Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Film Ignorance #9 : Mildred Pierce

This post is a part of Noir Month over at Movie Zeal. If you have any comments, be sure to make them over there - literally dozens of people will read them. Whereas over here...I'll read them, and my mom probably would, except I'm pretty sure she doesn't know about this blog.
Film: Mildred Pierce
Rating: Best. Film. Ever.
Director: Michael Curtiz
Stars: Joan Crawford
Year: 1963
Reason for Ignorance: Never heard of it

Ignorance Rating*: 25 (8 votes)
"Oh men. I never met yet one of them that didn’t have the instincts of a heel. "

Michael Curtiz may not have been one of the greatest Hollywood directors; he was certainly no Hawks or Ford. But he was an excellent director who made more than his share of great films, and produced one movie that anyone, from any era, would be proud of: Casablanca. To that elite list of unchallenged masterpieces, I'd like to add a second film: Mildred Pierce.

Based on a novel by James M. Cain, the author of Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, Mildred Pierce is a classic genre mashup. In the canonical noir films, there's a femme fatale who can bend everyone to their will, an alluring woman whose charm is inescapable for the male of the species. In the canonical 30s and 40s melodrama, there's a lost mother who will give everything for her children, and ultimately must sacrifice herself for their happiness. Mildred Pierce does something brilliant, yet so simple that it's a wonder it was never done before: Joan Crawford, in the title role, is a femme fatale who is also a self-sacrificing mother. The plot threads of the noir and the melodrama come together, intertwine, and double up, and the result is a noir as fine as The Maltese Falcon and a melodrama as moving as Stella Dallas. It's hard to ask for much more.

Allmovie notes: "his detractors have noted that Curtiz's much-praised visual style was due more to Warner's team of cinematographers and art directors than to the director himself." I can't speak for the accuracy of those statements, but I can tell you that the cinematography and art direction in this movie are pitch perfect. We begin at the end: a man is shot, calling out "Mildred" as he falls, and Mildred - femme fataled out in a glamorous fur coat - flees the scene of the crime and, after being interrupted in a suicide attempt, lures an old flame back to the beach house to take the rap. The house takes on the funhouse look of the best Welles noirs - striking mise-en-scene lit for a chiaroscuro effect and filmed from unexpected angles.

Eventually, we flashback to the events that lead up to the murders, and the story slowly develops. We see Mildred, decidedly un-fataled out, as a regular housewife dealing with her devoted younger daughter and her spoiled older daughter. A number of men are in play: her deadbeat husband, her husband's ruthless partner (who turns out to be the patsy), and a rich man who gives both Mildred and her elder daughter a taste of the fine life - who is described as her second husband, and who we recognize as the corpse. These people come in and out of Mildred's life, as she tells her story to the police. The twist is: although she's tried to setup her first husband's partner, the police have latched on to her first husband as the villain.

As a melodrama, Mildred Pierce is a story of class and a social rise and fall, as Mildred builds her fortune and gives her daughter the best things in life, but is unable to achieve happiness through wealth. As a film noir, Mildred Pierce is a story of degeneration, telegraphed by Mildred's increasing taste for whiskey and her eventual indulgence in things like the fur coat we see her in in the opening scene. Both Hollywood noir and Hollywood melodrama have their roots in the naturalistic literature of the late 19th century (Dreiser, Zola, etc), and thus Mildred Pierce represents a sort of homecoming. The decadence of melodrama and the degeneration of noir are reunited, a double-shot of naturalism that burns like fire going down but gives you a taste for the seedy side of life you won't ever be free of. I recommend drinking it straight. You won't regret it.

*The "Ignorance Rating" is the percentage of people who voted "Yes" on the poll for this film. If ten people vote in the poll, and 5 of them have seen the movie, I give it an ignorance rating of 50. It's just a ballpark way for me to know how egregious my ignorance was in this case.

No comments: