Saturday, April 13, 2013

Film Review: Mildred Pierce (1945)

Shots ring out in a beautiful, well-adorned house. In stark, Expressionistic black and white, a man falls into frame. His name is Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott), and as life oozes out of him, he manages one final word: Mildred. It's the name of his new wife (played by Joan Crawford in Oscar-winning form) who is introduced in similarly bleak fashion. Depicted in luminous, shimmering monochrome, Mildred Pierce is first seen contemplating taking the proverbial long walk off a very literal short pier. She is only stopped from taking a final, fatal step by a passing police officer, who reminds her that if she does anything silly, he'll have to dive in to save her. His meaning is easily understood: selfishness ripples out and hurts people beside the perpetrator. It's a lesson Mildred knows all too well.

After returning home, Mildred is brought in by the police, who have plenty of questions about her husband's death. The rest of the film unfolds through flashbacks as she relates her story to the detectives. These reminiscences begin with the story of how Mildred separated from her first husband, Bert (Bruce Bennett) and was forced to seek work in order to provide for her two young daughter, Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe) and Veda (Ann Blyth), which in turn led her to meet and fall in love with Monte. It's a sharp, efficient piece of storytelling which throws out plenty of meaty questions in the first few minutes. Did Mildred shoot Monte? If so, why? If not, why was she contemplating suicide? The rest of the story serves to fill in the blanks that lie between a break-up in one living room and a body on the floor of another, but the charge of the story comes from its opening moments.

It's the sort of lean, muscular storytelling one might expect from James M. Cain, who wrote the novel of Mildred Pierce, as well as seminal hardboiled thrillers like The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, which makes it all the more surprising that the inciting incident of the film is nowhere to be found in the book. Cain's Mildred Pierce is not a murder mystery, but a hard-nosed melodrama about a woman scrabbling to make living and trying to buy the love of a vindictive child. It's a great story which could have translated to the film as a straightforward adaptation (and was 66 years later when Todd Haynes directed a lavish, fastidiously faithful miniseries for HBO) just not in 1945. Why? Sex, is the simple answer.

Cain's novel is driven by sexual desire, and while it's hardly Tropic of Cancer in terms of content, it bears the hallmarks of being the work of a pulp author, albeit one of the very finest, and as such could not be faithfully adapted under the strictures of the Hays Code. It's a story driven by desire, both sexual and emotional, and while the latter would have been fine in the Hollywood of the 1940s, the former was not, except in the most chaste form. The introduction of the murder mystery and the flashback structure - which owed more than a small debt to Citizen Kane - allowed director Michael Curtiz to give a sense of passion - after all, what better denotes passion than a murderous lover? - without actually having to grapple with the realities of sex. Violence proves more permissible in a Hollywood film than sexuality. My, how things haven't changed.

Aside from allowing for the sublimation of pretty much all the salacious aspects of the book, barring an implied pairing towards the end which sets up the climax/beginning of the film, the murder clears up the story considerably. It gives focus to an often digressive structure, shortens the final act considerably, and sharpens the central relationship of the story, which is not between Mildred and Monte, but Mildred and Veda. While Mildred Pierce is, on the surface, a mix of noir and melodrama, it's primarily concerned with sex, in both senses of the word, and class.

At the chronological beginning of the story, Mildred and her family enjoy a fairly middle-class lifestyle, filled with frivolous opulence. Once Bert leaves the family, though, Mildred is forced to become a waitress, and in the process earns the barely concealed contempt of Veda, whose life up to that point, and subsequent exposure to the extravagance of Monte's idle playboy lifestyle, has taught her to look down on people who actually work. Even as Mildred manages to build a successful business for herself, which in turn virtually bankrupts her as she tries to give Veda everything she desires, she can never break through Veda's class prejudice. It's interesting to think that the book came out in 1941, when instances of women owning their own businesses must have been comparatively rare, yet the film was released in 1945, after the War had brought millions of women in to the labour force, disrupting the entrenched attitudes displayed by Veda and others in the film.

Even with the influx of women into traditionally male-dominated sectors of society, Mildred Pierce must have seemed somewhat radical. As Mildred, Joan Crawford is a strong and resilient woman who perseveres through adversity, determined to prove that she can live without the support of her husband. Yet at the same time, she plays her as a devoted mother desperate to do right by her children, whose every act is driven by love and affection, even when that love is not returned. It's a fairly nuanced performance, within the confines of the theatricality of classic Hollywood, that captures the agony and the ecstasy of trying to earn a decent living better than most films before or since.

Unfortunately, the film kind of goes completely against this idea in its final act, seemingly punishing Mildred for having the temerity to try to run a business whilst being a woman. A fall is obviously crucial to set up the end of the film, when the seeds of destruction sown throughout come to fruition, but there's something about the way its handled - and particularly the final shot - which regrettably seems to reinforce the ideas the film spends the rest of its time pushing against. It may not have been intentional, and probably arose from the need to wrap up the mystery and bring the film to a satisfying conclusion, but it still leaves a sour taste that goes beyond standard noirish nihilism. It's a dreadful shame, really, because Mildred Pierce is otherwise an outstanding work that mixes together genre trappings, compelling character dynamics and some interesting sexual politics, right up until it lets the former upend the latter.

Correction: The original version of this review stated that James M. Cain wrote The Maltese Falcon and Red Harvest, both of which were written by the supremely brilliant Dashiell Hammett.