#860 Mildred Pierce
1945 // USA// Michael Curtiz
Criterion Collection (LINK)
James M. Cain’s 1941 hard boiled novel Mildred Pierce has been on my reading list for quite sometime. But instead of picking up the book and go for a read, I rewatch the film which based on the novel for a second time. The film Mildred Pierce, directed by the studio-favor Michael Curtiz and starred Joan Crawford as the titular character, has a central murder mystery added by the screenwriter Ranald MacDougall which is absent in the novel. The film opens with the murder, taking place at a seaside glamour house at one dark night, a man is bumped with six gunshots and utters his last work “Mildred” before falling down, the murderer is unseen. The mystery is one of the major reasons that the film is categorized into film noir, aside from the expressionistic camerawork by Ernest Haller and the femme fatale role of Veda Pierce (Ann Blyth), Mildred’s elder daughter. It’s hard to imagine the story now without the plot of murder, and it’s a genius touch to utilize it in a flashback structure, narrated by Mildred herself at the police office after her second husband Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott) was found dead in their seashore house.
Through flashback, the film gradually reveals Mildred’s past as a housewife and her unhappy marriage with her first husband Bert (Bruce Bennett) who is out of job and becomes judgmental with Mildred’s spoiling use of his hard-earned money on their daughters’ dancing and singing lessons. Believing she priorities the daughters over the entire family, the two decide to separate. Mildred’s love to her daughters Verda and the younger Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe), to a certain extent, is blindly unlimited. She pursues the best materialistic life style she could provide financially for them, even she has to work her heart out as a waitress, a job which Verda being as a princess in her entire life largely despises. So what could Mildred do instead? She decides to open her own restaurant with her own recipe of pies, but not without the help of her old friend and explicit purser, Bert’s previous business partner Wally (Jack Carson), as well as the aristocratic heir and playboy Beragon. After the unfortunate death of Kay by pneumonia, Mildred spends all of her effort on the business which expands faster than anyone could imagine.
But even with all the money and care she receives from Mildred, Verda still acts like a spoiled-rotten child. Deceive and manipulative, she defrauds a large sum of money from a naive boy by pretending to be pregnant, or swindles money from her mother’s employees without ever return. Even worse, she despises the “smell of grease” and her mother’s common background. In contrary, She idolize the lifestyle of Beragon who has been her mother’s lover until Mildred feds up with him of withdrawing money from her business like his personal account. Bert is right, all the attention Verda’s got from her mother has turned her into a vicious monster. Ann Blyth embodies such an unsympathetic character with a angel face and a devil heart convincingly, there’s no remorse in her eyes but when she asks for forgiveness, you kind of admire her power of cunning and makes you speculate could she in fact born diabolical?
On the other hand, Mildred’s love for her daughter cannot be justified as wrong simply from the outcome. She did realize Verda’s immoral and unappreciative behaviour, but she overlooks all of them as she is weak. She can’t punish her own flesh and blood so instead she chooses to suffer, as a result tragic end ensures. The change of ending with the murder of Beragon might be due to the censorship code in which evildoers have to pay for their own sins, but it adds another layer of relationship between mother and daughter, and offers a climatic confrontation that really stands out from the entire film. There is seldom a film noir takes a woman’s perspective, let alone a mother’s perspective. But Mildred Pierce did that without the loss of darkness tone. Yes sometimes Crawford and Blyth could be overtly operatic, but the melodrama creates an emotional punch which really pays off at the very end. Joan Crawford won her only Oscar for Best Actress with this performance, she might not be too convincing to be a working class mother, but Mildred’s unrequited love to her daughter and the subsequent torment are very much evoked by Crawford’s contradicting ferocity and vulnerability. The men in Mildred Pierce are either unavailing or untrustworthy, children are spoiled and wicked, all Mildred could rely on is her own, but with a price she could not afford. Still there’s a man waiting her the next morning after the long interrogation, indeed a hopeful end in a gloom-ridden film, don’t forget the film is released in 1945 after the end of WWII, a victory moment of course, and that’s what I call a timely work.