Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Crawford + Cain Equals a Pierce-ing Exercise in Melodramatic Noir

As one of the top film noirs, and as the best representation ever of what constitutes a 1940’s 'Joan Crawford vehicle,' I more-than-a-tad-anxiously awaited the county library’s showing of 1945’s remarkably durable Warner Brothers melodrama, Mildred Pierce. The packed house at the screening proved plenty of Mildred fans are alive and well and living in my fairly rural neck of the woods. The audience was thoroughly sold on this florid and sordid adaptation of the James M. Cain classic novel (adapted by Randal MacDougall in a trenchant, hard-boiled screenplay that features plenty of impressive, smart dialogue), watching this supreme murder mystery unfold with a spellbound attentiveness worthy of the Pied Piper’s minions.

If only allowed one performance to place in a time capsule, Crawford’s Oscar-winning signature role wouldn’t be the one to write home about (the film may be among her best, but she pushed herself much deeper as an actress immediately following her Oscar win, in Humoresque and, especially, in 1947’s Possessed). Crawford’s so identified with this iconic role, few ever mention the fact the suffering, sacrificial title character, a woman who endures abuse after abuse all for the sake of an uncaring child’s love, isn’t an ideal fit for the powerhouse personality, steely resolve, and terse acting style of the tough, defiant star. However, Crawford was floundering (career-wise, at least) in the mid-forties, and she wasn’t about to let a little thing like miscasting prevent her from making one of Filmdom’s most impressive comebacks. Wandering onto a dank pier at the film’s outset in stables, high heels, and a slightly disoriented state, the statuesque screen legend defines the term “Movie Star” to such an extent Crawford’s sheer star voltage overshadows any of her subsequent unconvincing, flat line readings or aloof behavior (some of the detached iciness found in the star’s later work is already apparent here). Fortunately, Mildred is also a survivor who mid-film does a drastic image overhaul, as the stay-at-home mother and wife reinvents herself into a take-charge, successful businesswoman unshakable in her determination to rise to the top, and with her blazing, hypnotic gaze and low, commanding voice Crawford has no problem handling the character’s resoluteness, nor does she have difficulty diving into the highly melodramatic mien that imbues the story during the film’s second hour (when Mildred finally snaps and tells her spoiled, ungrateful offspring, "Get out before I kill you," you know this is one woman who really will make good on the promise, if necessary). One has to admire Crawford’s determination and spirit in rising above any professional adversity she faced during this difficult period of change, as she gave her all to ensure Mildred would restore her prominent place at the head of the Hollywood pack.

With her cold, rancorous countenance, Ann Blyth vividly enacts possibly the most horrendously vapid and pernicious daughter the cinema has even known (her Veda is a 95% mixture of hate and materialism, with the other 5% going to a sympathetic side shown in rare, all-too-brief moments of self-reflection, wherein Veda realizes, “Hey, I really am the most vicious, underhanded and selfish person who ever walked the planet. Oh well.”). Considering she was only sixteen at the time of filming, Blyth is fairly amazing in the role, showing maturity and sophistication beyond her years as she occasionally manages to fuse some complexity into the one-dimensional character (Veda’s meeting with Mildred in a dressing room is a good example of how well Blyth grasps the largely unfeeling Veda’s conflicted nature concerning her relations with her mother). However, more often Blyth feasts on the juicy part with a spiteful relish, playing to the rafters with a flagrant bitchiness that would make a female impersonator blush as she spits out lines to her mother such as “Oh, grow up!” or "With this money I can get away from every rotten stinking thing that makes me think of this place or you!!!" with a memorably vengeful brashness. Her colorful, no-holds-barred vindictive venting may lack variety, but the film would be far less enjoyable and memorable without Blyth fearlessly sneering her way through the role. Futhermore, a calmer, more naturalistic approach could make her confrontations with the formidable Crawford less enthralling and convincing- with Blyth imbuing venom into every syllable, one starts to believe this pint-sized starlet at least might be able to one-up her overwhelming costar. Blyth would go on to have a reasonably successful career as a leading lady, alternating between dramas and light operettas, but her work as Pierce’s villainous, havoc-causing teen easily remains her most indelible work on film.

As Ida, Mildred’s true-blue confidant, the lanky, fashionable Eve Arden saunters off with many scenes, using her glib, appealing style to add a dash of comic spice to the film's heavy dramatics. Arden puts over some real zingers regarding the complicated situations evolving around her (she gets the film’s best lines, including the most famous one, and Arden sells them with verve). Caustic, saucy, and earthy, Arden’s Ida is a modern woman who knows the score and takes no guff from man, woman, or beast(ly) Veda (faced with one of the brat’s snide putdowns, Arden beams and, in a magnificently sarcastic tone, retorts, “I like you, too!”). Butterfly McQueen also nabs her share of the limelight as Mildred’s friendly, scatter-brained maid, Lottie. With her unique, high-pitched voice and trademark affable dithering, McQueen has an unbelievable rapport with the audience (there was laughter and excited exclamations of recognition at McQueen’s first onscreen utterance, and she had the bemused viewers with her all the way in any scene she appeared in thereafter).

Among the men, Bruce Bennett is competent and often forceful as Bert, Mildred’s stern (but loyal and noble) husband, while Jack Carson is properly flippant and rakish as Wally Fay, Mildred’s amorous would-be suitor and, later, her valuable business partner. However, as Monte Beragon, the oily but seemingly forthright and romantic high-society rapscallion who ends up causing Mildred a wealth of trouble, Zachary Scott makes the biggest impact. Offering an intelligent spin on his unsavory character, Scott fills his role with enough charm, class, and arrogance to make it understandable why Mildred would be both draw to and repelled by this opportunistic-yet-charismatic cad.

With his marvelous versatility, Michael Curitz (The Adventures of Robin Hood, Casablanca), the proven master of just about any film genre, helms Mildred’s fantastically compelling proceedings with flair and vigor, keeping things exciting and entertaining throughout, whether he’s showcasing the heated exchanges between Mildred and Veda, focusing on Arden’s wisecracking, or highlighting Mildred’s ambitious quest for success in the restaurant business. The incredible black and white cinematography by Ernest Haller offers some of the best imagery found in any noir, while Max Steiner’s score also contributes heavily in setting the tone of moody desperation which hovers over the entire film, even during the somewhat optimistic ending. Mesmerizing and robustly entertaining, Mildred Pierce serves as a first-class testament to the rich abundance of pleasures a viewer can find by taking a walk on the cinema’s darker side.


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