Title: Mildred Pierce
Genre: Crime, Drama, Film-Noir
Director: Michael Curtiz
Writer: Ranald MacDougall
based on the novel of James M. Cain
Music: Max Steiner
Cinematography: Ernest Haller
Jo Ann Marlowe
Veda Ann Borg
Joan Crawford’s Oscar-crowning star vehicle, directed by Michael Curtiz, the Oscar-winner from CASABLANCA (1942), based on a novel from James M. Cain and centers on the checkered life of our titular heroine, a twice-married woman, a mother of two, an entrepreneur starts her restaurant business ex nihilo.
Ostensibly begins with a murder in the witching hour, the last word of the victim Monte Beragon (Scott), whom we later would know is Mildred’s second husband, is an exclamatory “Mildred!”, together with Mildred’s suicidal impulse and sequentially tries to frame Wally Fay (Carson), an old friend (who persistently makes romantic advances to her, twice a week), as the killer, handily inscribes Mildred’s name on the offender’s seat in viewer’s mind, then during the police interrogation, the narrative’s main constituents are big chunks of flashback told entirely and chronically through Mildred’s angle, not unlike Billy Wilder’s DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), Cain’s hard-boiled femme-fatale tall-tale.
Technically speaking, leaving out the murder scene (under the shades of striking chiaroscuro and atmospheric suspense), this film has barely any chromosome of film-noir in its vein and Mildred, is anything but a femme-fatale, what’s on offering is, firstly, a spirited story of a modern woman’s liberation from her domestic stereotype, following by a harrowing melodrama. Mildred is a tough gal, when she first husband Bert Pierce (Bennett) has an affair and loses his job, she has no hesitation to pull the plug of their marriage and takes it on herself to raising their two daughters Veda (Blyth) and Kay (Marlowe), starting from a menial job as a waitress. But, Mildred has her Achille’s heel, it is Veda, who is coddled by her unconditionally, which also causes the rift of her first marriage (and second as well), a rather discontent flavour in hindsight, is that we don’t get the motivation behind her indulgence of Veda from the word go other than her own characteristic foibles (which is further facilitated by mawkishly taking Kay out of the entire picture, pneumonia fails to take the bad seed), which insinuates that Mildred is awfully bad at being a mother, now one can see the picture: a woman can actively seek divorce, independence and become the bread-maker for her children, she also can have a successful career (however convenient the process seems according to the film), but she cannot have everything, she must has her clay of feet, and that falls upon to another woman, her young, angel-faced teenage daughter portrayed as a petulant, callous, stuck-up ingrate, whose utter resentment towards her mother also leaves no elucidation, thus, the only rationale is she is pure evil. That’s why it is very difficult to overlook its misogynous undertow in today’s view, a curse Mildred eventually breaks at the end but the sadistic approach is artistically unsavory, a sideline depiction of Eve Arden’s sharp-tongued Ida, a woman man intends to ignore because of her lack in sex appeal also comes off as a flea in the ear.
Of course, men aren’t better in every aspect in Cain’s cynical conception, wily and lecherous as Wally, decadent and obnoxious as Monte, prim and inadequate as Burt, on different scales, they are scourges of Mildred’s fix too, but some gets the comeuppance, some just doesn’t. Ms. Crawford gives a genuinely pulsating performance notwithstanding, even errs on the side of operatics, but the fine-line between good and great for an actress of her status is that, in the end of the day, she cannot afford to completely de-glamorize herself for the sake of her character, Mildred doesn’t need to be sexed up or gussied up, she is overall, a more head-headed type, but Ms. Crawford needs that, at the age of 39, she needs to reinforce her glamour not just by her acting bent, but her usual objectified sexual allure as well, which according to my lights, her own vanity and insecurity curtails the virtuosity of a well-rendered characterisation
Blyth and Arden are both Oscar-nominated, the former banks on a meaty role reek of insidious perverseness and the latter is a rapier-like wise-cracker, only Mildred never listens to her. Zachary Scott, on the other hand, combines a scintillating veneer of alluring urbanity, rank snobbery and depravity, one cannot really begrudge why those two women of disparate nature would both fall upon his sophisticated spells (however momentary they are), but that’s the crux of MILDRED PIERCE, it appears more convincing in eliciting the unabashed rottenness from menfolk, but less so in its petticoat discord, which actually is the nexus of the entire tear-jerking enterprise, however scrumptious it may pander to ours eyes.