In one of the most successful films of her career, Lana Turner played a woman facing possible scandal in a small town called Peyton Place (1957). After facing her own real life scandal and trial, she returned to familiar cinematic territory with By Love Possessed (1961), a melodrama based on the James Gould Cozzens best seller about the secret passions bubbling beneath the surface of a picturesque New England community.
What it’s all about: The soapy plot revolves around the interconnected lives of three local lawyers who work at the same firm. Jason Robards helpfully describes how the local townsfolk perceive each of the partners. Thomas Mitchell is “the grand old man,” Efrem Zimbalist Jr. is “the pillar of the community” and Robards labels himself the “Egghead.”
Zimbalist’s son, George Hamilton, is home from Harvard and resentful of the life that lies ahead of him. “Living in your town, working in your law firm, marriage to the girl of your choice.”
That girl is virginal Susan Kohner, who also happens to be “the richest orphan in Winner County.” She knows that Hamilton has had success with girls more worldly than she, “You never even once tried with me.”
“I wouldn’t have succeeded now would I?”
“No… you might have had the decency to try.”
Hamilton also disagrees with his father about a case that they’re preparing for trial. Hamilton argues that it would be in the client’s best interest if he lost the case, but for Zimbalist the law is black and white. He is unable to bend the rules and is seemingly incapable of compassion.
Boozy society wife Lana Turner interrupts a private hearing at her husband’s office. Turner drunkenly stumbles around (an act she’d later perfect in Madame X, 1966) before begging Zimbalist to help her divorce Robards.
He assures Turner that he’ll “give her a divorce any time she asks for it… sober.” He goes on to explain that his wife is, “miserably unhappy, so she gets drunk.” It seems poor Lana has “urges and needs” that he can’t satisfy because an auto accident has left him crippled.
A big city lawyer meets with Zimbalist to inform him that Mitchell has improperly handled twenty thousand dollars of a client’s estate. When Zimbalist visits the hospital to see wife Barbara Bel Geddes (who’s laid up for a week because of a fall on the tennis court) he breaks the news that they’ll have to force Mitchell into early retirement. Since Mitchell is her father, she’s understandably upset. It just one more issue to add to the marital problems between them.
Before Robards leaves for Washington on business, he warns Turner that, “If you keep on the way you’re going, they’re going to label you the lovely lush.”
She reiterates that her problems stem from her “human wants and needs”.
“Well go out and get what you need.” He bellows, “Just don’t let me know!”
In the kind of dramatic monologue she excels at, Turner recounts the tale of the night he came home from his accident. “You pushed me away. You made me feel like an animal, before I knew I was one,” she sighs, wringing every ounce of pathos out of the moment. She asks again for a divorce, but he refuses.
While on the way home from the country club, Turner spots Zimbalist out for an evening stroll. With Elmer Bernstein’s dramatic theme underscoring just how verboten their meeting is, they stand beside a gazebo and ponder their attraction. With an artfully painted backdrop for their scenery and carefully positioned arc lights for their flattering blue moonlight, they share a forbidden kiss. They hop in the car and drive to a nearby stable for a satisfying roll in the hay.
Meanwhile, Hamilton has his eye on trampy diner waitress Yvonne Craig. Even the town doctor pronounces that this petulant gal from the wrong side of town has “Been around more in her twenty years than the moon in it’s millions.” When Hamilton offers her a drink, she vamps the memorable line, “If I get drunk and pass out… it’s no fun for me. If you get drunk and pass out… it’s no fun for me.”
They drive to a wooded area where’s there’s plenty of fun to be had by all. When he gives her the inevitable brush off, she slaps him and reads him the riot act while habitually referring to herself in the third person,”Nobody treats Veronica like a tramp but Veronica!” She smacks him a few more times for good measure.
Bel Geddes arrives home from the hospital in time to learn that Craig has accused her son of rape. Hamilton admits that he had carnal knowledge of the girl, but didn’t force her. Zimbalist doesn’t believe him and lectures Hamilton in a Perry Mason-style rant about love and lust, two things Zimbalist knows quite a lot about.
Good girl Kohner is upset when she hears the news about her fiancé, but is prepared to stand by her man. He knows he doesn’t deserve her support and comes clean with the truth, “I don’t love you. I wish I did, but I don’t.” Hamilton then skips town before his scheduled hearing.
Kohner makes preparations to go away, “Sometimes on a trip, they say you find yourself.” She ends up going on a trip, the eternal kind. She commits suicide (tastefully off camera) by swallowing cleaning fluid.
With all that is going on, Zimbalist and Turner get philosophical about their affair. “We needed something… an escape.”
“An act of defiance.” He agrees.
While wearing a wildly unflattering orange dressing gown, Turner prepares to leave her husband, but is interrupted by Hamilton’s return to town. She tells him of Kohner’s suicide and he naturally feels guilty. Turner helpfully points out, “You didn’t kill her. She killed herself.”
Robards also returns to town and while going over Kohner’s will with Zimbalist, they take a closer look at the ledgers kept by Mitchell. As it turns out, he wasn’t incompetently handling the accounts, but embezzling funds… for a good cause. Zimbalist is willing to keep the whole thing quiet. Robards marvels at the sudden change in his idealistic partner, “Last Tuesday you wanted to tell Noah that he was incompetent, too old, too feeble to run the firm.”
“That was Tuesday, this is Friday.”
“What happened in between?”
“Wednesday and Thursday.”
With his new, slightly more forgiving take on life, Zimbalist tepidly tells his wife how much he cares. When Hamilton walks in the front door, only a few words are needed for the family to be reunited.
With a similarly brief exchange, the bad years between Turner and Robards are forgotten. Since she conveniently forgets to mention the affair with his business partner, their reunion goes quite smoothly. He tosses his cane aside and moves in for a final romantic clinch.
In conclusion: Though Turner receives top billing, By Love Possessed is much more of an ensemble piece than the kind of star vehicle tailored to fit Turner’s specific talents. If anyone might be considered the star of the film, it’d be Zimbalist. Not only does he receive the most screen time, but it’s his character that represents the emotional center the story revolves around. This isn’t to say that Lana enthusiasts will come away disappointed. By Love Possessed may not be as glossy as Portrait in Black (1960) or Love Has Many Faces (1965), but Turner still has several moments in the film that assure her place in the pantheon of classic movie soap queens.