting a job, meeting Mr. Herkheimer (Will Wright). Glenda (Gladys Blake) is her suitably sympathetic, wise-cracking mentor. Joan’s first customer, Eric, more or less falls in love with her at first sight. He’s pleading, then patronizing; she’s reticent, but lowers her guard a bit “I was ill, but I’m well again.” They’re out on a date on the Hudson, where Captain O’Malley (Oscar O’Shea) gets real inquisitive too. Why are they’re no other passengers? Is everyone a philosopher here? No boundaries either.
The Captain relates a wartime experience of his ship sinking, and a somewhat ironic rescue. With that cue, Eric proposes to Joan–on their first date? Maybe it’s a use of fore-shortening, but everything seems to happen quickly in this movie. Unfortunately (and didn’t we know this was coming) Karen not only pops into Joan’s head, but now completely inhabits her, which scares Eric. She’s back to square one with guys. At her place she finds Bob. She wants him to take her home, that is, to her hometown.
Alone, she’s arguing with Karen. “I’ll make your body sing and cry…dance and burn and crawl in the mud!” That’s pretty bad, right there. Joan’s dilemma is that if she “tells” people about Karen, they’ll assume she’s nuts. But, when Bob gets back, Karen seizes the opportunity. Hey, Joan, don’t pick up those scissors! “Kill him! Kill him!” Karen wins the battle of wills, Joan stabs him. Bob’s dead.
Fast forward to courtroom drama; Doc Bergson figures that Joan’s not insane, so she’s responsible for the murder. Eric takes up her case (it helps that he’s an attorney); but she refuses to testify. That’s for the same reason she wouldn’t “tell” on Karen. She’d rather be executed than be committed to an asylum. It’s a foregone conclusion that she’ll be found guilty. “First it was Bob, then Eric, and when I get tired of him…” Thanks, Karen. Oddly, despite what seems to be an open-and-shut case, she might’ve had a chance with the jury. But, gratuitously, she confesses.
She wants to die because that’s the only way to get rid of Karen. Even given the possibility that she could be institutionalized, it’s not that smart to deny her split personality. Given that she has a good attorney and a good doctor, not to mention a supportive family, why not come clean? She could possibly get off on an insanity plea; then, with luck, be released into her parent’s/doctor’s care. The Governor (Minor Watson) is asked for a reprieve.
The cat is out of the bag by now; Joan has told Eric, indirectly, about her condition. So, the Doc asks to hypnotize her to show that Karen’s personality exists: “two divergent personalities living in the same brain.” This is a very chatty long scene. It’s reminiscent of the requisite ’50s sci-fi deal: the earnest scientist trying to convince a skeptical general that there’s a giant prehistoric monster lurking in the Hudson or whatnot.
If that’s not enough, the interview/hypnosis with Joan also takes place in the governor’s office. Is the governor’s mansion adjacent to the prison? Luckily for her, and us, Karen indeed pops out. Bergson is convinced that yes, there is a Karen after all. Now, even the governor seems to believe it. Thanks to Bergson’s continuing probing, we get some hallucinatory stuff–a ghostly out-of-body Joan and Karen (she’s creepy-looking). Bergson more or less exorcises Karen. “You (Joan) are free. Free forever” It would seem so. The narrator finishes things off nicely. The presumption is that the Governor will grant a reprieve.
This was adapted from a radio play, which explains the chattiness. Nonetheless, the first two-thirds or so rolls along elegantly; it’s almost too well-paced and edited. Starting near the end, then flashing-back until the story catches up wth itself works dramatically because the various devices have their own internal logic. We’re seeing an almost documentary-style series of highlights; something like a novel condensed to a short story. The effect’s very entertaining.
But the long scenes at the Governor’s office reduce Bewitched to its stagey origins. It’s as though the run time just had to be extended. And, with all the jibber-jabber, it’s still not clear what Joan’s ultimate fate is. It’s inconceivable that she would completely walk away, no matter that Karen’s got her comeuppance. Is she considered cured because she’s rid of her nemesis? Meaning that the murder didn’t count, so to speak. But what’s to prevent another Karen from manifesting itself?
The multiple-personality syndrome was played as straight psychiatry, without any hint of a possession/supernatural element. That’s progressive, especially for the ’40s. Joan’s definitely portrayed as a victim. The legal aspect, despite all the stuff with the trial, not to mention the governor’s intervention, seems to lack emphasis compared to the psychological element.
It helped that the performances were strong and complimented each other well. Thaxter has just the right blend of haunted vulnerability and girl-next-door attractive decency. Had the last part of Bewitched been tighter, it would’ve had an incredible impact. Still, drawn-out denouement and all, it’s very good.
More cool DeSoto cabs for Farmermouse. He gives Bewitched seven rides to the Chrysler Building. 7/10.