How Joan Crawford embraced film noir (and middle age)

While other actresses struggled to reshape their stardom as they approached middle age, Joan Crawford took control in a string of crime melodramas and film noirs – not least her Oscar-winning turn as Mildred Pierce.

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Christina Newland

Sudden Fear (1952)

Sudden Fear (1952)

In 1940, Louis B. Mayer was certain that no one wanted to see Joan Crawford playing against type in his latest MGM production. Although Crawford had been one of the prizes of his star stable for nearly 18 years, she was known as a flapper shopgirl with hard-won success; a glamorous but oft-suffering star of glossy romantic melodramas; and Clark Gable’s on-screen (and off-screen) lover. Why would audiences want to see Crawford in a role as a disfigured loser, a woman so eaten up by her physical deformity that she became a professional blackmailer?

Nonetheless, Crawford pushed back and insisted that she would be right for the lead role as Anna in George Cukor’s A Woman’s Face (1941). The film was a dark departure for the actress, but its melding of melodrama and noir elements would go on to influence the sorts of territory she would enter in the coming decade – and impressed on her viewers and colleagues that she could carry a crime film.

A Woman’s Face (1941)

A Woman’s Face (1941)

She went on to give an impressive dramatic performance, and the film was both commercially and critically successful, but her time at MGM was nonetheless coming to a close. In the 40s, the studio was busy with a host of new young stars: Judy Garland, Lana Turner, Ava Gardner and Elizabeth Taylor among them. Meanwhile, Crawford was, as she put it, reaching “a certain age”, and by 1943 she and Metro had made a mutual agreement to dissolve her contract. It would be only two days before she signed a new deal with Warner Brothers, for only a third of her previous salary.

The most celebrated and deservedly discussed of her film roles at Warner Brothers was undoubtedly the title role in Mildred Pierce (1945), the adaptation of James M. Cain’s novel that saw a housewife accused of murder because of the manipulations of her wicked daughter. This unusual melting pot of women’s film territory and the dark chiaroscuro of noir earned Crawford the Oscar for best actress, and cast her in an entirely new light to her audiences.

Crawford understood that she had created a niche for herself, and in her late 30s chose to lean into mature womanhood rather than cling to her past selves. With her broad shoulders emphasised by padding, her prettiness hardened by thick brows and a fearsome pout, Crawford had a tough beauty in the postwar years.

It was the sort that would later be cruelly exaggerated as she grew older and played more villainous roles. But at this point, poised as she was between glistening sexiness and hawkish severity, she could play ambivalent, independent women with a world-weary sensibility, and that would prove to be the sweet spot of her career for quite some time to come.

Of the difference between her films at MGM and Warner Brothers, Crawford would later say:

“I was used to the look at Metro, where everything, including the war pictures, was filmed in blazing white lights. Even if a person was dying there was no darkness. But when I saw the rushes of Mildred Pierce I realised what Ernie [Haller, cameraman] was doing. The shadows and half-lights, the way the sets were lit, together with the unusual angles of the camera, added considerably to the psychology of my character and to the mood and psychology of the film.”

In the series of film noirs to follow, Joan would continue to mine the vein of psychological drama, whether in-house at Warner Brothers or freelance for other studios. Among the former were Flamingo Road (1949) and The Damned Don’t Cry (1950), in which Crawford is a driven vixen willing to commit any number of sins, sexual or otherwise, to get what she wants.

But because of her star power and central part in the narratives of these films, she tends to transcend the typical ‘femme fatale’ of noir – she’s coloured with motivations and nuances that are rarely attributed to other slinky dames.

In The Damned Don’t Cry, Joan is a wickedly villainous gun moll – based loosely on the notorious Virginia Hill, Bugsy Siegel’s partner-in-crime. Yet she begins the film as a beleaguered housewife whose child is killed in an accident, precipitating her drastic turn to a criminal lifestyle. Poorer duplicates of these roles would appear again in Crawford’s career, as with The Woman Is Dangerous, which the actress would later say was the worst film she had ever been in.

Yet in 1952 – the same year as that evident failure – RKO project Sudden Fear was released. Crawford turns in a harried, terrified performance as a woman being targeted for murder by her own husband (Jack Palance), and the result is an ominous, suspenseful genre entry, full of lurking shadow and suspect motivations. The actress would continue in this vein to varying success for several years more, with highlights including her role as a malicious southern matriarch in Queen Bee (1955).

Each of these films is worthy of consideration within Crawford’s larger career – after her top-of-the-world MGM days but long before her descent into self-parody, she seemed utterly at home in the smoky back-rooms of film noir. 

Mildred Pierce (1945)

Mildred Pierce (1945)

During the filming of Mildred Pierce, director Michael Curtiz (who was well-known for his ill temper) apparently said to Jack Warner: “She comes over here with her high-hat airs and her goddamn shoulder pads… why should I waste my time directing a has-been?”

This couldn’t have been any further from the truth. After Mildred Pierce, Crawford would have a rich few years playing criminal gang leaders, vengeful showgirls, love-obsessed psychiatric patients, and successful career women drawn into unsavoury situations. The quality of the films may have been uneven, but their dismissal as a fallow period in her career does not account for their complexities and ambitions, including that of their formidable lead actress.

That she never quite settled into playing benign matrons by the time she was 40 – instead seizing sexually voracious and daring leading roles – tells us something about Joan Crawford and her place among the greats. 

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