Sunday, May 17, 2020
Noir Watch: Mildred Pierce (1945)
Format: Noir Alley on TCM on DVR
Director: Michael Curtiz
It's pointless for a schlub blogger like me to get into writing much about Mildred Pierce (1945) - it's one of the best known and most written about movies out there, still a favorite among even the most casual of classic film fans. Anyway, there's no shortage of critical analysis out there about the film.
Based on a book by James M. Cain, who also brought us The Postman Always Rings Twice, the story opens with the end - a man shot, a woman miserable and wan taking a jovial man back to the scene of the crime and then fleeing, leaving him for the cops to find him. In flashback the movie follows divorcee Mildred Pierce over the course of a few years of melodrama, learning to stand on her own two feet, building not just a successful restaurant, but a chain of restaurants. Inbetween she finds and loses love, but - mostly - she deals with her absolute pill of a daughter, Veda, one of the most memorable horrible people in cinema.
We were shown Mildred Pierce in film school during a unit of "women's pictures", as some movies were categorized for a few decades there - mostly melodramas. Mildred Pierce, curiously, straddles the genre of women's picture and film noir, which I don't particularly remember my instructor mentioning at the time. I also remember quite liking the other example entry, Imitation of Life (Douglas Sirk director), but absolutely being way, way into this movie. Of course, the stars of the films were Lana Turner and Joan Crawford, so that likely did not hurt young-me's chances of paying attention.
By the mid-90's when I saw this movie Crawford was more or less a staple of post Mommie Dearest rumor mongering and a casualty of her late-career films, now remembered for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and her horror pictures than the decades of movies upon which she'd hung her name. And, of course, once you know anything about Crawford, you realize what an absolute fucking tragedy it is that a girl who should have lived and died in Oklahoma (she actually grew up in a house a few streets over from where Jamie grew up), a product of abuse and neglect, managed to claw her way into movies and become one of the biggest stars on the planet, having a career that outlasted almost all of her contemporaries - she worked from the end of the silent era to 1970.
But, fortunately, my first Joan Crawford movie was her comeback movie of 1945, where the studios still embraced her glamour (a source of contention on the film as Mildred was supposed to be working class... that was the whole point). They showed us the film on a big screen in an auditorium, in near cinema-level size. And, yeah, I bought everything Crawford did. And continue to do so.
It doesn't hurt that Mildred Pierce is written as a multifaceted character with an iron will and drive, but painfully large blind spots when it comes to how and whom she loves. I heard Stanwyck was also up for the character, and there's part of me that would love to see that alternate reality where Stanwyck is the one baking pies to pay for dresses (and based on how Stanwyck built her career, it's shocking she didn't get the part), but as much as I genuinely like Stanwyck, I'm not the only one who thought what Crawford brought to the part in those patented close-ups was pretty terrific. She wound up receiving the Oscar for the role (which she famously accepted from her bed).
Of course the film has a host of other great talent. Directed by the multi-dimensional Michael Curtiz and with cinematography by Ernest Haller, every shot in the film is beautifully crafted and the story holds together across years, never feeling rushed (minus one line by Zachary Scott's character upon the death of Mildred's younger daughter) and all coming back to that office at the police station and the question of who killed this man and why? And, you can't go wrong when you cast Eve Arden as the wise-cracking best pal of our hero, willing to say what we're all thinking with ample shade thrown about casually.
Zachary Scott would reteam with Crawford in other movies, working very well with her as a slick playboy and a bit of a cad. But the role everyone remembers is Ann Blyth as Veda. Between she and Curtiz, they found how to make her awful, while at times showing moments of vulnerability or normal humanity so you don't think Mildred is just nuts for not tossing her own daughter out a window. But, holy cats.
I don't have a "this movie made me a classic movie fan" single film, but if there were guideposts along the way, certainly this was one of them. I'm the first to admit that watching film can be work, and the more barriers you have - be it a sub-titled film, black and white, or simply dealing with a time and place you find unfamiliar - the more work you may have to do to follow along. But this movie was seamless viewing for me on a first go, and it's a testament to Curtiz's work that the film holds up so well and continues to translate for movie watchers.
Eventually I'd hear of this movie referred to as noir, which is a fair categorization to question. But from the "let's start with a murder and go back to how it happened" framing to the shadow-pitched cinematography, it starts to look a hell of a lot like noir. But as Muller stated succinctly in his comments - Veda is a femme fatale, it's just that she's exploiting the love of her mother instead of some guy who fell for her that's the difference.
Anyway, hell of a movie.