Mildred Pierce

USA 1945, 111 mins
Director: Michael Curtiz

SPOILER WARNING The following notes give away some of the plot.

‘She was thirty-seven years old, fat, and getting a little shapeless. She had lost everything she had worked for, over long and weary years. The one living thing she bad loved had turned on her repeatedly, with tooth and fang, and now bad left her without so much as a kiss or a pleasant goodbye. Her only crime, if she had committed one, was that she bad loved this girl too well.’
James M. Cain, Mildred Pierce, 1941

Director Michael Curtiz was confident in many genres, and 1945’s Mildred Pierce combines at least two of them. The melodramatic narrative of an ambitious housewife’s rise and fall, demonstrating Curtiz’s enduring preference for ‘homey pictures’, is cloaked in elements of classic film noir, which makes for an especially cold-hearted weepie.

Joan Crawford stars as Mildred, a suburban woman striving to give her daughters the opportunities she never had by transforming from a stay-at-home mother, ‘born in a kitchen’, to a divorced businesswoman running a string of restaurants. Tragically, Mildred’s sacrifices are made in support of a child whose monstrous appetites and self-interest offer a cruel exaggeration of her own humbler desires. Young Veda Pierce (Ann Blyth, who beat Shirley Temple to the role) remains one of cinema’s most memorable villains, and the electric mother-daughter confrontations are deeply unsettling. The structure of the film is neatly symmetrical, and on repeat viewing the parallels between Veda’s rise and Mildred’s descent move into crisp focus, their mother-daughter story punctuated by two sharp slaps to the face and the gunshots that ring out at each end of the film.

It was a happier story of reinvention for Crawford, as Mildred was her first substantial role for Warner Bros after MGM had quietly terminated her contract, and she won an Oscar for her performance, which bristles authentically with resentment and determination. The film, its cinematography and screenplay as well as Blyth and Eve Arden’s supporting performances were all also worthily nominated but failed to win. It’s tempting to compare Mildred’s metamorphosis not just to Crawford’s late-career revival, but to her earlier transformation from Lucille LeSueur the chorus girl to the 1930s film star with a crisp new name.

Veda is at her most vicious when she drags up her mother’s past: ‘You think just because you made a little money you can get a new hairdo and some expensive clothes and turn yourself into a lady. But you can’t, because you’ll never be anything other than a common frump whose father lived over a grocery store and whose mother took in washing.’ Veda’s own pretensions are just as transparent, though, from her clatter of French phrases to her sleazy blackmail plot and her clumsy flirtation with her stepfather. And just like her mother, Veda realises that paid work, however much she despises it, is the only route to the life of luxury she craves. Her gig as a nightclub singer in a glittery two-piece carries less dignity than Mildred’s waitressing shifts wearing plimsolls and a striped uniform, though it’s doubtful she understands that.

The framing story revolves around a murder, which opens the film by wrongfooting the audience. We are misled both about the culprit and the genre of the film that is to follow, as Mildred recounts her story in the police station. Curtiz keeps both genres in play throughout the film, finding ingenious ways to insert deep black shadows into homes and restaurants flooded with California sunshine.

Crawford’s years at MGM had schooled her well in the art of emoting in women’s pictures, but here her inner grit suits the crime-film aesthetic too. Mildred’s first appearance, striding down a neon-lit pier wearing a cantilevered fur coat, folds both styles into each other: as she arrives she is tearfully contemplating a watery suicide; when she leaves she is planning to cover up a felony. The murder was an addition to James M. Cain’s Depression-era source novel. In 1940s Hollywood, criminals needed to suffer the consequences of their actions – though you may wonder whether Mildred really deserves everything she gets. The final shots of the film seem to equate her return to her former life to a term of servitude, and domestic incarceration.

The 4K restoration does justice to this astonishing film, especially Ernest Haller’s sumptuous cinematography – there are almost as many bold crane shots as biting lines of dialogue to cherish here. In support of Crawford and Blyth, Arden is superb as Mildred’s colleague Ida, rendered bitter, unmarriageable and yet disarmingly witty after years of working for a living in the restaurant trade. Similarly, the performance by comic star Jack Carson, as seedy huckster Wally Fay, is far more memorable, and entertaining, than Mildred’s two adulterous husbands.
Pamela Hutchinson, Sight and Sound, April 2017

Directed by: Michael Curtiz
©/Presented by: Warner Bros.
Production Company: First National
Executive Producer: Jack L. Warner
Produced by: Jerry Wald
Screen Play by: Ranald MacDougall
Based on the novel by: James M. Cain
Director of Photography: Ernest Haller
Special Effects by: Willard Van Enger
Film Editor: David Weisbart
Montages by: James Leicester
Art Director: Anton Grot
Set Decorations by: George James Hopkins
Wardrobe by: Milo Anderson
Makeup Artist: Perc Westmore
Music by: Max Steiner
Musical Director: Leo F. Forbstein
Orchestral Arrangements: Hugo Friedhofer
Sound by: Oliver S. Garretson
Sound System: RCA
Dialogue Director: Herschel Daugherty
Unit Manager: Lou Baum
Assistant Director: Frank Heath
Assistant Director (2nd): Dick Moder
Contributing Writers: Catherine Turney, Albert Maltz, Margaret Gruen, Margaret Buell Wilder, Thames Williamson, William Faulkner, Louise Randall Pierson
2nd Camera: William Schurr
Camera Operator: Frank Evans
Assistant Camera Operator: Frank Burkett
Gaffer: James Goldenhaur
Best Boy: Rene Steffen
Grip: S.E. Young
Stills: Milton Gold
Matte Paintings: Paul Detlefsen, Mario Larrinaga
Special Effects: Harry Barndollar
Supervising Art Director: Bertram Tuttle
Props: Limey Plews
Wardrobe: Clayton Brackett, Jeanette Storck
Make-up: Bill Cooley, Eddie Allen
Hairstylist: Geraldine Cole
Special Optical Effects: Russell Collings
Music Mixer: David Forrest
Re-recording/Effects Mixers: Gerald W. Alexander, Robert G. Wayne
Publicity: John Mitchell

Joan Crawford (Mildred Pierce)
Jack Carson (Wally Fay)
Zachary Scott (Monte Beragon)
Eve Arden (Ida Korvin)
Ann Blyth (Veda Pierce)
Bruce Bennett (Bert Pierce)
Lee Patrick (Maggie Binderhof)
Moroni Olsen (Inspector Peterson)
Veda Ann Borg (Miriam Ellis)
Jo Ann Marlowe (Kay Pierce)
Garry Owen (policeman on pier)
Tom Dillon, Clancy Cooper (policemen)
James Flavin (Joe, detective)
John O’Connor (detective)
Charles Jordan (policeman)
Larry Rio (reporter)
George Meader (Jack, the mailman)
Johnny Walsh (delivery man)
Joyce Compton, Lynne Baggett, Marion Lessing,
Doria Caron, Marjorie ‘Babe’ Kane, Elyse Brown (waitresses)
Butterfly McQueen (Lottie)
Jimmy Lono (houseboy)
Manart Kippen (Dr Gale)
Mary Servoss (nurse)
George Anderson (Peterson’s assistant)
John Compton (Ted Forrester)
Don Grant (bartender)
Chester Clute (Mr Jones)
Barbara Brown (Mrs Forrester)
Charles Trowbridge (Mr Williams)
Paul Panzer (waiter)
Bob Evans (sailor)
Wallis Clark (Wally’s lawyer)
David Cota (Pancho)
George Tobias (Mr Chris)
Robert Arthur (high school boy)
Ramsay Ames (party guest)
Leah Baird (police matron)
John Christian (singing teacher)
Joan Winfield (piano teacher)
Park Lazelle (attorney’s clerk)
William Alcorn (soldier)
John Sheridan (clerk)
Angela Greene, Betty Alexander, Helen Pender (party guests)
Richard Kipling, Wheaton Chambers, William Ruhl (personnel men)
Jeanne Wardley (wife)
Harold Miller
Mary Ellen Meyran
Jean Lorraine
Bob Locke Lorraine

USA 1945
111 mins

Miller’s Crossing
Tue 1 Aug 20:40; Sat 12 Aug 15:20; Mon 14 Aug 18:10
Sawdust and Tinsel (Gycklanas afton)
Wed 2 Aug 18:10 (+ intro by Geoff Andrew, Programmer-at-Large); Tue 22 Aug 20:45
The Night of the Hunter
Thu 3 Aug 20:50; Sat 26 Aug 18:10; Tue 29 Aug 20:50
The Bigamist
Fri 4 Aug 20:45; Wed 9 Aug 18:00 (+ intro by Aga Baranowska, Events Programmer)
3 Women
Sat 5 Aug 20:30; Sun 20 Aug 18:25
La Peau douce (Silken Skin)
Sun 6 Aug 18:30; Thu 24 Aug 20:45
In the Mood for Love (Huayang Nianhua)
Mon 7 Aug 18:10; Fri 18 Aug 20:45; Fri 25 Aug 18:20
Charulata (The Lonely Wife)
Tue 8 Aug 20:35; Wed 16 Aug 18:00 (+ intro by Professor Chandak Sengoopta, Birkbeck College, University of London)
Brief Encounter
Thu 10 Aug 18:30; Sun 20 Aug 13:20
Merrily We Go to Hell
Fri 11 Aug 18:20; Wed 23 Aug 18:15 (+ intro by author and film journalist Helen O’Hara)
Love Is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon
Sat 12 Aug 20:40; Wed 30 Aug 18:10 (+ intro)
Mildred Pierce
Sun 13 Aug 15:40; Mon 21 Aug 20:45; Mon 28 Aug 15:10
Beau travail
Tue 15 Aug 20:45; Mon 28 Aug 18:30
Red River
Thu 17 Aug 20:20; Sun 27 Aug 15:20
Blue Velvet Sat 19 Aug 17:45; Thu 24 Aug 18:10; Thu 31 Aug 20:35

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Programme notes and credits compiled by Sight and Sound and the BFI Documentation Unit
Notes may be edited or abridged
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