Joan Crawford stars as Mommie Dumbest

There can be nothing purer than a mother's love for her child. Right? Leave it to noir novelist James M. Cain to turn that inside out and upside down. Based on Cain's novel, Mildred Pierce is a twisting, turning, rollercoaster ride of tawdry delight. Michael Curtiz directs with unerring precision, nailing down the noir style. And as Mildred, star Joan Crawford serves up a juicy performance in this psychologically complex tale. She's tough guy and femme fatale all at once, as a mother who bears a dotty love for her daughter.

The story charts Mildred's rise and fall as she achieves the American dream, then loses it all. Directing from Ranald MacDougall's tightly-compressed script, Curtiz keeps the pace fast as he intercuts between two storylines, one a set of flashbacks to the past and the other consisting of the present. The film opens with a bang as Mildred's second husband Monte is killed. All the clues point to Mildred. Monte wrecked her once-thriving restaurant business. Mildred tries to kill herself and fails. Then she tries to frame her old friend Wally by having the cops discover him alone with Monte's dead body. Mildred's a femme fatale alright, but the story's too smart to let the obvious suspect be the only one.

Just like mum, Mildred's daughter Veda is a corrupting influence, played with sweet-faced menace by Ann Blyth. Veda is a unique femme fatale, a woman whose bad case of possession envy brings down another woman--her own mother. When Mildred's first husband Bert tries to interfere with her ambitious plans for Veda and younger daughter Kay, Mildred sends him packing to Kay's woe and Veda's nonchalance. At first Mildred resists Veda's manipulations and refuses to prostitute herself by marrying wealthy lecher Wally. Instead she works her way up from waitress to successful restauranteur. But in Cain's and Curtiz's dark vision, the glittering tale of the American dream achieved becomes a noose around Mildred's neck. Mildred trades her integrity and a cut of her business to marry Monte, a wastrel from old and rapidly dwindling money to whom Vida is irrationally attached.

The mystery isn't the whodunit murder, though Curtiz delights in shuffling around potential suspects onscreen with all the dexterity of a card shark. It's why Mildred willingly sacrifices everything--men, money and herself--for her pathologically greedy daughter. It's clear from Mildred's determination to give her daughters the finer things she never had that she sees her daughters as extensions of herself. That inability to separate herself from her daughters is an astute piece of psychology. But the key to understanding Mildred's selflessness for her selfish daughter is in the details. It's in Mildred's masculine, money-smart and mommy-stupid personality, her long-lasting friendship with lesbian Ida and her ultimate disinterest in men. Those are the things that make Curtiz turn a portrait of family tragedy into one of family romance.

(December 4, 2001)

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