Monday, 17 October 2011

Mildred Pierce, dir. Michael Curtiz, scr. Ranald MacDougall, William Faulkner, Catherine Turney, based on the novel by James M. Cain, st. Joan Crawford, Ann Blyth, Jack Carson

What the recent HBO adaptation of James M. Cain's novel does over five hours, slowly and intricately, and with a multi-layered performance from Kate Winslet, this film does in ninety minutes. It's a great example of noir melodrama of the time; sub-plots and characterisations have been truncated, and a murder plot introduced to get round Mildred's daughter Veda's affair with her step-father - an aspect of the original story that would never have made it past the Motion Picture Production Code in force at the time. Crawford is an arguably less sympathetic Mildred than Winslet, or rather, we see less of what makes her tick; where Winslet is a confused mass of repressed sexuality and impetuous maternal instinct, Crawford is measured and manipulative, still pining for her daughter's unconditional love, but simultaneously stoic and detached. But for all its studio-enforced censoring, Mildred Pierce is still shocking in its main thematic thrust of familial disloyalty; in fact, its remarkably bleak all round, pretty much everyone is selfish, self-serving and generally unpleasant. A contemporary audience may balk at the idea of an absolute morality, and we know real-life isn't as black and white, but the film achieves a candour in its closure rarely matched in modern cinema.