Mildred Pierce (1945)

D: Michael Curtiz

S: Joan Crawford, Jack Carson

Mildred Pierce is a great many things. It is a dark and brooding murder mystery. The plot is a reconstruction of the circumstances leading up to the crime seen in silhouette in the opening scenes. It is a melodrama. It closely examines the relationship between a selfless mother and an ungrateful daughter, building up to the inevitable emotional confrontation. It is a 'women's picture' par excellence. It showcases Oscar winner Joan Crawford in a determined but tear-stained performance playing against a cast of equally strong female supporting players (both Ann Blyth and Eve Arden received Oscar nominations for their work). It is a prime example of the produce of Warner Brothers Studios in the 1940s. This is a sleek and professional piece of movie making helmed by one of the industry's most tireless (and anonymous) directors.

But above all it is a film which encapsulates the zeitgeist of its era. It is a picture of shadowy morality which is always conscious of its social context. In its story of a woman eschewing the pleasures of being 'kept', instead striking it out on her own in business, and in her rejection of the alternately suave and sleazy attentions of several males in her life (playboy Zachary Scott and old friend Jack Carson), it consistently subverts the moral and economic precepts upon which American society was nominally based. That it ultimately upholds the status quo at the end is less a matter of pervasive conservatism as an example of the necessary illusions created by Hollywood film makers in the wake of the emotional, psychological, economic and social destruction caused by the Second World War.

America may not have suffered as much physical damage as many European countries, but its involvement in the conflict left deep scars on the nation's psyche. Not least of all, the role of women in the workplace had changed. Males came home from war only to find their social role already occupied by females who had stepped in to sustain the infrastructure of the capitalist state in their absence.

Mildred Pierce delves into this world with a striking array of structural and visual metaphors for the nation's state of confusion. It provides a valuable insight into the moral and social turmoil prevalent in America in 1945, harnessing the capabilities of the classical system to portray ideological concerns.

It problematises notions of American personal and social identity within the domains of a potbolier plotline, transcending the text of James M. Cain's popular novel with an array of filmic distortions. It employs the weaponry of film noir to create a cinematic world of confusion and doubt, and casts its characters in a flashback world of dutch angles and flickering shadows. From its breathtaking opening scenes of the terror and panic of a man trapped in a house with a dead body, it portrays a world so deeply at odds with its image of itself that only the blessed relief of a morally comfortable climax can restore the viewer's sense of orientation and belief in social cohesion.

The story concerns Crawford's efforts as the titular character to maintain her household in the absence of her husband. When she eventually becomes a successful restaurateur, she tries to give her daughter (Ann Blyth) the opportunities she lacked as a girl. But the result is a corruption inevitable with industrial capitalism. The girl becomes dedicated to the pursuit of luxury and gets involved with rich playboy Zachary Scott. When he is later murdered, finding out who committed the crime involves questions about just how far a mother can go to protect her child and the status of females in modern American society.

Beautifully shot by Ernest Haller, sumptuously scored by Max Steiner and directed with pace and style by Michael Curtiz, there are many surface pleasures in Mildred Pierce which threaten to mask its potent thematic explorations. But they never do thanks to strong performances (male and female) which register the conflicts and tensions in their characters and their world. Only the unconvincing finale is a disappointment, leaving the viewer with many unsettling questions too easily answered by the demands of narrative resolution.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.