Mildred Pierce (1945)

In the dead of night, gunshots are fired and a man stumbles to the ground, riddled with bullets. He looks up and is only able to say one word before he dies: "Mildred". The resulting minutes in "Mildred Pierce" are devoted to the investigation of the dead man's murder; but mostly they revolve around the title character played by Joan Crawford.
For those of us who have had the displeasure of seeing, "Mommie Dearest" it's hard to erase the image of Joan Crawford lying neurotically in her bed as she wins the Oscar for "Mildred Pierce". Even harder to erase is Faye Dunaway wielding a coat hanger and screaming like a banshee...but that's beside the point. The point is that in an era where woman were not treated well in film, "Mildred Pierce" is at least a solid decade ahead of its contemporaries.
As the police question the various members that knew the dead man, we float back in time for a long flashback that encompasses most of the entire film. Mildred is a woman who knows her way around the kitchen. She makes a comment that she felt that she was born in a kitchen and lived her entire life there, pausing only to get married and to have children...what a wonderful prospect!
While this might seem like the perfect recipe for chauvinism—add one Joan Crawford and wait for temperatures to reach crazy lady levels—Mildred bakes pies and cakes and uses her spare money to buy nice things for her daughter, Veda (Ann Blyth). When her husband loses his job, she is left as the sole cake baker and bread winner and her husband is not happy about this. He thinks that every time she orders a new dress for her daughter (or which she and her husband have two, though one couldn't care less about nice things) that Mildred is rubbing his unemployment in his face. Bert Pierce (Bruce Bennett) is a man of pride, but he still has some rational thought within his swollen head. After an argument that stemmed from the dress—in the course of the row the name of a mistress is brought up—the two decide that it would be better for them to separate.
Now left as a single mother with a daughter whose daughter's tastes careen far past opulence, Mildred has to pull herself up by her apron strings and get back in that kitchen. She tries to find work and is turned away because every place wants experience, but luck smiles down on her and she grabs a job as a waitress and soon is earning enough money for her daughter to be indulged.
But it's not enough...
Mildred caters her actions for Veda's pleasures...this is the reason that she decides to start her own restaurant.
Operating as just a family drama, "Mildred Pierce" would be a fine drama—the added fact of a cadaver just makes things a little spicier. In this movie we see a woman in the full grasp of her sanity who climbs the hierarchical ladder run by men and stands high above them. She has to be a good woman, she has to give the world a balancing act. Mildred must be an owner, a mother, a lover, a boss, and an ex. For a movie to give a female lead this much complexity is really astonishing, even in today's films.
As great as Mildred is (and as great as Crawford is as her), Veda is the antagonist of the film. This brat is never satisfied and could just be viewed as a parable of greed. High society doesn't always give us the best creations...Veda is proof of that.
Mildred has to work, really work, for her money; but she isn't motivated by it.
Then we have the murder. "Mildred Pierce" manages to never feel boring, even in its most tedious moments. It is remarkably unsentimental; but some of it feels underdeveloped....alas.
Still, the majority of the movie is a cinematic and stunning film that has stood the test of time this far.

Score: ★★★½

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