Directed by Michael Curtiz
#176 of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die
To start off the film noir fest with a bang, here is a studio big-budget effort that garnered Joan Crawford a long-awaited Best Actress Oscar, along with six other Academy Award nominations. In 1996, the film was deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected for preservation in the United States Library of Congress National Film Registry.
The story is based on James M. Cain’s novel of the same name. There are some key differences from the book. Mildred Pierce is a middle-class housewife who makes money on the side baking cakes and pies. She lives for her two daughters Veda and Kay and tries especially hard to placate her difficult, grasping elder daughter Veda. Mildred and her husband Bert separate amicably after arguing about his visits to a lady friend and Mildred’s child-rearing style.
Mildred finds work as a waitress and struggles to satisfy the increasingly spoiled Veda’s demands for the finer things in life by selling pies. When Veda finds her mother’s waitress uniform and accuses her of being a peasant, Mildred decides she must have more money and opens a restaurant, with the help of perpetual suitor Wally. Along the way, she meets the equally entitled shiftless socialite Monte and it looks like she will be burdened by two ungrateful whiners for life. A darker fate perhaps awaits … With Joan Crawford as Mildred, Ann Blyth as Veda, Jack Carson as Wally, Zachary Scott as Monte and Eve Arden as Mildred’s wise-cracking friend Ida.
I thought this was pretty terrific. A little bit of Joan Crawford goes a long way with me but here she was remarkably restrained with the old eyebrows. It may be her best performance. Ernest Haller’s cinematography is beautiful, particularly the night scenes. The script is tight and it moves right along. I love Eve Arden and was delighted to see her at her best here, in an Oscar-nominated performance. Of the men, I was most impressed with Jack Carson.
This is not quite what I think of as noir. There is a lot of high key lighting, glamour, and a lack of grim city streets. However, it does have that expressionist lighting. My definition of noir for this exercise is basically any film that is included in Michael F. Keaney’s Film Noir Guide. Keaney came up with 745 films from the period 1940-1959 made in the “noir style” in any of several different genres, including melodrama. Keaney sees the “noir themes” in Mildred Pierce as betrayal, obsession, and greed.