To celebrate the 90th anniversary of Warner Brothers, I thought I would write about Mildred Pierce 1945. An exhilarating blend of noir and woman’s picture, the film is, in some ways, the quintessential Warner movie. Historically too, the film marks the welcome of Joan Crawford to the WB lot. Freed of her past (MGM) shackles, Crawford stylishly emulates the classic Warner heroine of dark strength and independence.
Mildred Pierce, in a very film noir fashion, opens with a murder. The man, who we later discover to be the husband of our protagonist, whispers ‘Mildred’ before dying. During the subsequent police interrogation, Mildred recounts her story in a flashback. It is a tale of a determined and self-sacrificing mother, working her way up from lowly waitress to wealthy restauranteur in order to provide for her ungrateful adolescent daughter, Veda. As Veda’s obsession with money and social status heightens, Mildred finds herself smothering the girl with a myriad of luxuries, even marrying a man she does not love, if only to keep Veda from leaving her side.
The success of the film lies, certainly to an extent, Crawford’s characterisation of Mildred Pierce. She begins as an ordinary housewife, driven only by a yearning for the affection of her children. Her desire to give them only the best is something I believe every parent can relate to. When she enters into the male-dominated world of business, we can admire her ambition and unfailing perseverance. However, there is something about Pierce that nags at the viewer. While she does undeniably earn our sympathy, her pathological addiction to spoiling her child is heartbreakingly unsettling; as is the constant suggestion of the husband’s murder at her hands.
The plot, a tale of a long-suffering mother betrayed by her favourite daughter, is gloriously weepie material. As for Mildred Pierce herself, the devoted wife and neighbourhood pie-baker, I think it’s quite safe to say that Mrs Pierce is not quite a femme fatale, despite the murderess undertones. And yet, the film’s dark ambiguity, rather reminiscent of pre-code Warner in fact, is stylistically noir.
In particular, the exposition of Mildred Pierce is very effective in setting this dark tone. Although only about twenty minutes in length, the opening scenes beautifully showcases all the landmarks of what we consider today to be definitive film noir. As mentioned earlier, the movie begins with the murder of Beragon, Mildred’s husband. Mildred then walks out briskly, only to bring another man, a Mr Fay, back to the scene of the crime. Exactly what her intentions are seem unclear at this point. The two then begin to talk, and the banality of their subject matter heightens the tension. The scene is also filmed from a low angle, creating a sense of dominating claustrophobia. All the while, chiaroscuro lighting is employed, and shadow and light contrast dramatically.
Once again, Mildred departs abruptly, leaving the man alone with the corpse. As the realisation of her absence finally dawns on him, Fay frantically searches for her, racing up a flight of stairs. We subsequently get a fantastic shot of the spiral staircase; an image which perfectly mirrors the character’s mounting confusion in his situation.
The combination of of woman’s film and classic noir seems downright impossible at first, so different do they seem on paper. It is for this same reason though that the picture is an exceptional one, unlike anything else Hollywood has ever made. I don’t believe the film industry will ever have the conviction or the sheer courage to produce something quite as thrilling as Mildred Pierce.