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Laramie Movie Scope:
Mildred Pierce

A Joan Crawford, James Cain classic

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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May 17, 2013 -- I finally got around to seeing this 1945 film noir classic, starring the iconic Hollywood movie star Joan Crawford. I've been hearing about it for years, of course, but I'm a little leery about bothering to watch movies “I should see.” The problem is some so-called “classic” movies that I “should see” end up being boring, or even festering, stinking heaps of cinema. Fortunately, this one lives up to the hype.

I like film noir, especially movies based on the works of James M. Cain, and “Mildred Pierce” is one of those. Other movies that Cain had a hand in are film noir classics, “Out of the Past,” “Double Indemnity” and “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” But “Mildred Pierce” is a little different than those. It is more of a soap opera, despite the fact that the story revolves around a murder mystery.

The story opens with a guy being shot. As he lies dying, he utters a single word, “Mildred.” From there, the story moves both forward and back in time, much of it being told by Mildred Pierce (played by Joan Crawford) to a shrewd police detective.

Mildred Pierce is a woman who worked her way up from poverty to become a wealthy owner of a chain of restaurants, then she loses her money at the end. Her one goal in life is her daughter's happiness. But her spoiled daughter, Veda (Ann Blyth of “The Helen Morgan Story”) cannot be pleased. Veda often promises to reform, but she is a hopelessly bad seed. Joan Crawford's life story reflects the story of Mildred Pierce in some ways, making her well-suited for this role.

There is a lot of misdirection in the story, especially regarding Mildred's character, which is portrayed differently in different parts of the film to shift suspicion around in the murder case, creating doubt. Ordinarily, I like to see consistent characters in a movie, but I understand why this was done, and it was done with great skill.

The person who makes this film fun to watch is Eve Arden, an actress gifted in comic roles. She plays the wise, comic sidekick role of Ida, to Mildred's straight character. She delivers comic zingers with unerring accuracy throughout the film, like when she tells a lazy playboy, “You were probably frightened by a callus at an early age.” Arden went on to star in a couple of early television series, including the popular “Our Miss Brooks.”

There is no question who the star of the movie is, however, and that is Joan Crawford. She won a best actress Academy Award for her performance in this film. She plays the role of Mildred Pierce right to the hilt. Like Mildred, Joan Crawford clawed her way to the top using her talent, beauty and intelligence. Like Mildred, Joan's personal life was as disappointing as her professional life was successful. Unlike Mildred, Joan's professional life always came first.

“Mildred Pierce” is a story which artfully combines cynicism and sentimentality. The cynicism is expressed in the person of Wally Fay (Jack Carson of “A Star is Born”) who is consumed with matters of self interest. He is not above stabbing his friends in the back to get ahead. Other cynics are the dissolute playboy Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott of “The Southerner”) and Mildred's daughter, Veda. Cynical though they are, Wally Fay and Beragon both have a soft spot for Mildred, and that gets both of them into trouble.

Another reason this film is so good is the director, Michael Curtiz, one of the all-time greats. He directed this other movie you may have heard of, “Casablanca.” Curtiz was a master of what has been called “The Hollywood Style” of making films, that is, using camera shots and editing techniques that do not draw attention to themselves. The style is seamless and invisible to the casual observer. In this style, the story comes first. The opposite of this style would be a film like “Citizen Kane,” or perhaps “Vertigo,” where some of the camera shots and editing are very noticeable, even flamboyant.

Because of all these factors, “Mildred Pierce” remains a classic after all these years. It has aged very gracefully. It is a fine testament to the great talent of Joan Crawford, and of course, her funny sidekick, Eve Arden. This film rates an A.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2013 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)