Previously at the Wellington Film Society: Joan Crawford as James M. Cain’s desperate housewife.
Given Todd Haynes’s recent HBO mini-series of the James M. Cain novel (starring Kate Winslet as the titular desperate housewife), the classic 1945 Joan Crawford vehicle of the same story made for a topical opening to the Wellington Film Society’s mini film noir season. While Crawford’s version departed considerably from the novel, its success helped continue the momentum of earlier Cain adaptations (including the brilliant Double Indemnity a year prior), and also helped retrospectively make the name of, in particular, his early works. And although the film doesn’t match the resonance of the novel (namely, its explicit Depression-era setting and intricate social commentary), it did feature one of the classic Golden era Hollywood performances: Joan Crawford, in what would prove to be a career-defining, and briefly career-saving, role.
Indeed, the fact that Crawford had become a washed up movie star whose career had completely stagnated only helped to galvanize her acting. Michael Curtiz, the director, who was taking a break from war-themed films (including, obviously, Casablanca and Yankee Doodle Dandy), reportedly did not want Crawford—he preferred her bitter rival, Bette Davis. Crawford had to fight for the role (aided by Davis’s refusal), and there was something in the desperation of this battle that seemed to translate into the character’s attempt to improve the lot of her and her family.
Crawford plays Mildred Pierce; abandoned by her husband, she must juggle bills and two daughters with highly competing demands. The eldest, Veda (Ann Blyth), transforms into the archetypal femme fatale, a greedy, prejudiced social climber, and for whose whims Pierce seeks to better herself. The only way Pierce can make her daughter happy is to cut into the very way in which she herself becomes successful. It’s a cruel depiction of a double bind: seemingly mutually exclusive preferences to be a success in business, and to be a success as a mother. (The film’s conclusion is a little ambivalent in this regard.) Crawford’s performance is so outstanding that she overshadows the rest of the her cast—especially Blyth, whose mannerisms appeared clunky compared to the naturalistic Crawford. (One could argue there’s a proto-Method Acting feel to Crawford’s performance.) Film noir is seen as one of the first genres in which female characters gained genuine power. Even if the misogynistic Production Code morality forced the “evil” women to be punished, powerful women were by and large the lasting impression of the great noir films. Crawford, of course, walked away with an Academy Award as well.
Aiding Crawford’s performance are fascinating visuals which accompany her ascent in business. Shadows, lines (e.g. blinds, panelled walls), and unnatural angles (even the part in the hair in the anti-hero Monte Beragon) abound, suggesting a menacing inner turmoil to Crawford’s character. Curtiz’s film in many ways typified the influence of the German Expressionist movement of the 1920s on American film noir. (Curtiz and Billy Wilder made their names in the 1920s in Austria and Germany respectively.) If the impact of film noir has been somewhat overstated—it was only after the fact that they became the important cultural markers of 1940s Hollywood, whereas during the period, they were largely B movies, albeit very good B movies)—there’s no doubt that in films like Mildred Pierce, a particularly prescient depiction of war-time and post-war ennui, unequal social relations, desolation, and alienation exists.