Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Oscar Film Journal: Mildred Pierce (1945)

It's time for another entry in the Oscar Film Journal!

I'm back with another Joan Crawford vehicle, this one a film noir classic called Mildred Pierce.  Based on the 1941 novel but revamped as something of a murder mystery, the film kicks right off with the shooting death of Monte Beragon, a formerly wealthy California playboy, and the title character's second husband.  Immediately Mildred appears to be the prime suspect, as she lures a former friend and business associate back to the scene of the crime and locks him in the house for the police to find.  Numerous suspects are brought back to the station for questioning, including Mildred's first husband Bert, whom she insists is innocent.  We then begin a long series of flashbacks as Mildred explains her backstory.  

Mildred and Bert are on the outs and financially strapped after Bert quits his real estate job.  The couple separates and Mildred takes a waitressing gig to support her two daughters (The elder, Veda, is obsessed with status and ashamed that her mother waits tables for a living).  Mildred immerses herself in the restaurant business and decides to open her own establishment, consulting with Bert's old business partner Wally Fay to help her negotiate with the site's property owner Monte Beragon.  The new restaurant takes off and becomes a chain, meanwhile Mildred and Monte begin a romance and later marry (out of convenience rather than love).  Veda secretly marries a rich boy and extorts him for money, showing a pattern of malignant materialism that drives a wedge between her and Mildred.  Ultimately after supporting both Monte and Veda for years, Mildred is financially ruined and has to sell her business, a deal co-brokered by Monte and Wally (hence her attempt to frame Wally for Monte's murder).  I won't spoil the ending here but suffice it to say that Mildred is one of numerous characters with a clear motive to murder.
Bolstered by strong performances, particularly Crawford's, Mildred Pierce is a fairly lurid, melodramatic exercise in style.  Mildred is the level-headed glue holding the somewhat improbable story threads together, while Veda is an over-the-top awful person, Wally is shamelessly and relentlessly handsy (a fella like that would not last long in 2021), and Monte is narcissistic and decadent.  As with so many films noir, every character contains shades of gray and no one's motivations can be trusted as altruistic.  The material here is deftly presented as a taut domestic thriller, but the scheming of some of the characters is so flagrantly underhanded it feels a little hamfisted at times.  It's easy to see why this genre has long been a reliable subject of parody; it would take a cartoonishly evil person to engage in some of the plotting on display here.  "Better not buy that new Cadillac, James.  I'm PREGNANT!"  **Duh-duh duuuuuuuuhhh**  

The film's histrionics and plot contrivances aside, Mildred Pierce is an effective, atmospheric thriller with a career-defining, Oscar-winning lead performance (This film began a resurgence for Joan Crawford, whose career had floundered in the late 30s) and some sharply executed, if hammy supporting turns.  I picked up a subtextual age-old theme centered around a woman's choice between career and family, perhaps born of an era when women were expected to wear both hats while the men were away fighting.  Once World War II ended (shortly before this film was released in fact), women were told to go back to minding the household; in the end Mildred pays a heavy price after several years as a successful business owner, seemingly underscoring this social construct.  This thematic element is perhaps the most thought-provoking of the film.

So the upshot is, Mildred Pierce is a capably made film noir, but probably not one of the genre's greatest.

I give Mildred Pierce *** out of ****.

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