Catching Up with the Classics: MILDRED PIERCE (1945)

Curtiz and Crawford are a match made in Noir heaven

Film 61 of 115: MILDRED PIERCE (1945)

I feel like a burgeoning theme throughout this project is the idea of how a film engages with its audience. I love having that line blur between spectator and participant — whether its through the voyeuristic tracking shots of Satantango, the plumbing of the moral depths in High and Low, or the subversion of documentary and re-enactment in Close-Up. Noir films (The Big Sleep among them) are such a delicious way of playing with an audience. They openly invite the audience on an elaborate guessing game, though they quickly prove that no matter how satisfying the ending, the unpredictable journey Noirs can take you on leaves a far more memorable impact. I’m sorry to say that I’m very much a neophyte when it comes to both director Curtiz and his lead star Joan Crawford, having only seen a film apiece between them. Out of the many passions outlined here, it’s chiefly the potential that lied in that partnership that placed this film on my list — but it was how this partnership brought a new spin to the Noir journey that made Mildred Pierce such a fiendishly fun watch.

Monte Beragon has perished under a hail of bullets, and housewife turned wildly successful businesswoman Mildred Pierce tries to finger her lecherous friend Wally for the crime. But when the police apprehend Mildred’s ex-husband Bert for Monte’s death, Mildred knows she needs to come clean — but there’s far more to this “why-dunit” than Mildred initially lets on.

With Mildred Pierce, Michael Curtiz brings the shadowy, smoky intrigue of Casablanca to the California suburbs. Arriving at a time where the War Department must have been working overtime to establish the nuclear family as a bright, sunny, new normal, Mildred’s far-from-idyllic domestic strife takes a sledgehammer to that whole idea. From frame one, this family is far from perfect, as sudden divorce and the demands of her incredulous children drive crisis manager Mildred to earn a living on her own. Curtiz doesn’t shy away from the unforgiving responsibilities placed upon Mildred, namely the ever-increasing dreams of luxury pursued by Mildred’s daughter Veda. Where Casablanca had the tyranny of Nazis and the ever-shifting political landscape of War to contend with, Mildred must do the same with the suitors and shady conmen that threaten to upend everything she’s tirelessly worked for. Not to mention that Veda has a lavish appetite that would make Mona-Lisa Saperstein blush. It’s a film that manages to feel unexpectedly lively and current as Curtiz exploits the idea that the cutthroat desires and betrayals that fuel the most imaginative Noirs could be festering behind the cookie-cutter houses of our own neighborhoods.

But while the film has its roots in domestic drama, Mildred Pierce is still by far a great piece of Noir that takes an unconventional approach by not just beginning with the climactic murder, but involving us in the failed cover-up process that follows. Beginning with this climactic act, Curtiz provides our Noir thrills in knowing exactly why Mildred committed a crime — if she even did at all. Mildred’s motivations and our empathy escalate hand-in-hand, and just as we think we’ve got the plot figured, Curtiz pulls the rug out from under us time and time again. Whether we suddenly pin who killed Monte on another character or back on Mildred, or we see another domino of motivation set up or knocked away, there’s a delight in Curtiz’s teasing out where Mildred Pierce must inevitably go.

Curtiz’s sure-handed direction is just as complimented by Joan Crawford’s Oscar-winning performance. Mildred is wholly unflappable in any circumstance, especially ones that would see more Sirkian waifs crumble amidst swells of music. She acknowledges her more period disadvantages — she was born into being a housewife, and hasn’t ventured outside of a kitchen — but as a professional at putting out domestic fires, Mildred knows that the only person standing between her family’s success or ruin is her. What further makes Mildred such an engaging character to watch is how her unmatched ambition and dedication to her family, even the seriously godawful and entitled Veda, is both an amazing tool of her own success and the roots of her eventual downfall. Crawford plays Mildred’s blind determination to a T, reveling in how despite Veda’s selfishness, Wally’s playboy attitude, or Monte’s greed, the character that causes Mildred the most frustration and grief…is Mildred. She hates how much everyone else tries to take power over her; but it’s that same rebellious attitude that allows her to play into everyone’s schemes.

It’s an unexpectedly complex, self-destructive portrayal of motherhood that I wouldn’t have expected from a 1940s film — and would be a dream role for any actress to play or a director to capture. But it’s the glimpses of fragility amidst the fearlessness that Crawford and Curtiz allow Mildred that makes her such a compelling protagonist and makes her film so memorably irresistible.

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