Years after her aunt was murdered in her home, a young woman moves back into the house with her new husband. However, he has a secret that he will do anything to protect, even if it means driving his wife insane.
When Mildred Pierce's out-of-work husband leaves her for another woman, Mildred decides to raise her two daughters on her own. Despite Mildred's financial successes in the restaurant business, her oldest daughter, Veda, resents her mother for degrading their social status. In the midst of a police investigation after the death of her second husband, Mildred must evaluate her own freedom and her complicated relationship with her daughter.Written by
James M Cain's novel 'Mildred Pierce' was much tougher, dirtier, violent and cynical than the gorgeously mounted movie it became, but the film still manages to maintain enough of the flavor of the book to be interesting. The portrait of working class life in Southern California works well, as does the depiction of a marriage that breaks down because of disappointment and resentment rather than anything melodramatic. Within its first hour MILDRED PIERCE captures something anxious about American life and marriages and families that is more true than most of what movies had shown up to that time, and it would prove to be even more so in the postwar world to come. The movie actually becomes more false and synthetic as it moves into Mildred's rise in life, but by then the plot and characters have taken hold.
And so has the film's increasingly bleak look at what women can expect when they live and work alone in a man's world, beset by men who want to exploit them, sexually and otherwise. This too, though softened from the book, would have seemed refreshingly frank to many of viewers at that time.
What raises the film to the level of classic is the first class work from every professional in every department. Joan Crawford is not much more expressive here than she was in her later MGM pictures, but this character suits her limited talents so well that she seems better than in almost anything else she did. All her Warners pictures used her more effectively than MGM usually managed to do, perhaps because in them she is invariably exploited, abused, maligned, even tortured. The bad behavior her Warners characters inspire in others is so extreme that she doesn't need to be. These plots do what Adrian's sometimes garish clothes did for her at MGM: they give her a personality, make her seem more interesting than she really was, and they make her sympathetic despite her essential coldness. Crawford gets able support from Ann Blyth, Eve Arden (as comedy relief; she is almost appearing in another movie entirely), Zachary Scott and especially Jack Carson, dead-on as a sweaty hustler and low rent lothario, bringing nuance to what could have been a one-note portrayal. Bruce Bennett isn't really a good actor in the role of Mildred's first husband, but he's perfectly cast -- he looks like an Okie from one of Dorothea Lange's photographs who went west to 'make it' and never did.
And as has been frequently mentioned here, Ernest Haller's cinematography (especially in the brilliant prints now being shown on cable) is consistently evocative and beautiful. So many of his shots live in the memory: in the scene where a mink wearing, gun wielding Mildred comes upon Monte and Vida kissing, the image is an almost primal one of betrayal and glamor -- the way their profiles are in darkness, the way Ann Blyth arches back against the bar, the hard, dim glitter of lame and the billows of tulle from her gown. The way Vida tumbles forward into almost blinding lamplight while Monte's face hardens behind her -- these are the kinds of wonderful images the best old films regularly delivered. Also excellent is Anton Grot's art direction, opulent but still managing to help create the particular SoCal atmosphere of this picture. And as usual, Max Steiner's score is effective, but as an earlier poster noted, he recycled a couple of motifs from his Oscar-winning score to NOW, VOYAGER. And director Michael Curtiz must be praised for keeping everything in perfect balance. This is one of the most admired '40s pictures and well worth a look.
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