What makes Mildred Pierce a great film noir? You don’t have to go too far into the film to find out. Right after the Warner Bros. logo fades off the screen an amazing group of scenes are threaded together to help introduce the viewer to the characters, a rainy beach location and most importantly – a murder.
Mildred Pierce was directed by famed Hungarian-born director Michael Curtiz – a director of an amazing amount of film classics (The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), Dodge City (1939), The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), The Sea Hawk (1940), Casablanca (1942), and Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) in five years!). Curtiz had a touch of gold and executives hoped he could repeat his success especially since James M. Cain’s racy novel was considered unfilmable by many. The screenplay was cleaned up due to pressure from the Production code and the story was trimmed to be less complicated than the novel. Even though the film took place in sunny California by the beach, Curtiz used German Expressionistic style to make Mildred Pierce’s world appropriately dark and gloomy. Check out the great use of shadows when Zachary Scott’s body is found by Jack Carson during the opening scene. I think the cinematography and Max Steiner’s dramatic score (and not because of the melodramatic story) is what makes this one of the best film noirs made. Another example is the shocking confrontation between Scott and Crawford at the end of the film. Of course the performances by Scott, Carson, Ann Blyth and Crawford certainly helped elevate the film from soap opera to a gripping drama.
It’s hard to believe today but Joan Crawford wasn’t wanted for the role. She was considered washed up as a box-office draw not to mention she had a reputation for being difficult. Only after leading ladies including Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck and Ann Sheridan couldn’t be secured did the go with Crawford. To Curtiz’s surprise Crawford gave the performance of her career. The film went on to become a huge box-office hit and Crawford won an Oscar for her bravura portrayal.
Zachary Scott is fantastic and should have won an Oscar for his role too. Scott as the lazy lounge lizard Monte Beragon– Mildred’s second husband – who, as Eve Arden comments, “(was) probably frightened by a callus at an early age!” is the ultimate playboy leech. The only other performance comparable to it is Tyrone Power playing the womanizer in Witness for the Prosecution. Scott usually comes across too slick in other films (including the disappointing Curtiz/Crawford reteaming in Flamingo Road a few years later) but in this he’s just right. Maybe his naturally slimy Jack-Cassidy-like mannerisms just worked in his favor in this one. You actually feel sorry for Mildred Pierce because of all the people take advantage of her. That is an amazing feat because Crawford usually gets no pity from movie viewers.
Jack Carson plays another man in Mildred Pierce’s life that spends the movie either trying to bed her or get her money. Bruce (Tarzan) Bennett is the third man and possibly the only guy to treat Mildred well. Oh wait, he did leave the mother of two penniless earlier in the film for another woman. Later he does redeem himself and I’m sure most of the audience probably wished they never separated in the first place.
Usually when a film noir has a female lead it ends up not having a femme fatale. Not in this case. Ann Blyth plays the angelic looking Veda. She spends four years in the movie making her self-sacrificing mother's life hell. She's a gold-digger and a spoiled brat no matter how many times her mother tries to straighten her out.
Mildred makes a fortune and then begins to loose it all because of her. “Don't tell anyone what Mildred did!” You'll have to see the movie to believe how evil Veda is.
Rounding out the dames in the film are Eve Arden and Butterfly McQueen playing their usual roles of sassy sidekick and the family maid. Guess who plays which roles? Arden surprisingly received an Academy Award nomination for this but McQueen is actually funnier. Sharp eyes will notice Leigh Patrick (Sam Spade's secretary in The Maltese Falcon) in a small role as Bennett's girlfriend.
The film has lots of drama into two hours but the best -and most visually sunning - parts of the film are the amazing opening flashback sequence and surprising resolution right at the end. This is Crawford's greatest performance.
About the trailer (below): With all the talk in the original Warner Bros. trailer about how evil Mildred was, turns out she's the victim of all kinds of mental abuse from nearly everyone around her. I guess from the guy's perspectives she's the bad one but that's not the reality.