Ever since I decided to start writing up my viewings of ‘40s/’50s Film Noir a couple of years ago, I’ve found myself bedevilled by the question of where, precisely, the boundaries of ‘noir’ lie. It’s an issue I’ve wrestled with to some extent in pretty much every one of these Noir Diary posts to date, and, with every critic, fan, reference book and blu-ray label on earth drawing their preferred demarcation line somewhere entirely different from all the others, it is not a debate which seems liable to be happily resolved any time soon.
In trying to find a workable way to define ‘noir’ therefore, my current thinking is that, though we may treat it as such for the sake of convenience, noir is not a genre, in the conventional sense of the term. In some ways, this is a pretty obvious point to make - after all, no one in the USA prior to about 1975 ever sat down and said “I’m gonna make a film noir” - but I think it bears repeating.
Instead, I believe noir can probably be best understood as an ineffable essence - a kind of aesthetic virus, if you will - which infects a wide swathe of cinema and literature to a greater or lesser degree. As irreducibly ‘noir’ as the canonical classics of the form may seem, it’s worth remembering that they all simultaneously belong to other genres as well. To the people who wrote and directed them, the 40s/50s films we now categorise as noir were gangster movies, police procedurals, psychological thrillers, murder mysteries, or, in this case, even a quote-unquote ‘women’s picture’.
The germ of what we now call ‘noir’ is something which crept into them from outside, changing and perverting the material it infected; eating away moral clarity, tilting camera set ups and dimming the lights like some celluloid Dutch elm disease. And, like everyone’s favourite virus here in the second decade of the 21st century, the effects of this bug were varied and unpredictable in the extreme.
Some films emerged so slathered in the thematics and visuals of noir than their root genre almost shrivels up and dies; for others, noir simply hangs in the background, barely perceptible, like some eerie seed of doubt. Then, there are movies in which the noir is spread unevenly - confined to certain scenes or sub-plots, or hitting full strength in some reels whilst completely disappearing from others. In spite of its storied position in the noir canon, ‘Mildred Pierce’ fits perfectly into this latter category.
Straight out of the opening credits, the sound of six gunshots is foleyed over an exterior shot of a luxurious yet lonely Malibu beach house with a shiny black sedan parked outside. Cut to the interior, where a man in formal dress spins to face the camera, clutching his chest. He just has time to gasp the name of the movie’s titular heroine(?) before he hits the floor, as inert as the remains of the chic standing lamp he pulled down with him.
Cut to a breath-taking crane-shot of (a studio recreation of) a rain-sodden Santa Monica seafront, water gleaming on the wooden boardwalk in the light of neon hoardings for bars and seafood restaurants as the unmistakable figure of Joan Crawford - looking like a Cossack officer in her wide-shouldered fur coat and hat - strides away from us toward the pier.(1)
(It is only on repeat viewings that we might note that, a few years prior to this in the film’s chronology, Mildred’s beloved younger daughter did indeed die from pneumonia after “taking a swim”, instigating a fatal shift in her mother’s psychological make-up.)
Anyway, the cop’s well-chosen words seem to do the trick, turning Mildred (for of course it is she) away from her watery grave and pointing her in the direction of a loud, claustrophobic seafront bar, where she immediately falls in with the lecherous, fast-talking Wally Fay (Jack Carson), an old friend who seemingly owns the joint. Clearly an inveterate hustler, Wally is suspicious when Mildred - who, we are given to understand, has routinely rejected his crude advances since time immemorial - invites him back to her pad for a quiet drink.
By the time he finds the corpse, it’s too late. Careening around the increasingly labyrinthine beach house, Wally ascends winding, disorientating flights of stairs, dense lattices of shadow thrown by the house’s baroque / art deco accoutrements hemming him in from all sides, as he too cries Mildred’s name.
Photography by Ernest Haller, whose CV includes ‘Gone With The Wind’, ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ and 183 other top-flight flicks, and art direction from Curtiz’s regular collaborator Anton Grot (also see: Doctor X), are, of course, fiendishly superb here, briefly bringing a touch of Orwellian nightmare sci-fi to proceedings.
Soon regaining his wise-cracking composure once he’s back amongst other men, he tells them, “you know, this is a pretty big night for you guys; yeah, lots of excitement - there’s a stiff in there”. “Izzat so? And I suppose you were running right down to the station to report it?” retorts the younger cop, who’s clearly got Wally’s number.
The subsequent scenes, in which Mildred is picked up from the opulent mansion she apparently shares with her adult daughter and informed that her husband(!) has been murdered, are equally great. The limbo-like inertia of the police squad-room - where thick-necked cops sit around, smoking, eating sandwiches or desultorily typing up their nightly reports as Mildred is forced to sit amongst them in her Cossack finery, awaiting the attention of the investigating officer, is brilliantly conveyed. (“Would you like a paper, lady?” some toad-like brute asks her, as if the wife of a murder victim might want to catch up on the sports pages or something.)
As she is eventually ushered into the strangely inviting environs of the interrogation room (incongruously low-lit, as if by firelight) and disconcerted by the smooth, logical and ingratiating tone taken by the detective within (“even his more courteous, somewhat friendlier types gave one pause for concern,” begins the IMDB bio of actor Moroni Elson), we know we’re sliding headlong toward extended flashback territory, as Mildred is coerced into recounting her sorry tale.
Even as we cross that one off our “Film Noir signifiers” bingo card however, first-time viewers expecting to file this one alongside Double Indemnity and ‘The Big Sleep’ are liable to be taken aback by the extent to which the film takes a stylistic handbrake turn as soon as the fairy-dust of noir glamour disappears in the flash of a back-in-time dissolve, leaving us adrift in the flat, sit-com greyscale of the (then novel) surroundings of pre-fab suburbia, where a somewhat fresher-faced Mildred Pierce exchanges her furs for apron and oven gloves, thoroughly immersed in the drudgery of domestic routine.
By failing to deliver on these hallowed signifiers of the hard-boiled idiom, ‘Mildred..’ fell flat for my younger, dumber self. I mean, not only does it feature only a single murder, which we see in the opening minute, but it then has the audacity to follow the day-to-day travails of somebody’s freakin’ mother - and like, who’s got time for that, right?!
Returning to the film as a respectable, wage-earning adult however, greater life experience and (I would like to think) more mature tastes have allowed me to engage far more deeply with the tale being told during the - entirely noir-free - central hour of their movie’s run-time.
Admittedly, I’ve not been through a painful divorce, raised a hateful harridan of a daughter or gone into the restaurant business during the interim, but what can I say? I suppose I can now at least relate to such quintessentially ‘grown-up’ concerns, meaning that, when Mildred’s extended confession begins, I no longer tune out.
But, thank god, they didn’t. And at the risk of stating the obvious here, ‘Mildred Pierce’s final cut is a fast-moving, thoroughly engrossing, friction-free joy to sit through - an example of ‘40s Hollywood artistry raised to its absolute zenith.
Always a gifted director, Curtiz brings both a steady hand and an unparalleled mastery of visual storytelling to proceedings, whilst MacDougall’s writing is, as mentioned, exceptional. Haller, Grot, editor David Weisbart and composer Max Steiner are also all at the top of their game, and in front of the camera, Crawford is - of course - magnificent, whilst the rest of cast is packed out with carefully chosen, lesser-known players who inhabit their roles just perfectly.
Basically - this crew could have made a film about the history of Battenberg cake and it would have been worth watching, so seeing them take on an inspired adaptation of a second tier James M. Cain novel is just dandy, thank you very much.
Being just as in thrall to the whims of said establishment as anyone else, I’m not really sufficiently familiar with the form to judge how indicative ‘Mildred Pierce’ is of its overall conventions, but certainly one suspects that many (now largely forgotten) movies aimed at female audiences must surely have followed the same basic trajectory seen in the film’s central hour; a steadfast, hard working wife/mother overcomes the obstacles life throws at her, negotiates her relationships with men, fights her corner in assorted melodramatic conflicts and misunderstandings, and so forth.
The big difference of course is that, in the regular run of things, one supposes that these stories would most likely have ended with their heroine finding true (legally sanctioned) love, securing a bright future for herself and her children, etc etc…. which is where the shadow of our old friend ‘noir’ begins to creep in once again.
One of the masterstrokes of ‘Mildred Pierce’ is the complex characterisation of the three men who play a role in its heroine’s life. Though all of them are eventually found severely wanting on the scales of the film’s moral schema, they are all somewhat fascinating characters in their own right, and, crucially, none of them are portrayed as entirely irredeemable. This adds a note of moral ambiguity to proceedings which takes us beyond the realm of boilerplate melodrama, even as Mildred is weeping into her oven gloves in her suburban kitchen as first husband Bert (Bruce Bennett) walks out on her.
Significantly, Bert is also the only character in the movie who is not entirely fixated on making money. Unemployed when the flashback segment of the movie begins, he remains glum, dishevelled and content with with relatively lowly position in the economic hierarchy. Even after a brief bit of exposition informs us that he has eventually found work in (where else) the aerospace industry, he remains uninterested, it seems, in signing up to the crazed pursuit of the dollar which motivates the rest of the cast.
Armoured against ethical doubts by the same spiel employed by carpet-baggers and capitalist ultras to this day (hey, it’s just good business, nothin’ personal, etc), against all the odds, we kind of end up liking the guy. There are even moments here when, fleetingly, Mildred and Wally seem to be operating as a pretty tight team - a kind of proto-power couple almost - until his roving eye for some amoral side deals inevitably gets the better of him.
Which just leaves the most fascinating gentleman of all, Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott). Gifted with a name worthy of an Iberian dragon-slayer, this fellow has sometimes been likened by critics to a gender-reversed femme fatale (homme fatale?), but personally I’m not sure that glove really fits.
Given that Beragon is also stony broke - and everyone in the movie seems to know it - it is presumably only his intangible aura of old world, aristocratic glamour which keeps a steady stream of debutantes and wealthy widows heading back to his heavily-mortgaged beach house. (Though the script is reluctant to address Beragon’s promiscuity directly, references to his notoriety in the ‘society pages’ and a running gag about the multiple bathing costumes he keeps on hand for his many ‘sisters’ make the point clearly enough.)
And, in good time, we get a first-hand taste of his talents too, as, thanks to Curtiz’s proven talent for handling romantic material, the scene in which Monte eventually gets Mildred alone in his ‘lair’ zings with more of a sense of inter-personal chemistry and genuine human warmth than the rest of the movie put together… even as bad news and piled up IOUs combine to douse their passion more or less immediately.
Between them, these three fatally-flawed suitors then add up to far more than mere shooting gallery ducks for Crawford’s world-beating super-woman to knock down, allowing the film to chart a surprisingly complex (if resolutely cynical) cross-section of the relationships between the sexes in the competitive, hot-house environment of post-war America. (2)
As Mildred’s loyal right-hand-woman Ida (brilliantly played by a scene-stealing Eve Arden) remarks at one point as the pair raise a lunch-time glass of bourbon, effectively cutting the crap and compressing a fair share of the complex machinations of the film’s plotting into a single sentence: “to the men we’ve loved… the stinkers”.
If anything, the film functions primarily as a kind of unabashed celebration of the Protestant Work Ethic, promoting hard graft as the engine through which the put-upon proletariat can improve themselves and take revenge upon their social ‘betters’; a theme which I assume must go all the way back to Cain’s source novel, as such messages were often close to the writer’s heart, in spite of the nihilistic air which defines his best-known material.
Thus Mildred becomes an almost Christ-like figure for those who strive to better themselves and their families through hard work - an avatar perhaps for the overlooked female labour force brought to the fore during WWII - whilst the scenes demonstrating the success of her restaurant chain convey the sheer exhilaration of post-war American prosperity better than anything else in the era’s movies; a seething world of polished chromium, gleaming glass, imitation leather and bubbling grease, every inch of space filled by voluminous, big-spending customers whose gigantic automobiles idle outside, ready to send them roaring off to the next fashionable destination, amid the not-yet-polluted air of the Pacific Coast Highway.
Stretching right back across the Atlantic and down through the annals of antiquity, this particular class-based dynamic can be traced through the whole deathless lineage of Europe’s debauched aristocracy, from the fall of Rome to the French and Russian revolutions, to the gout-addled, rotten borough squires of British popular fiction (an archetype splendidly lampooned by Charles Laughton in ‘Jamaica Inn’ (1939)), and, more pertinently, the related lineage of ‘Jane Eyre’-derived gothic heartthrobs who were busy menacing and abusing their pure, proletarian maidens in vast swathes of the celluloid which followed in the wake of that rather more celebrated Hitchcock/Du Maurier joint, 1940’s ‘Rebecca’. (3)
A very different prospect from the kind of native-born, inherently American, corruption routinely unpacked in the literary noir of Chandler and Hammett… but, having said that, the rot lurking at the heart of the American dream can certainly be seen elsewhere in the film - if not in the figure of the foreign-coded Monte, then certainly in that of his protégé, and the movie’s ultimate villain, Veda.
In general, I try not to make a habit of hurling misogynist insults at the screen whilst watching films, but if you can get through the first half of ‘Mildred Pierce’ without yelling “you BITCH” in the general direction of Ann Blyth’s Veda, well, your olde world manners must be more refined than my own, let’s put it that way.
Arguably the most memorable character in a film packed full of memorable characters, Veda functions as a magnet for audience hatred right from the outset. A full-on, ‘Bad Seed’-level monster whilst playing younger in her earlier scenes, the toxic snobbery and insincerity which seems to have taken possession of her - traits not obviously inherited from either of her parents - seems so inexplicable, it almost pushes the movie in the direction of horror. (Certainly, it’s difficult to imagine that the producers of the aforementioned 1956 film didn’t have Veda in mind to some extent.)
Beyond mere vindictive, bad-kid nastiness though, there is something so perversely vile, so cruelly idiotic, about the idea of a child attacking her own mother for her perceived low class breeding (“..you never talk about your people, or where you came from, do you mother?”), that Crawford’s inchoate reaction to her daughter’s behaviour can’t help but mirror our own.
In a more conventional, more sentimental story, it would be easy to imagine Veda learning the error of her ways as she grows up, redeeming herself as time goes by and becoming less of a conceited, duplicitous cow as a result. But - thankfully - that’s not the film we’re watching here. The essence of ‘noir’ has sunk deep into the bones of ‘Mildred Pierce’.
And so, under the questionable tutelage of Monte Beragon and Wally Fay, the teenage Veda is soon a fully signed up apprentice femme fatale - a Phyllis Dietrichson or Cora Smith on training wheels, complete with a side-gig as a night club bawler (clearly the money mummy spent on all those music lessons didn’t go to waste) and the future of at least one promising young man already crushed beneath her wheels.
Better by far I think to just see Veda as some Satanic anomaly - a force of nature capable of bringing down her indomitable mother the way no mere man ever could. And indeed, it is the warped, rather obsessional nature of this mother / daughter relationship which really steers the movie back toward darkest noir territory during its final act.
As has often been noted, once Veda has flown what’s left of the family coop, Mildred - perhaps still mourning the tragic loss of ‘good’ daughter Kay - dotes on her as if she were a lost lover rather than an errant daughter, going to what we in the audience recognise as absurd, self-destructive extremes to try to win back her tarnished “love”.
Things proceed to become outright queasy, as the sequences depicting the eventual reunion of mother and daughter are shot more like passionate love scenes than parent/child interactions. There is some freaky, co-dependant kind of shit going on between these two we realise, altogether too late, and the result is… pretty weird, to be honest, bringing the sense of intoxicating gothic perversity which has been lurking deep beneath the surface of his story gasping, finally to the surface.
In cultural / symbolic terms, the extent to which Veda dominates the action in ‘Mildred Pierce’s second half causes the film to sometimes plays more like a prequel / precursor to the full-blooded Film Noir tradition than a fully fledged example of it. Through no fault of her own (?), Joan Crawford’s paragon of hard-working American motherhood, pursuing the American dream for all it’s worth, has given birth to a witch the boys back in Salem never dreamed of, ready to scour the underbelly of her mother’s rotten dream, devouring its losers and rejects with a relentless cruelty.
As critics Molly Haskell and Robert Polito joke in the discussion included as an extra on Criterion’s blu-ray and DVD editions of ‘Mildred Pierce’, you just know, when the cops lead Veda away to the cells at the film’s conclusion, that she’ll be running that damn prison in a couple of weeks.
And as soon as she gets out, well… she’s gonna be heading straight for the nearest Robert Mithum or Fred McMurray, and the whole terrible cycle begins a-new; evil slouching toward Malibu to be born.
(1) Although Ranald MacDougall takes the sole on-screen credit for ‘Mildred Pierce’s script, and I’ve assigned authorship to him in this post just to make everybody’s life a little easier, authorship of the screenplay is, as with most studio era movies, highly contested.
So - deep breath. First off, Warner Bros apparently commissioned no less than eight writers to produce treatments based on Cain’s novel (including an unused draft from William Faulkner), making it unlikely that everything except MacDougall’s effort went straight in the trash. Secondly, quoth IMDB trivia; “writer Catherine Turney [who wrote a number so Barbara Stanwyck and Bette Davis pictures at around this time] was credited on some release prints, but chose to have her name removed.” Thirdly, producer Jack Wald (who instigated the project) has taken credit for devising the opening sequence and the murder-based flashback structure. And finally, also from an anonymous posting on IMDB: “due to script problems, some of the film was improvised by the actors together with Michael Curtiz”! So in conclusion: who the hell knows who wrote this thing.
(I will at least say though that, if that last claim is to be believed, the cast must really have been improvising at the top of their game, because, as mentioned, the dialogue in ‘Mildred Pierce’ is consistently excellent, and seems (to my mind at least) to suggest the work of a single authorial voice.)
(2) As an aside, it’s interesting to note that, despite it being filmed whilst WWII was still being fought, the script for ‘Mildred Pierce’ does not address the war, or its potential effect on the lives of the characters, in any way whatsoever. Instead, the film seems to take place during the kind of exciting economic ‘boom’ period we’d retrospectively tend to associate with the recovery of the late ‘40s and early ‘50s - a fact apparently not lost on Warner Bros, who seem to have deliberately delayed the film’s release until October 1945, when the war was safely in the rear view mirror.
(3) Seriously, it seems like you couldn’t hurl a brick in ‘40s Hollywood without hitting a few of these ‘Rebecca’-type gothic romance movies. Just off the top of my head, you’ve got ‘Dragonwyck’ (1946), ‘Secret Beyond The Door’ (1947), ‘The Spiral Staircase’ (1946), ‘Jane Eyre’ (1943), ‘My Name is Julia Ross’ (1945), ‘Gone to Earth’ (1951)…. and no doubt many others which I’ve not bothered to watch, as I don’t particularly seek these things out.