by Brad Nelson
First off, don’t let the title of this movie scare you off. I know how that can be. I still haven’t watched “The Bridges of Madison County” because that just screams “chick flick” to me. But, goodness gracious, “Mildred Pierce”? Does that sound boring or what?
Based on a novel by James Cain (which is apparently even grittier), Mildred Pierce is of an interesting type of movie.
Movies can be judged in many ways. Some are self-consciously artistic (such as Metropolis). Others are groundbreaking in their style (such as Citizen Kane), and others – quite unlike Joan Crawford’s narcissistic and slightly twisted daughter, Veda – don’t give a rat’s butt about provenance, importance, or pomp. They are simply interesting films to watch. And Mildred Pierce rates extremely high on this scale of watchability.
This is a film filled with some wonderfully wicked moments as human beings show themselves to be the animals that they are hidden behind smiling faces and well-pressed suits. Joan Crawford isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but she’s looking gorgeous in this film and plays her part wonderfully. She has that elusive thing called “star power” and she needs it against a raft of men-in-a-men’s-world obstacles who keep coming after her, using her, sometimes befriending her, but usually at odds with her.
Yes, this can easily be seen as a PC feminist movie, and yet it isn’t in the usual sense because I was cheering for Mildred all the way. The film basks in realism instead of melodrama. It doesn’t try too hard to knock you over the head to make a theme point. You thus end up rooting for Mildred as a person, not necessarily as a woman.
But you do catch the element of “the strong woman trying to make her way in a man’s world.” And Crawford simply excels at portraying this with style, strength, and subtlety. In particular, Eve Arden is wonderful as the strong and outspoken friend of Crawford’s. She has most of the best lines and steals nearly every scene she is in. She alone is worth the price of this movie. Most probably remember Arden with Kay Ballard from the late 1960’s TV series, The Mothers-in-Law.
But this picture is ultimately about human excess, dysfunction, and predation, not gender. It’s about how much is enough. And if the women in this movie are strong, they (at least Joan Crawford) are also weak because of some excessive emotional clinging. And you could say the same thing for Monte Beragon, one of Mildred’s interests, who plays a wonderful and somewhat wasted and pathetic ex-wealthy man.
The story is a real page-turner. Adding to the pleasure, and perhaps solely responsible for giving much of the weight that this movie has, is the wonderful cinematography (in glorious black and white) that radiates a thousand watts of film noir dark splendor.
An added chuckle for me was the way this movie skewers the Californian narcissistic lifestyle that is simply broiling in emotional vanity. Because most actors and writers have to make a living in that state, don’t hold your breath waiting for anyone to skewer Sean Penn or others of that set. Although Crawford’s daughter, Veda, could surely be seen as a stand-in for all human narcissism and goofy vanity, there seemed to be a particularly Californian angle to that.
I’m struggling with whether to rate this film a 3.999999 or go the full 4.0. Anyone who’s been watching knows that 4.0 is my threshold for truly great movies. I think I’ll make it 4.1 eldest-daughters-who-should-be-horse-whipped out of 5, on the weight of sheer watchability alone. This is also one of the best film noirs I’ve ever seen.