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Melodrama welded successfully with film noir
on 30 October 2015
The 1945 noir-melodrama Mildred Pierce is highly interesting on a number of counts. First off, it’s a superb example of Hollywood studio craftsmanship. The studio system was at its highest height in the early 40s and along with Raoul Walsh, Michael Curtiz was responsible for many Warner Bros. hits, not the least of which being Casablanca (1942). The system being what it was however, the director was just one cog in a vast mechanism (neither Walsh or Curtiz had any consistent directorial style that I can discern), and what we have here in Mildred Pierce is a brilliant script (a Ranald MacDonald adaptation of James M. Cain’s novel), superb noir cinematography (take a bow Ernest Haller), terrific sets (Anton Grot), sweeping typically lush Max Steiner music and a cluster of marvelous performances, all marshaled by Curtiz’s unfussy, clear and to the point direction. Not all studio films were good of course and for every one success there were ten or twenty failures, but when all the constituent parts worked well together as they do here, then the results are stupendous and all doubts about ‘commercial Hollyweird dross’ vanish.
Curtiz apparently didn’t initially want Joan Crawford for the title part, but she puts in an extraordinary Oscar-winning display as a once-affluent now down-on-her-luck divorcee in south California who succeeds through hard graft to establish a restaurant chain. Those who only know her for her camp larger-than-life roles in films such as Johnny Guitar (1954) and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) will be surprised by the subtle sensitivity she displays in this film. Playing alongside her is Ann Blyth as her spoiled daughter Veda, the inspirer and the destroyer of Mildred’s hard-earned success. Blyth captures the sweetness and the insolence her role calls for and makes for a superb sparring partner to Crawford in many of the film’s electrifying melodramatic confrontations. The third powerful lady is Eve Arden as Ida, Mildred’s initial boss, but then later business manager. Her role is drastically reduced from the original novel to comic relief, but she gets a number of wickedly acidic put-downers to fire at the unfortunate men in the film. These men are first and foremost the smooth-talking Wally Fay (Jack Carson), the realtor turned nightclub owner who spends the film trying to jump Mildred, but succeeds only in being used by her to climb the social scale. Then there’s her thoroughly decent but unemployed first husband Bert (Bruce Bennett) who walks out because he can’t compete with his daughters for Mildred’s affections, and the suave and sophisticated playboy Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott) who lets Mildred have the property for her first restaurant, but with twisted strings attached. All of these characters are cast to perfection and get to enounce a nigh-perfect script. It might seem pure ‘movie talk’ to audiences now used to realism with a capital ‘R’, but it’s worth noting that a good old-fashioned Hollywood script is shot through with literary precision and is pure joy to listen to especially when played with this level of expertise.
Perhaps the most fascinating thing about this film is its conflation of unlikely genres. Unlike his other two famous novels (Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice) Cain’s Mildred Pierce is no noir and it is anything put ‘hard-boiled’. It is a straight family melodrama which focuses on the mother-daughter relationship. Adapted straight to the screen, the film would have fallen into the ‘woman’s weepie’ category similar to Stella Dallas (1937, King Vidor) or any of Douglas Sirk’s ‘50s melodramas (Imitation of Life being most pertinent to the mother-daughter theme). This would have posed a major problem for the production code of the time which stipulated that immoral actions must be punished on screen. To get around this Warner Bros ingeniously capitalized on Cain’s noir reputation and turned Mildred Pierce into a film noir. They injected a murder into the film’s very beginning and set up the whole film as a series of flashbacks with Mildred narrating the story as she tells it to the cops in the police station. We don’t know who the murderer is until the film’s final scene so turning the film into an amalgam of woman’s weepie melodrama, film noir and murder mystery. It would also be a rags to riches feminist social commentary with its tale of women twisting men around their little fingers if the film finally didn’t ‘cop out’ in damning a woman for ever harboring any ambitions for independence away from men. ‘A woman’s place is at home’ would seem to be the final moral. This becomes altogether less sexist if we remember this is 1945 here. With a war raging around the world women did what they could to survive at home away from their men, but with the arrival of thousands of homecoming soldiers imminent it is no surprise Hollywood studios wanted to transmit the message that soon the men will be back to take care of their families and women wouldn’t have to work again.
The Warner Bros presentation of this DVD is superb in every way, the picture (aspect ratio 1.33 Full Frame) sharp and true and the mono sound ideally clear. There’s also an hour long documentary on Joan Crawford which is useful. The actress’ private life was as full of tragedy as Mildred Pierce’s and when Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar came to paying homage to Mildred Pierce in High Heels (1991) he was referring as much to Crawford’s problems with her own children (she disowned two of them) as he was to the movie she made. Mildred Pierce then is a an essential film well worth seeing for lovers of the classic Hollywood of the 40s, and for lovers of future directors working in the melodrama genre, not just Almodóvar, but Sirk, Fassbinder and many others besides. Those who saw Todd Haynes' 2011 mini series taken from the source will be surprised by how different this film is.