Friday, April 27, 2012
Starring: Joan Crawford, Ann Blyth, Jack Carlson, Zachary Scott, Eve Arden
By Alan Bacchus
This is a depressing story of monumental proportions, but it's also involving and exciting. It's an ambitious and epic story about a woman fighting to find her dignity and independence, and to protect her family from the ravages of life. Yet, she is undone and thwarted by the very thing she’s tried so hard to protect.
The opening is wonderfully noirish, as hard-boiled as it comes. The first shot features Pierce’s husband being shot and killed in a violent hail of bullets. Then comes a taut chase sequence around the house, during which Mildred Pierce is apprehended by the police for murder. During the nightlong interrogation, the film flashes back to chart the course of events that 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, is a lazy layabout. He's jobless and 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 perseverance to work her way up from a lowly dishwasher and waitress, eventually 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 and she dutifully works to provide for her kids, Veda develops a taste for money and class. Unfortunately, she 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 hard work and results 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 '50s, and perhaps even the feminism of the '60s and '70s. Remember, it was 1945. The Second World War had just finished, families had barely started moving out to the suburbs and women had barely begun to seek out their independence. And so Mildred Pierce should be seen 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 with 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 that compress time so perfectly. He opens his scenes with close-ups, often pulling his camera back to reveal the establishing shot - a dynamic and modern technique that 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 he 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, particularly Joan Crawford. Her performance is so commanding and powerful she deservedly won her only Oscar as Best Actress.