Director: Michael Curtiz
Screenplay: Ranald MacDougall
Based on a Novel by: James M. Cain
Starring: Joan Crawford, Ann Blyth, Jack Carson, Zachary Scott, Eve Arden, Bruce Bennett
Running Time: 101 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
I've got a confession to make – one that I only just realised when I started to write this review. Other than a viewing of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? when I was too young to remember it, I've never seen a Joan Crawford film. I think that might be a crime for someone like me who claims to love classic cinema. Probably her most famous role and the one that snagged her her only Oscar, was playing the title character in Mildred Pierce. Being a highly regarded film noir, a genre I love, it's long been on my radar but I've never got around to actually watching it. Partly I think I was worried by the fact I'd heard it's more of a melodrama than a noir. Nevertheless, when I was offered a chance to review the forthcoming Criterion Collection Blu-Ray release of the film, I never hesitated to take it up.
Mildred Pierce opens in spectacular fashion, with the gunning down of Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott), whose last words are “Mildred”, the name of his wife and presumed killer. Soon after, Mildred lures an old friend, Wally Fay (Jack Carson), to the scene of the crime and tries to frame him for the murder. As she's questioned by police however, she learns that they've arrested her first husband Bert Pierce (Bruce Bennett) instead. So she decides to tell them (and the audience) the story of what led to Monte's murder and why Bert couldn't have done it.
And after the thrilling and moody opening 20 minutes described above which seemed set to quash my fears about this not being a 'true noir', the bulk of the film becomes the melodramatic story of Mildred's life. A devoted mother, she works as hard as possible (particularly after Bert leaves her) to provide everything her two daughters need. Overcompensating however, her eldest daughter Veda (Ann Blyth) soon becomes horrendously spoilt and has little respect for the huge effort and sacrifices Mildred continues to make for her happiness. This, an unexpected tragedy and the advances of several men in her life make for a tough time for Mildred.
So my worry that this is largely what used to be referred to as a 'woman's picture' turned out to be true, but that didn't mean I didn't enjoy the film quite a lot. The story, although melodramatic, is thoroughly engaging and the film raced by due to this. It's not the most typical melodrama either. The noir aspects help single it out and the spoilt child angle hasn't been mined this effectively before, in my memory at least. Interestingly, from what I gathered from the special features, the film adaptation of the source material (Mildred Pierce was first a novel by hardboiled crime writer James M. Cain) actually added the noir-like murder mystery aspects to the story. Screenwriter Ranald MacDougall made the film version of Mildred Pierce seem more like a Cain adaptation than it actually was!
Mildred is a well fleshed out character too – very strong, but flawed. With such a strong female lead the film has some forward thinking feminist aspects too, although these are often set back by men occasionally getting the better of Mildred. In particular, it's a shame that Bert always seems to be right about what she's doing wrong and is made out to be a sort of saviour at the end. This conclusion works as a bleak end to Mildred's valiant efforts to be the ultimate business woman and mother though, depending on how you take it.
The film is a little dated in terms of the performances as well as its values, but I wouldn't expect anything else from a Hollywood film of the era. Crawford may be a little over the top by today's standards, but she has a mighty presence and sells the dramatic scenes in spades. Her wonderfully expressive eyes and face are as deep as oceans. Some of her co-stars are less impressive, although Blyth makes a wonderfully bitchy 'villain' and Carson and Eve Arden are both wonderful at delivering Cain and MacDougall's sharp dialogue. This witty banter is something that helps keep the noir momentum going as the melodrama takes over.
The hugely underrated director Michael Curtiz, who has dozens of phenomenally successful films under his belt (Casablanca, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Yankee Doodle Dandy etc.), dose a fine job of crafting a classy production. The noir bookends are sumptuously bathed in shadows and there's a great use of sound design at times too. I particularly liked the tension built by sounds in the police station as Mildred waits to be questioned.
So, although some elements are slightly dated and it was a little more melodramatic than I'd have liked, Mildred Pierce is still a fine example of classic Hollywood at its best. Boasting a fantastic central performance, an engrossing plot and a reasonable amount of depth for such an old film, it's an easy recommendation.
Mildred Pierce is out on 27th February on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by The Criterion Collection. The picture and sound quality is generally stunning – clear, detailed and boasting a wide dynamic range of greys and blacks. There are some soft shots here and there, but I'm guessing this is down to the source and can't be improved.
You get plenty of special features too. Here's the full list:
- New conversation about Mildred Pierce with critics Molly Haskell and Robert Polito
- Excerpt from a 1970 episode of The David Frost Show featuring actor Joan Crawford
- Joan Crawford: The Ultimate Movie Star, a 2002 feature-length documentary on Crawford's life and career
- Q&A with actor Ann Blyth from 2002, conducted by film historian Eddie Muller
- Segment from a 1969 episode of the Today show featuring novelist James M. Cain
- Plus: An essay by critic Imogen Sara Smith
As usual, Criterion have put together a fine package and all of the features are well worth a watch. The feature length documentary about Crawford is particularly good, providing an extensive warts-and-all look at the actress' life and career. The David Frost interview is a nice addition too and effectively showcases Crawford's strong personality and humour.