Based on the novel by James M. Cain, the story about a woman who separates from her husband and has to provide for her two daughters in 1930s. She gets work as a waitress and soon decides to open her own restaurant. She becomes a success and remarries again but she is forever plagued by her demanding elder daughter, Veda, who looks down on her mother throughout her life, no matter what she does. It seems an unusual plot from Cain as he is known for his crime stories but director Michael Curtiz creates a very different beast entirely.
Changing the ending and parts of the story, Curtiz creates a film noir of sorts with Joan Crawford in the title role. The stereotypical roles of the genre are askew and don’t follow the normal pattern, instead it is the camera angles and the superb lighting, especially in the more dramatic moments that make this one the better films of its genre. The film is seen as flashback from Mildred’s point of view as she explains what has happened in the last 4 years to a police detective after she finds out her second husband has been murdered. Cutting back and forward from the past to the present, it unravels as to who the murderer could be.
Crawford is brilliant as the tortured and troubled Mildred, having come from nothing, working her way up in the world, becoming a successful businesswomen when not many thought she could, should be an achievement but Mildred is torn down by her demanding arrogant daughter Veda. Unlike the original novel, Veda eventually gets her comeuppance. Mildred’s strange devotion to her spiteful daughter is elevated when her youngest Kay, dies suddenly and she puts everything into pleasing Veda which is ultimately her downfall.
Veda is actually part of the cause of Mildred’s divorce and downfall. She says at one point that she believes that Veda looks down on her which is why she seeks her approval. Veda’s hate for her mother and where she is from is unexplained, except for when she blames her mother for spoiling her, she bites the hand that feeds her and thinks she is entitled to a better life for no reason. Veda’s character isn’t given depth beyond her childish demands and selfish plans, leaving much of the dramatic to her mother. Mildred changes throughout the film, her character and confidence but she is plagued by her past and told she is worth nothing, Veda is her reminder of this which is why, when the ties are finally cut, she is distressed and relieved at the same time. She is finally free of her demon and can start again, but this time for herself.
A fantastic film, that may be dark and violent, which isn’t just the murder at the start, at least there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
Dir: Michael Curtiz
Prd: Jerry Wald
Scr: Ranald MacDougall, Catherine Turney
Cast: Joan Crawford, Jack Carson, Zachary Scott, Eve Arden, Ann Blyth
DoP: Ernest Haller
Music: Max Steiner
Run time: 111 minutes
Mildred Pierce is available on now on Blu-ray