|Loving mother, horrid daughter - Melodrama Meets Noir|
Mildred Pierce (1945)
Dir. Michael Curtiz
Nvl. James M. Cain
Scr. Ranald McDougall
Starring: Joan Crawford, Eve Arden, Ann Blyth, Jack Carson,
Bruce Bennett, Zachary Scott, Butterfly McQueen, Lee Patrick
Review By Greg Klymkiw
James M. Cain wrote plenty of books with murder in them (The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity), but the novel upon which the film Mildred Pierce is based, is bereft of murder. We can thank studio Warner Brothers, director Michael Curtiz and screenwriter Ranald McDougall for thinking about inserting one glorious lollapalooza of a homicide as a sturdy bookend to the movie version. This delicacy of mother-daughter madness gets piquantly spiced-up with that one necessary ingredient, thus allowing for the roiling psychological complexity of the tale to meld melodrama with film noir styling.
A murder. In a house. By the beach. It's night. A woman flees the scene. She contemplates suicide on a wharf just outside of a sleazy dockside watering hole. She's picked up for questioning. She tells her story.
Such is the opening of Mildred Pierce. The aforementioned woman is the title character. She's played by Joan Crawford (not long after MGM let her go for becoming box office poison). After this picture, she was poison no more. She even won an Oscar. For good reason too. Nobody suffers like Crawford's character suffers in this grim story about a mother who loves her ungrateful daughter too much.
Mildred's first marriage to the hapless, unemployed sad-sack sap Bert Pierce (Bruce Bennett) ends. His former business partner, the unbelievably agreeable, charming scumbag Wally Fay (Jack Carson), has always held a torch for her and tries to move in for some amorous gravy drippings. She spurns him and tries to make ends meet by home baking.
Eventually Mildred needs something more substantial than selling her pies, so she gets hired as a waitress by Ida (Eve Arden), the manager of a restaurant and wisecracking perennial bachelorette who eventually becomes her best friend. Our heroine tries to keep her job a secret from her daughters, 16-year-old Veda (Ann Blyth) and 10-year-old Kay (Jo Anne Marlowe). Kay would never have a problem with this - she's a total loving sweetie-pie. Veda on the other hand, is an absolute horror; a nasty, haughty socialite. Veda discovers Mildred's waitress uniform and bestows it upon the family's maid Lottie (Butterfly McQueen). Veda pretends to believe her Mom bought the outfit for Lottie to wear. She knows better. She is, in fact, ashamed and spitefully does this to make Mildred admit she works as a waitress.
Our heroine decides she needs to move up in the world - especially if she is to keep showering her grotesquely mean, selfish and spoiled eldest daughter with everything money can buy. She cuts a deal with horny hunk of congealed drool matter Wally and ends up starting her own restaurant. It's such a success that she ends up hiring Kay as the manager and begins to open a small chain of eateries.
The only thing missing in Mildred's life is love. Though Wally is a bucket of slime, he's a charming and rich sleaze ball. Instead, Mildred settles upon Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott) a handsome (in a weaselly kind of way) high society playboy with plenty of assets, but no money and a pile of debts. Oh, he's going to make her pay. And suffer, of course. Veda takes a shine to Monte's dashing lifestyle.
In fact, she takes too much of a shine to the man her mother loves.
Naturally, there will be a murder.
One of the cool things (and there is so much about this movie that's cool - pure and simple) is just how strong and complex the female characters are (even naughty Veda). The men, however, are a piece of work - almost hilariously so. Given that the most attractive male figure is played by slightly pudgy Jack Carson probably says everything we need to know. However, it's probably worth noting that Mildred's eventual paramour is a moustachioed, wiry and bony scumbag and her "decent" ex-husband is a borderline castrato who eventually settles down with the hausfrau-like Mrs. Biederhof (Lee Patrick).
That Mildred eventually has to suffer the indignity of watching her child die of pneumonia before her very eyes in the home of the hausfrau while testicle-free ex-hubby looks on uselessly is the stuff of great melodrama and definitely the kind of thing most movies today would have no idea how to master. Well, Mildred Pierce more than rises to the occasion.
What's extraordinary about the whole affair is how director Curtiz (Casablanca) swathes the picture with the thick fog and dark shadows of post-war ennui and all that became film noir. We get plenty of sun-dappled Malibu to go with the melodrama, but we're also served up with dank cocktail lounges, cheap dressing rooms with gum-snapping songstresses who show just a little too much leg and cleavage on stage plus a delightful number of frauds, double-crosses and infidelity to fill several blacker-than-black crime pictures.
And, of course, we get murder.
Oh, glorious murder!
And then, let's not forget a mother's love for her daughter, albeit an ungrateful little missy-saucy-pants. A mother, you see, will do anything for her daughter, even if said progeny gets boned by the shitheel her mother loves.
In such circumstances, can homicide ever be far behind?
THE FILM CORNER RATING: ***** 5-stars
Mildred Pierce is available on Blu-Ray and (if you must) DVD with a new 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray, a new conversation with critics Molly Haskell and Robert Polito, an excerpt from a 1970 episode of "The David Frost Show" featuring Joan Crawford, the terrific 2002 feature-length documentary "Joan Crawford: The Ultimate Movie Star", a Q&A with actor Ann Blyth from 2006, presented by Marc Huestis and conducted by film historian Eddie Muller at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, a segment from a 1969 episode of the Today Show featuring Mildred Pierce novelist James M. Cain, a trailer, an essay by critic Imogen Sara Smith and new cover art by Sean Phillips.