What makes the ultimate film noir? Let us see… you need to start with a murder, preferably a gruesome one. From there the story should be told in flashback, preferably by a narrator with a dry, touch and fatalistic slant. The plot must include several characters with their own ulterior and preferably seedy motives, including at least one stunning femme fatale. Of course outstanding performances in all the main leads are a boon. The cinematography must make delicate use of light and especially shadow and finally there is no such thing as a happy end. In the best case it is bitter sweet.
And there you are, I have just described “Mildred Pierce”.
I am not shy to state that “Mildred Pierce” is just about the most perfect film noir I have yet seen. It is almost dogmatic in its adherence to the principles of a noir to an extend that I would not be surprised if someone told me that this is the template film noir from which the genre was defined. The only twist to the genre here is an inversal of the genders. The focal point is a woman and her adversaries are mostly men with one crucial exception.
This is an awesome film. I am flat out sold by this one. It is a tough one to see if you like me tend to invest yourself in the characters, but that is also a quality of the film. You understand the characters, why they do what they do and for all her flaws you are never ready to disconnect from Mildred. Instead I got drawn into her universe of ambition and deceit, of material success and emotional deroute. It is really rather overwhelming and I had to take a break or two in the process but it was very rewarding. A 10 out of 10 film in my book.
The opening sets the tone for the film perfectly. A man dies mumbling “Mildred”. We do not know who he is. We see Mildred (Joan Crawford), a stunning mature woman wealthy dressed but obviously distraught. First she is this close to killing herself by drowning. Then she finds what is obviously an old friend, Wally (Jack Carson), and take him to the beach house with the dead body. It is clear that Wally has been trying to get into her pants for years and now cannot believe his luck, but also that he is a sleezebag who has essentially stolen her business. Mildred leaves him in the building and runs away.
Next thing everybody is at the police station. Mildred is told not to worry, they got the murderer. It is Bert (Bruce Bennett), her former husband, and he has already confessed. His makes a distraught Mildred even more in a bad shape. She denies that he could have done it and start telling her story.
Now, that is a nice setup. Textbook noir. Not just a whodunit, but an almost existential drama involving many pieces. We know it is going to end badly. Disastrous even. But we do not know half of it yet and the story begins as trivial as a standard suburbian family; housewife Mildred, failing breadbringer Bert and two children, adolescent Veda (Ann Blyth) and the younger Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe).
I will spare the reader for a detailed summary. It would be too much of a spoiler anyway. Suffice to say that Mildred decides to stand up for herself, to make herself a success primarily to take care of her children. She becomes a success. More successful than she could have dreamed of. In fact she does everything right and work hard to get there. By the standard that most people are measured in American movies she is a heroine.
Unfortunately her success is hollow. Her objective itself is futile. Kay, the sweet and very likable child, dies from pneumonia and no wealth in the world could save her. Veda however is a snake that Mildred is nurturing at her breast. Mildred is ambitious on Veda’s behalf, but that is nothing compared to Veda’s own ambitions. Somehow she has got it into her head that she is an aristocrat, stuck in a middle class family. No matter how much money Mildred makes it is not enough for Veda and Veda scorns her mother for actually working. Veda is just about the most unlikable, spoiled and ungrateful character imaginable. Yet she is also Mildred’s daughter and Mildred refuses to recognize the problem before it is too late. Just when we think Veda cannot get worse she ups it and surprises us by her egocentric and delusioned behavior.
Mildred also has to negotiate a sea of sharks. Wally for one, but he is nothing compared to Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott). Mildred may be cunning, but she has her soft spots and the sharks around her, Veda, Wally and Beragon are not shy of exploiting them. She is up against some really tough odds.
While all the actors involved are convincing the three leading women are outstanding. Mildred’s assistant Ida (Eve Arden) is tough as nails and by far the most sympathetic character, simply for cutting through the crap and saying what we are thinking. Veda is played by the only 17 year old Ann Blyth. I had no idea a 17 year old girl so completely could be evil incarnate. I will have to look up that actress. I cannot believe she would not have done well in her later films.
But the grand prize goes to Joan Crawford. She may have been a horrible person privately, but she was divine on the silver screen and this is the best I ever saw her. At 43 years she can be both the worldly and experienced business woman and the coy and sensuous girl. I dare say no other actress at the time could have lifted this role as well. Stanwyck or Davis would have done it differently and not been able to give the role the darkness Crawford gives it. Just listen to her voice. There is power there.
The ending of the film ties up the threads in a most satisfying twist and I will not spoil the fun by revealing it. Just say that the end scene is probably the most spectacular of the entire film. As Mildred and Bert leave the police station dawn has broken and they walk through an arched portal into the sun. Literally and symbolically.