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With: Joan Crawford, Jack Carson, Zachary Scott, Eve Arden, Ann Blyth, Bruce Bennett, Lee Patrick, Moroni Olsen, Veda Ann Borg, Jo Ann Marlowe, Butterfly McQueen
Written by: Ranald MacDougall, based on the novel by James M. Cain
Directed by: Michael Curtiz
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 111
Date: 10/20/1945

Mildred Pierce (1945)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Leave Something on Me

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Something is off-kilter about Mildred Pierce (1945), although that's not necessarily a bad thing. Looking at other films based on novels by crime writer James M. Cain, we can see that they are classic films noir, i.e. Double Indemnity (1944), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), and Slightly Scarlet (1956), among others. Likewise, films based on novels by Cain's contemporaries Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett are great films noir. But somehow Mildred Pierce doesn't quite feel like a film noir. It feels more like a gushing, goopy, campy melodrama, with a murder that looks (and is) entirely tacked-on.

Then there's director Michael Curtiz, the celebrated, reliable journeyman of Warner Bros., capable of turning in all kinds of crisp, entertaining films, ranging from Captain Blood (1935) to Casablanca (1942). But Mildred Pierce doesn't feel crisp; it feels drastic and unruly. And what of star Joan Crawford? If anyone is in charge here, it seems like she is. This was her first film in two years, and the first time was not shown as a sex symbol. (It was also the first time she played a "mommie dearest.") If there's anything consistent about this movie, it's her performance, which most people agree is a career highlight. (However, Pauline Kael snapped that she "suffers glamorously" and that her "heavy breathing was certified as acting when she won an Academy Award").

So why has this weird film endured? Though it's not a cohesive masterpiece, it does contain many potent little moments that stick in the memory. It begins with a murder, and the murder victim moaning Mildred's name as he dies. Mildred Pierce (Crawford) is called into the police station, where the police question her. Her first husband Bert (Bruce Bennett) has already confessed, though Mildred doesn't think he's guilty. She tells her story in flashback.

She and Bert first decide to separate over frustrations about Bert's unemployment. Mildred gets a job as a waitress, a fact she hides from her ultra-spoiled, bitchy eldest daughter Veda (Ann Blyth). Veda wants all that money can buy and is ashamed of her mother's hard work. Mildred's youngest daughter dies, and with the help of her former co-worker Ida (Eve Arden, who has all the snappiest, wisest lines), the grief-stricken mother opens a restaurant. It's a huge success, so she begins showering Veda with money and presents; this only serves to fuel Veda's spoiled nature, and she's never happy.

More drama occurs, including Veda faking a pregnancy to get $10,000 from a wealthy husband. Mother and daughter have a falling-out, and Mildred marries again, to Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott), in an attempt to win her daughter's love once more. The story is full of heart-rending and teeth-gnashing, but Curtiz doesn't roll with it naturally the way that a melodrama expert like Douglas Sirk or Pedro Almodovar might have. Yet he doesn't quite fight it either; it's as if he tried to apply his usual straightforward touch and the material began squirming out from under him.

Certainly it's not his fault that the murder-flashback element was forced into the story and never really seems to fit. Yet I think that Crawford really does hold things together. She was not a subtle actress, but she was a great star, with a burrowing intensity unlike anyone else in the business. Though she was considered a sex symbol, she was more like a dominatrix than a pretty, passive object of desire. She finds a powerful vulnerability in her Mildred, handing all her power to her daughter, hoping for a sliver of happiness, but doomed; it's easy to feel sorry for her, even if we don't exactly identify with her.

Teen Ann Blyth was quite a find for the nasty role of Veda. Like Crawford, Blyth fills the role with sheer need, unsatisfied, unchecked lust, and absolutely no shame in trying to hide it. (No one hides anything in this movie.) Blyth and Crawford anchor the film, far more than the forgettable males do; the men here are so uninteresting that it ultimately doesn't even matter who was killed and who did the murdering. That makes Mildred Pierce something of a statement for women's power, a story with women as its driving force, despite the fact that it was told behind the scenes by men. Crawford, Blyth, and Arden received the film's three Oscar nominations for acting, with Blyth and Arden competing against each other and both losing to Anne Revere for National Velvet. (It should be noted that the great Butterfly McQueen, from Gone with the Wind, was also memorable in the movie, but didn't even get a screen credit.)

The other three of the movie's six nominations were for Best Picture and Best Screenplay (losing both to The Lost Weekend), and Best Cinematography (losing to The Picture of Dorian Gray). Crawford famously pulled a very melodramatic stunt on awards night, pretending to be ill and then, when she learned she won, inviting the press into her bedroom to photograph her lying glamorously in bed. Years later, in 2011, Todd Haynes, a more appropriate director for the material, did a 5-1/2 hour TV miniseries remake, with Kate Winslet as Mildred (I haven't yet seen it, but hope to catch up to it soon).

Meanwhile, the Criterion Collection released the 1945 Mildred Pierce in new DVD and Blu-ray editions for 2017. The great-looking Blu-ray includes a 4K digital restoration, with a flawless, uncompressed monaural soundtrack. Critic Molly Haskell and crime fiction expert Robert Polito offer a new video conversation about the film. Older clips include an excerpt from a 1970 TV appearance by Crawford, a 1969 TV appearance by James M. Cain, a 2002 documentary on Crawford, and a 2006 Q&A at San Francisco's Castro Theater with actress Ann Blyth, conducted by my friends Eddie Muller and Jan Wahl. Critic Imogen Sara Smith provides the liner notes essay.

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