Mildred Pierce Review
If I had to make my own definition of “film noir”, that much abused and endlessly debated term, it would be as a film where the darkness swallows up the light. It’s a place where good people do bad things, either because of desperation or obsession, the influence of others or simply because they happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s the most horribly despairing of genres, where evil overwhelms good and people end up destroying their sad little lives. Some purists insist that film noir began in the early forties and was finished by the mid-fifties, but in my opinion that’s far too limiting and ignores some definitive examples of the genre such as Polanski’s Chinatown, Coppola’s The Conversation and Arthur Penn’s incredibly good, deconstructive Night Moves. Not all film noir necessarily ends with the triumph of evil - The Big Sleep being a prime example of a noir where good wins through, slightly unconvincingly, in the end - but a predicate of the genre, it seems to me, is that we should be left wondering how good can possibly thrive in a world which is so hopelessly corrupted.
Mildred Pierce, based on a novel by James M.Cain, who also wrote Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice is a particularly interesting example of noir, because it started out as a ‘woman’s picture’, the film that brought Joan Crawford to Warner Brothers as a counterpoint to the increasingly awkward Bette Davis. The usual Warners’ ‘woman’s picture’ can be summed up by Now Voyager - a well made, sentimental melodrama in which the downtrodden girl finally gets the guy she most wants, albeit with a twist of cynicism at the end. But Mildred Pierce is very different. What seems to have happened somewhere along the line is a ruthless darkening of the tone into something more akin to Fritz Lang than the customary output of Michael Curtiz. Curtiz wasn’t a hack by any means, bringing intelligence and pace to a wide variety of material, but nor was he the sort of director who put his mark indelibly onto a film as did, for example, John Huston or Howard Hawks. But on this occasion, his muscular narrative style turns Mildred Pierce into one of the most entertaining and provocative Hollywood films of the era, and his direction allows Joan Crawford to deliver a performance that was more than worthy of the Academy Award.
The film begins with a murder. Shots ring out and a man named Beragon (Scott) crashes to the floor, muttering “Mildred”. We then meet Mildred Pierce (Crawford), walking along the pier in her mink-coated finery and contemplating suicide before being prevented from jumping by an interfering policeman. She meets her old friend Wally (Carson) at his bar and he walks her home to the beach house, where unbeknownst to him the corpse is waiting. Spurning his advances, Mildred jumps out of the bathroom window and leaves Wally alone to face the imminent arrival of the cops. Wally is taken in for questioning while Mildred returns home to her daughter Veda (Blythe), but the cops arrive and take mother and daughter down to the station to inform them that Beragon, who turns out to be Mildred’s husband, is dead. They inform Mildred that her ex-husband, Bert Pierce (Bennett) has been arrested for murder but Mildred isn’t at all happy with this and begins to tell the story of her life, beginning when she was a housewife in suburban LA several years before.
Thus begins a lengthy flashback which rivetingly unravels the sad story of Mildred’s life, full of hopes shattered and compromises she has tried to turn into victories. Married to the unemployed Bert, she spends all day working to make her family proud of her, especially her spoiled daughter Veda, whose own snobbery makes her the most ungrateful child imaginable. Veda spurns Mildred’s presents and dreams of belonging to a ‘better’ family in a place well away from the crushingly boring suburbs. Mildred will do anything for her daughters, although she always puts Veda before the younger Kaye, and she is determined that nothing will stand in her way. Bert, feeling rejected, leaves home and Mildred has to become a waitress in order to supply Veda with the tokens of love that she expects, while hiding from her the job that she will consider unspeakably common. Veda, inevitably, finds out and is shocked - “My mother! A waitress!” - but Mildred simply keeps on going, hoping that success might eventually lead to her daughter showing her the love that has been denied for so long.
So far, so typical - this plot was used in a thousand romantic pictures of the time - but the opening segment indicates something much darker and, gradually, this is fulfilled. Mildred’s obsession with her horrible daughter’s comforts isn’t so much inspiring as rather sinister and it hints at an anger which rarely bursts out but is all over Crawford’s face as she grimly battles away to make money which will then be wasted on someone who doesn’t appreciate it. The character of Wally is deconstructed too. As a character type he’s the best friend whose advances are doomed to be ignored - a romantic comedy staple - but in this film he is rather lecherous and unsympathetic, his easy charm hiding a persistent obsession with sexuality. He says “I keep trying and eventually I succeed” and when his hand is upon Mildred’s knee, the implication of this persistent male sexual need is made quite plain. We also discover, early in the film, that he has sold Mildred out in some way and isn’t remotely apologetic about it. Jack Carson’s oily, sub-vaudeville charm was never again used as well as it is here and his sheer bulk is intimidating in itself.
The narrative begins to take a dive into purest noir territory when Mildred meets Beragon, whose failing restaurant she is determined to refurbish and turn into a success. Beragon, memorably played by Zachary Scott, is a hopeless businessman and the sort of man that women really should emigrate to avoid but he’s also charming and, in Mildred’s eyes, more than eligible. He’s also, recognisably, the ‘homme fatale’, the force of darkness that will bring Mildred’s life crashing down into the inferno. What’s particularly effective here is the way that Mildred’s hopes and dreams of success, both financial and social, are achieved - and she still doesn’t find happiness. Beragon’s financial irresponsibility leaves unpaid bills mounting up, all charged to the restaurant, but Mildred can’t seem to break free. Worse still, he’s beginning to take an interest in the charms of Veda, and he finds his interest reciprocated.
The rest of the film is a slow descent into nightmare for Mildred and there’s a powerful sense of inevitability about the way the narrative is resolved. This is another requirement of film noir - we should believe that there’s no other satisfactory way the story can be concluded. Film noirs with happy endings - for example, The Woman In The Window which is otherwise a model of the form - tend to look rather unconvincing, especially when the evil has been as lustrous and powerful as Fritz Lang made it in that film. I can think of one great conclusion which differs from this slightly; Arthur Penn’s Night Moves ends in total hopelessness, the hero ,aware of everything that has happened but totally unable to do anything about, finds himself on a scuppered boat going round and round in circles. But that was in 1975, thirty years on from Mildred Pierce and a more cynical age. In 1945, a time when victory was on the horizon and feel-good was in vogue, the cynicism and desperate sadness of Curtiz's film were brave and unusual. The final revelations about the murder of Beragon aren't entirely unexpected, but they do bring the spectre of evil right into the heart of the family, where it was to stay for other excellent genre films like The Red House, Scarlet Street and ultimately Chinatown.
Joan Crawford is simply unforgettable in the title role. An actress who didn't really have much talent - but who was undoubtably a star in the sense of being a dominant presence in front of the camera - this is the role which places her indelibly into film history. She underplays heroically in the first half of the film and when she blows, occasionally but memorably, she allows the frustration and rage of Mildred to explode right in the face of the viewer. The character of the downtrodden, forebearing housewife was a stereotype in films but Crawford renews it by playing it with such dedication. Her power is matched by Ann Blyth, playing her daughter Veda. One of the nastiest characters in cinema, Veda is as vicious a little harpy as you could hope never to meet, and the moments when Mildred slaps her and, later, when she slaps Mildred are fantastic bits of Hollywood camp. But they're camp only when seen out of context. Within in the film, they are dramatic highlights. I don't think Blyth ever did a single thing that was as good as this. Zachary Scott does his patented lounge lizard number, but does it well, and a word should be reserved for Bruce Bennett, longtime fall guy (memorably in The Treasure Of Sierra Madre) who plays Bert as a sort of male Mildred but with more control over his life.
Integral to the success of the film are the cinematography by Ernest Haller and the baroque set design by Anton Grot. Haller makes inventive use of threatening shadows and what you might call 'dumb show' effects with the characters in sillhouette and a good deal of the film is shot from a low angle to emphasise the overbearing low ceilings of Mildred's suburban prison. The script, by Ranald MacDougall (with uncredited polishing from William Faulkner among others), is very faithful to the book and full of memorably spiky dialogue - at one point Ida reflects on Veda by saying "I think alligators have the right idea. They eat their young.". Curtiz marshals his resources with skill and some impressive narrative cunning and obviously delights in subverting the demands of the 'woman's picture' genre. Max Steiner also connives in this, contributing one of his best scores and, in a truly inspired moment, slipping in the love theme from Now Voyager, thus demonstrating how far this film is from the movies which Warners were producing at a rate of knots in the early years of the war. Indeed, Mildred Pierce seems, in retrospect, to owe as much to the Warner crime movies of the thirties as it does to the Bette Davis star vehicles of the forties. Films like William Wellman's The Public Enemy and Raoul Walsh's The Roaring Twenties share this steely, unsentimental view of America, as does Walsh's marvellous White Heat which came out in 1949. Later woman's pictures, on the other hand, seemed to shun the gripping realism of Mildred Pierce, opting instead for grand, incredibly camp melodrama which sometimes ignited into pure demented magic. Bette Davis's Deception is probably the ultimate example of this madness reaching its logical conclusion, although Crawford's own The Damned Don't Cry is also a strong contender for the Grand Lunacy award.
Feminists tend to see Mildred Pierce as a study of the dangers that lay in wait for any housewife who dared to step out of her proscribed social role, and there is some merit in this reading of the film. But one might observe that, in fact, Mildred is able to make a real success of her restaurant business and conduct a perfectly reasonable relationship with her ex-husband and that the origins of her downfall actually lie in her insistence on sticking to the rules of forties domesticity and, indeed, trying to epitomise them. She wants to embrace the stereotype but is unable to because life isn't like that, so in a sense it's an establishment auto-critique. However, the film is feminist in its depiction of patriarchy as irredeemably corrupt and/or hopeless. Bert Pierce is a dish-rag of a man, Wally is a cringing sexist, Beragon is a conniving, adulterous bastard and even the cop who listens to Mildred's story is too paternalistic by half. In contrast, Mildred comes across as perfectly reasonable. The most attractive and 'normal' (if I can use that word in this context) character in the film is Ida, played by the marvellous Eve Arden in what is her accustomed role; sexy, intelligent, more than capable of supporting herself and cynically unsentimental. In fact, the character in Curtiz's work that she most resembles is Claude Rains' police captain Louis from Casablanca, and I mean that as a compliment.
However you choose to view it - as a subversion of the woman's picture, as a feminist text, as a film noir or as a hell-for-leather melodrama - Mildred Pierce is a classic Hollywood movie. It demonstrates all the virtues of the studio system; a reliable director, first-rate technical credits and a cast of contract players who are obviously thrilled to get a chance at a decent script. Joan Crawford, as discussed below, rarely got another chance as good as this. Perhaps only Robert Aldrich, in Autumn Leaves and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, and Nicholas Ray, in Johnny Guitar really understood the potential behind the photo-ready face , and by then it was almost too late. But she survives, as she survived the bad scripts, the gossip, the affairs and - in reputation at least - the memoirs of her daughter, on screen in Mildred Pierce, and surely any lover of cinema has to rejoice at that.
Warners have set very high standards for their DVD releases of classic films from their back catalogue. Citizen Kane stood out as a dazzling example of careful remastering and similar miracles were achieved with Now Voyager and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. It's with much pleasure that I tell you that Mildred Pierce is even better. The transfer is simply dazzling, worth full marks for the sheer painstaking effort involved in its restoration. Watch a video print of the film if you don't believe me. Every single nick and tear has vanished and we have a film which looks as good as new and perhaps even better than new.
The film is presented in the original fullscreen ratio of 1.33:1. I can't praise it highly enough and will avoid too much gushing, but the black and white images are beautifully crisp and clear. No artifacting is evident and the deliberately dark, moody cinematography comes across very successfully. The shadow detail is extraordinarily fine and the contrast throughout is perfect it. No edge enhancement is visible. The small amount of grain on the image is intentional and adds to the overall effect of the lighting. This is clearly the work of a great deal of restoration and it speaks volumes for the committment Warners can put into their classic films when they choose to.
The original mono soundtrack is present on the disc and, sensibly,.no attempt has been made to remaster it in stereo. There is no hissing or distortion, the dialogue is crystal clear throughout and the music comes through very strongly. Again, some restoration has clearly taken place here and while it's not the kind of soundtrack to use as demo material for your new DTS sound system, it does the job very well.
The film appears on side 1 of the disc and the extra materials, apart from two filmographies, appear on side 2. Personally I prefer two discs rather than double sided ones but that's a minor niggle. We get eight theatrical trailers, covering the films that Crawford made at Warner Brothers in the forties and early fifties and two that have already been released on DVD - George Cukor's The Woman and Aldrich's Whatever Happened To Baby Jane. All of these are well worth watching and some of them are hysterically over the top.
Even better, we also get a Turner Classic Movies documentary called Joan Crawford: The Ultimate Star which is an 86 minute study of the rather tragic life of this woman. It covers all the bases, from her arrival in Hollywood as Lucille La Seuer to her eventual renaming following a public competition and on to her careers at MGM and Warner Brothers. The personal life is examined too, notably her various marriages and affairs. From the mid-fifties, the general decline in quality of her films is explained and the claims of her daughter Christine about how she was abused are examined in a reasonable amount of depth. The overall impression is that Joan Crawford has received something of a raw deal in recent years and this documentary should go some way towards correcting the balance. It would be great to see a similar piece about Bette Davis or Norma Shearer on future releases. The documentary is well written, narrated with dry humour by Anjelica Huston and features plenty of interviews with Crawford's contemporaries and her biographers. This has a stereo soundtrack and is in fullscreen format with 23 chapters.
The film has 32 chapter stops.The cover art is a little lurid but that actually represents the film quite well.
Mildred Pierce is a must for everyone who loves Hollywood cinema. It threatens to tip over into camp one or two times but always manages to steer clear of being unintentionally funny. The DVD is outstanding - the only addition I would have liked would be a scholarly commentary - and is, as far as I'm concerned, an essential purchase.