Mildred Pierce (released in 1945) opens with gunshots and a the shadowy figure of a woman running away in the dead of night, set against a backdrop of crashing, Pacific ocean waves, as a beachouse somewhere on the coast is transformed from an idyllic retreat to the scene of a crime, committed in cold blood.
Mildred Pierce teases us with this image of a dark, mysterious, dangerous Los Angeles, and then sends us back in time, to years before this moment of high anxiety, to an unlikely origin point for murder: an unassuming house in a Southern California suburb, with Mission-style arched doorways and plam trees in the front yard. It’s here that Mildred, played by Joan Crawford in a career-defining role, slaves away as a housewife, baking pies in her spare time to keep her uppity, unappreciative eldest daughter Veda in piano lessons and fancy dresses. Mildred and her husband divorce because of Veda’s increasingly high-maintenance lifestyle, and Mildred and Veda spin into a mother-daughter tete-a-tete that lasts for years.
I love this movie because it seamlessly blends Douglas Sirk-style melodrama with the themes and aesthetic of film noir. The Los Angeles of Mildred Pierce exists between these polarities as well. In the scene where Mildred wanders into a restaurant looking for a cup of tea and ends up demanding a job waiting tables, the sun shines in through the windows and the liveliness of the busy street outside seems to extend into the restaurant. It’s the place where Mildred finds hope and promise: from her start as a waitress, she eventually becomes a restaurant tycoon (with the utterly fantastic Eve Arden as Ida, her restauranting sidekick). The restaurant scene embodies the kind of hope and promise that, for many people, Los Angeles represented – and, in some ways, still represents.
Of course, this being a melodramatic noir, things take a decidedly sinister turn. Mildred becomes involved with wealthy men with dubious motives, and Veda continues to manipulate her mother’s affections. Mildred’s restaurant empire grows (and watch for the scenes where the Hollywood Brown Derby is used for the restaurant interior shots!) but it also threatens to eat her up. We eventually find ourselves back at that dark beachouse, where the crashing waves and gunshots represent a city that is far removed from the sunlit, hopeful Los Angeles that marks the beginning of the story – instead, it’s a city where dreams and aspirations fall prey to harsh realities.
Forty-five years later, in 1990, Sonic Youth released the video for their song, Mildred Pierce, where they send a crazed Joan Crawford lookalike running down the Walk of Fame. It’s like a tribute to Joan Crawford’s ultra-camp superpowers, and paints a picture of yet another Los Angeles, this time as a postmodern desert where celebrity and fame collide with the street, and with the utterly abject, but where Mildred’s dreams and tragedy still resonate.