Friday, 14 January 2011
Starring: Joan Crawford, Ann Blyth, Jack Carlson, Zachary Scott, Eve Arden
By Alan Bacchus
This is a depressing story of monumental proportions but not less involving and exciting, an ambitious and epic story really of a woman fighting to find dignity and independence and to protect her family from the ravages of life, yet is undone and thwarted by that very thing she’s tried so hard to protect.
The opening is wonderfully noirish, hardboiled as it comes. The first shot features Pierce’s husband being shot and killed in violent hail of bullets. Then a taut chase sequence around the house wherein Mildred Pierce is aprehended by the police for murder. During the nightlong interrogation, the film flashes back to chart the course of events which would lead to this fateful night.
Back in the past we see Pierce first as a devoted wife, doing her expected duty, always in the kitchen and being a mother to her kids. Her husband, Bert, though is a lazy layabout, jobless and who takes advantage of Mildred’s fierceness. She can’t take it anymore though and they split up, with her taking custody of their two children Veda and Kay. Pierce enters survival mode and uses her determination and persevance to work her way up from a lowly dishwasher and waitress eventually to owning a chain of restaurants. Three men continually revolve around her life, her ex-husband, her real estate manager and her new playboy beau. While her career is on track, dutifully working to provide for her kids, Veda over time develops a taste for money and class. Unfortunately Veda continually puts down her mother for stooping to working in the classless restaurant business as opposed to gold digging for a rich husband – a conflict which dissolves Pierce’s lifetime of hardwork and resulting in tragic consequences.
Though it can feel slightly hackneyed, looking back on the history of Hollywood, Mildred Pierce is a socio-cultural time capsule, and a forerunner to the popular and influential ‘women’s pictures of the 50’s, and perhaps even feminism of the 60’s and 70’s. Remember it was 1945, the second World War just finished, families had barely started to move out to the suburbs and women had barely begun to seek out their independence. And so Mildred Pierce should be as a heroic figure, which makes her fate at the end of the picture so devastating.
Historical context aside it’s also a crackerjack piece of cinema, typically crisp and punchy direction from Michael Curtiz, my favourite of all the old studio directors. Curtiz was a master of pacing. Watch the restaurant scene which establishes the fast-paced hustle of Pierce’s stint as a waitress and thus the urgency of her goals. Curtiz was also a master of montage scenes which compresses time so perfectly. Curtiz opens his scenes with close-ups, often pulling his camera back to reveal the establishing shot - a dynamic and modern technique which feels thoroughly modern.
And then there’s his camera movement. Few directors ever used a dolly or crane better than Curtiz. In a biography of Curtiz, Bette Davis, a frequent actress of his, once complained that Curtiz would watch his dolly during the shots more than the actors. But Curtiz never had an unmotivated camera move, and everything in Mildred Pierce is motivated by the actors, and by Joan Crawford in particular. Her performance is so commanding and powerful she deserved won her only Oscar as Best Actress.