Saturday, June 13, 2009

Mildred Pierce (1945)

(Image courtesy of Warner Bros. via

All due respect to Casablanca, but Michael Curtiz was a goddamn hack. Maybe that's a bit strong considering all I've seen of his work is the aforementioned classic and Mildred Pierce. For all his competence on Casablanca though, Curtiz damn near capsizes Mildred Pierce, an otherwise pleasing melo-noir.

Hats off to Joan Crawford in the titular role - she carries the film from beginning to end. Pierce sacrifices everything for her family, specifically her eldest child, the class-conscious, money-grubbing snob Veda (Ann Blyth). She takes a job as a waitress, which Veda resents as socially unacceptable, and eventually builds a successful restraurant mini-empire. Despite the accomplishment, Veda still looks down at her mother for working at all. How, exactly, Vera got these upper-class pretensions, we never really know (it's something that may have been lost in adapting James M. Cain's novel).

Even as Curtiz undermines the drama (more on that later), Crawford sells the tragedy of the woefully unappreciated mother. Ranald MacDougall's tight dialogue gives Crawford and co-star Jack Carson (Wally Fay, Pierce's business partner and one of her suitors) plenty to chew on, though the narrative construct (too much noir flashback and narration) feels a bit dated.

The structure allows the film to toy with the idea of femme fatale a little, especially in the juxtaposition of mother and daughter -- although there's not much in the way of contemplation on the noir figure. Really it's more of a ploy, albeit a pretty good one.

Where the film suffers is in the directorial/editorial department. It's no wonder Crawford won an Oscar for her turn in the film, but it's downright baffling how Curtiz and cinematographer Ernest Haller (Rebel Without a Cause) ended up with nods.

It's not just that Curtiz lacks any recognizable style - he undermines the drama with poor composition and editing. One can only imagine how much better Mildred Pierce could have been in the hands of Howard Hawks, who knew how to work magic on studio supervision. Curtiz's camera and cutting pattern move either too predictably or haphazzardly.

Each dolly in or out punctuates exactly when it you would expect it to. Rather than letting the action breathe within the frame, Curtiz (or Warner Bros., who may have been manning the puppet from behind the scenes) feels the need to break down each sequence with unecessary close ups, punctuating all the easy moments.

Without giving too much away, here's a pretty right on example. One character remains sick in bed, dying, with an oxygen tent around her. The POV shot from inside the tent is powerful -- we're isolated, trapped within the apparature. But when the reverse comes and Pierce runs to the character, we lose her in sight as she comes around the corner. At first, it appears as if Pierce's interaction with the character will occur off-screen -- an unusual and interesting choice for a studio film. However, Curtiz cuts back to a variation on the original shot, and then back to the reverse. The moment gets lost and segmented by adhering to the shot-reverse-shot convention, and to greater detriment, bad composition. It's a pivotal scene, or at least it should be, because for Pierce, it's a turning point.

I know it comes down to a question of preference, but I do not understand how critic Andrew Sarris can file directors like Carol Reed, Elia Kazan and John Huston under "Less Than Meets the Eye" and dub Curtiz "Lightly Likeable". When a lamp placed in the foreground blocks a character's movement in Mildred Pierce, it's doing just that and serves no other purpose.

Having ranted and raved, I still don't regret having seen the film, if only for Crawford's performance. Why this film enjoys such reverence (Amazon deems it "essential" for what it's worth), I have no clue. For my money, Out of the Past is a far stronger post-war melo-noir.

One last note -- Mildred Pierce is sort of atypical in the noir canon for its strong female lead. This could be interpreted as somewhat progressive given the time period. However, it is worth noting that Pierce, when interrogated by the police, admits divorcing her first husband, Bert, (Bruce Bennett) was a mistake. Bert who had lost his job, seemed reluctant to get a new one, admitted to detesting Veda and was openly cheating on Mildred with another woman. Given the mess Mildred's life becomes after the divorce, I guess this is somewhat understandable. Still, it rubs me the wrong way.

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