Why I Love… #21: Mildred Pierce

Year: 1945

Director: Michael Curtiz

Stars: Joan Crawford (Mildred Pierce), Jack Carson (Wally Fay), Zachary Scott (Monte Beragon), Ann Blyth (Veda Pierce), Eve Arden (Ida Corwin), Bruce Bennett (Bert Pierce)

Genre: Melodrama / Film Noir

Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce is a film of pure class. The kind of film that feels like an indulgence to watch. A ceremony. You want a good bottle of red. No distractions. Turn the other electronic devices off, and pay attention…

This is not to say that Mildred Pierce requires strict attention; the plot unfolds evenly and without convolutions. No, rather that Mildred Pierce deserves strict attention. There’s a sense of finesse. A superb slice of vintage Hollywood gloss, in delicious black and white. In fact, with its flashback narrative and deep black shadows, the film rises above its humble origins as just another ‘woman’s picture’. It has all the hallmarks of the finest film noirs. But instead of some down-at-heel gumshoe, we’re guided through this tale of success, family, greed and murder by Joan Crawford’s titular Mildred, a square-shouldered, fearless entrepreneur.

Crawford commands the title role, one which bagged her an Oscar. Mildred is a thrillingly determined, self-empowered creation. The quintessential smart businesswoman of her time, capable and persevering. Yet, her downfall is her subservience to daughter Veda. Played by Ann Blyth, Veda redefines the cliché ‘spoiled brat’. If anyone here’s liable to steal a scene from Crawford, it’s her. Veda is one of cinema’s most grotesquely selfish creations, and Mildred’s Achilles Heel. Her mother’s love for Veda causes destructive choices that spiral toward the eventual murder, set up in the film’s super-stylish opening few minutes. Here again is the noir aspect; you know these people are doomed, their fates already set, its all a matter of how and why.

But along the way you quite forget that we’re headed for disaster. This is key to the film’s success. Mildred’s earnestness is contagious, and, as she and Wally Fay set about starting up their first diner, the ultimate outcome is far removed from the viewer’s mind. You want Mildred to succeed. Crawford’s sympathetic knitted brow is impossible to resist rooting for. And as the restaurant takes off, you can see Curtiz’s film spearheading the way for a hoard of rags-to-riches tales in the ensuing decades of movie-making. It’s a classic underdog tale. So involving is this depiction of deserved success that you’d almost be satisfied if that was all the film was attempting to offer. And then the unease sets in. You remember that this isn’t all going to end in unbound riches and resolved family problems. Then a new kind of electricity is born. The kind that comes when, having become taken with a set of characters, you become powerless to stop them coming apart at the seams in spite of themselves.

The dialogue is sparkling also. A joy to listen to. Contrast it to the dialogue from so many modern dramas and our current set seem so wanting. Between the smart script, the performances and Curtiz’ assured direction, Mildred Pierce soars above its soap opera trappings.  The – SPOILER – death of Mildred’s younger daughter Kay would in lesser hands have been a tawdry, overly sentimental excursion. Here it is nothing of the sort. Only a harbinger of the darkness to come.

The men don’t let the side down either. Zachary Scott’s Monte Beragon is a terrific cad, suave yet wolf-like, and as he attempts to woo Mildred the screen fairly smoulders with chemistry. Likewise Jack Carson chews up some cracking lines as Wally Fay, whilst Bruce Bennett’s forlorn Bert Pierce is as sad as he is strangely dignified in defeat. Under these circumstances, no matter which characters are sharing screen time together, the result is always glorious.

But why Mildred Pierce is worth entry in this series is more to do with the previously alluded-to ceremony of sitting down with it. It’s to do with the tone and the quality of 1940s Hollywood, of which this is a superior example. There’s something undeniably satisfying about a good old Hollywood movie. And Mildred Pierce is so thoroughly of its time. This is not to say it falls under the umbrella of kitsch – it’s far too sincere for that – rather that the film evokes a lost era, or intuits the sensibilities of a lost era with an acute tangibility. Mildred Pierce feels like a perfectly preserved item cryogenically frozen, uncovered from a time capsule. A fabulous evocation of its time. Dare I say it, but if pressed to choose, I’d pick Mildred Pierce over Curtiz’s other great celebrated movie of its era, the unimpeachable Casablanca.

So time to break out the corkscrew, let the bottle breathe a while, and turn off the mobile. Or at least put it on silent. In fact, it’s time to turn off the laptop, too. Mildred Pierce is on, and it’s demanding my attention.

(It’s a great Sonic Youth song, too)

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