Stars: Joan Crawford, Jack Carson, Zachary Scott, Ann Blyth, Bruce Bennett, Butterfly McQueen | Written by Ranald MacDougall, Catherine Turney | Directed by Michael Curtiz
The shadow of Casablanca will always loom over Michael Curtiz’s bumper filmography, but time has been nearly as kind to Mildred Pierce, an adaptation of James M. Cain’s 1941 novel. A Joan Crawford vehicle made in 1945, the movie is a solid and relevant story that was remade recently for television by Todd Haynes for HBO – albeit minus the murder subplot, which wasn’t in the original text.
Crawford plays Mildred Pierce-Beragon, a woman hauled in by the police following the shooting of her husband, Monte (a slithery Zachary Scott). Mildred is the prime suspect, but then the film flicks to flashback as she starts telling the story of her rises and falls, and we begin to learn of the machinations that ended in murder.
We meet the younger Mildred, who’s married to Bert (Bruce Bennett). She’s a bored housewife and he’s an unemployed layabout, so she boots him out. She starts working so that she can raise the funds to open her own restaurant – mostly to appease her elder daughter, Veda (Ann Blyth), who’s only a teenager but already demands the lifestyle of an L.A. socialite.
With the help of her friend and real estate agent Wally (Jack Carson), Mildred purchases property from one Monte Beragon, and she begins to realise her dream. Would that it were so simple. The complications are mounting up: Wally’s in love with Mildred; Mildred’s in love with Monte; and Veda loves nothing but “nice things”.
The bulk of the plot concerns the tempestuous relationship between mother and daughter – the barking and the bitterness along the way, leading up to the already-known tragedy. It’s understandable why Ranald MacDougall’s screenplay throws in the murder; because underneath lies the soapiest of operas, regardless of the film noir shadows that Curtiz throws around the domestic sets.
This is a character piece, and all are drawn in detail. The three main men begin as egotists, and all assume they will get what they want, in spite of Mildred’s ambitions. But all are struck dumb by her determination, and the ruthlessness by which she conducts the business of her business and the business of her daughter. It’s the latter that is the confounding factor: Veda develops all the traits of her unshrinking mother except for the work ethic. Veda is missing the experience that taught her mother so much: the daily struggle.
In an Oscar-winning turn, Crawford absolutely embodies the title role. The key is understatement; it’s a part that begs for melodrama, but just like the defiant character herself, Crawford refuses to deliver. The result is a centrepiece of enormous gravitas. This isn’t to say Mildred is infallible. Her chink is her daughter. The central conflict of unconditional maternal love versus the very conditional love of the child is undeniably moving, not to mention timeless.
Also sharing the Pierce household is Lottie (Butterfly McQueen), a squeaking black servant stereotype who almost dates the movie to hell. Almost.
The movie has been criticised for its contrivances, and it’s a fair claim. Break it down, and there’s little logical sense to many of the motivations in the movie, particularly with regard to Veda. A second-act tragedy would seem to plant the seed for Veda’s resentment of her mother, but it’s glossed over so swiftly that it doesn’t ring true in a dramatic sense.
But rather than the nuances of its plotting, Mildred Pierce lives and dies on its characters and players, and the conviction of its underlying themes. Curtiz and Crawford shape what could have been a cautionary tale of women reaching beyond their station into a powerful, angry feminist text. It’s also fast-moving in a way that the sluggish miniseries could never be (from Mildred’s first waitress job to the opening of her restaurant takes 30 seconds of screen time), yet only the right bits are rushed.
Forgive its implausibilities and revel in its wordplay and camerawork – as well as its sarcastic, subversive edge – and Mildred Pierce has plenty to offer admirers of complex, exquisitely directed classical film drama.
As always, Criterion’s extras are exemplary. We get a discussion between critics Molly Haskell and Robert Polito about the novel and the film; a 2002 documentary about Joan Crawford, the “Ultimate Movie Star”; an excerpt from David Frost’s 1970 interview with Crawford; an Ann Blyth Q&A from a 2006 screening of the film; a 1969 interview with the novel’s author; and the original trailer.
Mildred Pierce is out on Blu-ray on February 27th from Criterion.