Sunday 22 June 2008

Mildred Pierce

A short tribute to a great film, a great book and a great book jacket design. 'Mildred Pierce' (directed in 1945 by Michael Curtiz, best known for ‘Casablanca’) features Joan Crawford at her most melodramatically intense as a doubly double-crossed victim of her poor taste in men and some elementary parenting errors that created a callous and malicious daughter, the splendidly named Veda. The sight of a domesticated Crawford in a modest suburban kitchen baking vast quantities of sublime pies is a memorable treat. Every step that Mildred takes towards securing her hard won economic independence is undermined by the fecklessness of her nearest and dearest. As the fates overwhelm her, she offers minimal and utterly ineffective opposition and her ultimate decline seems the result of self-destructive impulse more than the malice of those around her. There is a mixture of naturalism and classic “noir” in the tone of the film but the really special quality is its sense of absolute conviction that persuades us to suspend all critical standards and surrender to its absurd charms. A special word of praise for Jack Carson who unsuccessfully pursues Mildred throughout the film with a cheerful acceptance of all the knock-backs. Even as he engineers her downfall, he contrives to convey a sense of basic human decency alongside the contentment of a life lived without conscience.

It’s the pie that catches the eye in C W Bacon’s (1905-92) dust wrapper (for the UK edition) as a ghostly Mildred hovers over her Spanish colonial style restaurant and offers us a particularly luminous example of her culinary craft. The lush semi-tropical plant life is hinted at, as well as the open topped car with headlights probing the velvety depths of the Californian night. The stage is set for dark and sinister events. As for James M Cain, his writing was the epitome of the hard-boiled style and his terse and punchy fiction with its staccato rhythms lent itself perfectly to cinematic adaptation, the other highlights being ‘Double Indemnity’ (screenplay by Raymond Chandler) and ‘The Postman Always Rings Twice’. More about Cain and more about C W Bacon in future postings.

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