Dir.: Michael Curtiz | Cast: Joan Crawford, Zachary Scott, Ann Blyth, Eve Arden, Bruce Bennett | USA | 111 min.
Based on 1941 novel of the same name by James M. Cain (Double Indemnity), Curtiz and his scriptwriters Ranald MacDougall and Catherine Turney, changed the linear narrative into a series of flashbacks, adding a noirish twist with a murder (that never happened on the page), and condensing the novel’s 8-year timespan down to four years, making it much more gripping: But the filmmakers had to show the audience that a ‘bad’ woman needed to be punished. In the book, Veda is a failed pianist who suddenly finds fame as coloratura soprano – a wishful-thinking projection by Cain, who originally wanted to be an opera singer.
The film opens as the credits are “washed onto” the screen by the ocean waves landing on the beach. In the background, we see a little beach house, a car parked in front of it. After the dissolve the perspective changes as we try to make out how close the car is to the house. Suddenly, shots are fired. Cut to a room: a man collapses, a revolver falls to the floor next to his body. The camera catches his last breath, then pans up, to the mirror above the sofa, but we don’t see what we expect. The murderer has left the room, the door slams closed: the dead man lies dying alone in the room. A woman is seen driving away in the car. Cut to the same woman, walking across a dark bridge, looking utterly desperate. A policeman looks on; the woman is devastated. Looking down into the water, her face transforms, unafraid of death. She wants to jump off the bridge, but the policeman takes his club and comes hard down on the railing. The woman shrinks back as the first words are spoken: The policeman urges her to reconsider, have a drink. Later, the same woman appears in a pub with a weak-looking man. Her name is Mildred. Afterwards, she leads the man to the beach house where promises are made, the man asking if her husband is home. She then locks him in and leaves. Alone, he runs through the house, finds the body, dark shadows relay his panic. Conclusion: the woman wants to frame the man for the murder. When she comes home, the police are already there.
After these red herrings, the real story begins. Mildred Pierce (Crawford) has two daughters, Veda (Blyth), is a spoilt, materialistic brat of fourteen but still ‘mother’s darling’. The younger one, Kay, will die on an outing with Mildred’s ex-husband Bert (Bennett). Fearing that Veda will look down on her modest job as a waitress, Mildred conceals her work. But Veda is cruel: after finding out the secret, she dresses the maid in her mother’s uniform, and mocks her mother for their lack of money. Mildred: with her friend Ida (Arden), starts a chain of successful restaurants. But this is not enough for Veda: she marries a wealthy man and blackmails him for money, lying that she is pregnant. The two argue and Mildred tears up the cheque given in settlement, based on Veda’s spurious pregnancy claims. Veda leaves in anger, vowing never to return. Mildred leaves for Mexico but she cannot forget her daughter. In order to get her back, Mildred then marries the playboy Monty Beragon (a suave and saturnine Zachary Scott), who, in spite of his expansive life style, is nearly bankrupt. Mildred soon finds herself paying her new husband’s debts. But when she confronts Monty in the beach house, she finds her daughter in his arms. But the truth is another story.
Shot in stunning black and white by Ernest Haller (Gone with the Wind, Rebel without a Cause), this is Joan Crawford’s masterpiece, winning her the only Oscar of her career: “A good script, a good cast, a good director, and a picture that was written specifically for me. It gave me a chance, to put 200 years of experience to work”. Her vulnerability, decency and honour shines through in every scene. She is a convincing and self-affacing heroine and a superstar at the same time. A rare performance.
MILDRED PIERCE is a story about an obsessive love. A mother’s unconditional love for a daughter who ends up ruining her own life and that of her mother. Strangely enough, Todd Haynes’ ‘page-by-page’ 2011 TV adaptation, running for 536 minutes, has much less impact than the ‘original’: Winslet in the role of Mildred Pierce is a mere shadow of La Crawford. AS
CRITERION UK BLURAY RELEASE IS AVAILABLE from 27 FEBRUARY | ORDER