Shots ring out, and a man lies dead in a beach-house. On the boardwalk, a richly-dressed woman, Mildred Pierce, contemplates suicide, before being taken to the local police station to recount the events that led to the man’s death…
Every decade of Joan Crawford’s working life but the last seemed to produce at least one iconic film: from her breakthrough in OUR DANCING DAUGHTERS in 1928 to the camp classic WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? in 1962. In the 1930s it was GRAND HOTEL, or maybe THE WOMEN; in the 1950s, unequivocally, JOHNNY GUITAR, whatever she herself might have thought. Yet perhaps no film of Crawford’s is more iconic than MILDRED PIERCE, made by Warner Brothers in 1945—only two years she had left Warners’ great rival MGM by ‘mutual consent’, having worked there since the late 1920s. This is the film that earned Crawford her very first Oscar nomination and only Oscar win; the film that, through its overheated depiction of a poisonous mother-daughter relationship, can be said to have sowed the seeds of Crawford’s eventual blossoming into a gay ‘patron saint’.
So much for context. What about the film itself? This adaptation of James M. Cain’s novel takes a middle way between full melodrama and film noir. The opening crime, the flashback structure, the flirtation with shadows and silhouettes—the chiaroscuro emphasising the planes of Crawford’s new, mature features—all tip the hat to noir, but underneath, the story occupies similar territory to STELLA DALLAS and IMITATION OF LIFE: Mildred, this strong, capable woman, making something of herself, but being consistently taken advantage of by some terrible men, and one really terrible girl—her own daughter, Veda.
The plot is simple enough. Mildred, left with two daughters by husband Bert (Bruce Bennett), becomes a waitress—much to the annoyance of her snobbish elder daughter Veda (Ann Blyth)—and in time has her own restaurant, before expanding further and opening a chain of them. Now very wealthy, Mildred is able to indulge the expensive tastes not only of Veda but also of her new lover, the playboy Monty Beragon (Zachary Scott). The scene is set for a pattern of rejection and reconciliation between these three characters that will last almost to the end of the film.
Those occasions when Mildred stands up to Veda are what give the film its longstanding camp credentials…
Crawford’s narration, as she relates her life story to the police (who conveniently never interrupt to point out how irrelevant much of it must be to their investigations), allows her, and the film, to skip over or confine within a montage all the inessential parts of the tale. Late in the film, for instance, Mildred takes a long holiday in Mexico which is represented by a train passing across the screen: economical story-telling, in both senses. What’s left is a series of conversations, occasionally involving large groups but more usually pared down to Crawford and one or more of her co-stars. This gives director Michael Curtiz the opportunity to play with symmetrical patterns of groups throughout the film, while Crawford gets to show facets of Mildred’s personality when paired with different interlocutors: joshingly familiar with her friend Ida (Eve Arden), stern with Bert, passionate with Monty and diplomatic with Wally (Jack Carson), an old friend whose money she needs but whose lecherous advances she could do without. All these project aspects of strength, and the absence of this in her dealings with Veda must perforce stand in for weakness and pathos, which were evidently not qualities that came easily to Crawford. (By all accounts, Curtiz’s preferred Mildred was Barbara Stanwyck, who had been a heartbreaking mother in STELLA DALLAS some years earlier.) Naturally, those occasions when Mildred does finally stand up to Veda, and the pair exchange slaps, are what give the film its longstanding camp credentials. And to be fair to Crawford, there is a moment towards the end, when Mildred understands the full extent of the betrayal against her, that she seems almost to flinch: all the more effective for being underplayed.
Crawford dominates proceedings, naturally enough, but there are pleasures to be gained from the other performances. Eve Arden, as the best friend, got not only the film’s best lines but a Best Supporting Actress nomination, for bringing a little lightness to this overwrought tale. Like Arden, Jack Carson largely sticks to his usual schtick: the loutish blowhard who knows he’s a loutish blowhard. This time, though, his character, Wally, is even more obnoxious than usual, combining a ruthless business sense with the instincts of a sex pest; indeed, when Mildred, in a rather uncharacteristic moment, appears to frame him for murder, it’s faintly disappointing that it doesn’t stick.
As for Mildred’s two love interests, Bennett is rather colourless—weak enough to leave her, but decent enough to stay around—while Scott, though hardly a matinee idol, plays Monty with an even-toned, pleasingly modern amorality. As Veda, Ann Blyth oscillates between two quite different performances: snarlingly bitchy for the girl everyone loves to hate, then at other times kindly, loving and natural. It’s hardly realistic, but within the context of the story it works extremely well; like Arden, Blyth, still a teenager at the time, was nominated as Best Supporting Actress.