Michael Curtiz, 1945
Starring: Joan Crawford, Jack Carson, Zachary Scott, Eve Arden
Mildred Pierce is brought to the police station to explain the death of her husband, the playboy Monte Beragon, who was shot in his beach-side cottage. Her ex-husband, Bert, is the main suspect, but Mildred insists he is innocent and explains recent events. Four years ago, Bert and Mildred divorced, because he was unemployed and racking up bills, while she was trying to provide for her two spoiled daughters, the haughty Veda and tomboy Kay. Mildred secretly took a job as a waitress and began selling baked goods on the side to support Veda’s increasingly extravagant lifestyle.
After setting aside some money, Mildred opened a restaurant, which soon became into a profitable chain. Kay fell ill and died, resulting in Mildred spoiling Veda even further, until the girl became into a beautiful, but haughty and ungrateful 17-year-old. Mildred soon learned that Veda tricked a wealthy young man into marrying her and is now blackmailing him for a divorce. Horrified, Mildred kicks her out of the house, but regrets her decision, especially when she learns that Veda has become a nightclub singer. The only way Veda will come home is if Mildred improves her station in life and marries the indolent, womanizing Monte Beragon, who comes from a wealthy, upper class family. Mildred soon learns that Monte and Veda have an illicit history – and that Monte is all out of money – which results in his murder. Did Mildred kill him?
Based on a novel by James M. Cain (Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice), the film’s script was quite different from the source novel, adding everything from a murder (which the novel completely lacked) to punishment for Veda, which the Hays Code necessitated. The span of time in the novel is shorter and the setting is changed from Depression-era America to WWII. The latter is mentioned on and off throughout the film and is used as a loose explanation for why Mildred has to work and for why she is surrounded by scoundrels – all the good men have gone off to war. Mildred is more successful than she was in the novel, while Veda is far more useless and parasitic.
Mildred Pierce is essentially melodrama masquerading as noir. It would have been flat-out melodrama if the murder plot had not been added to the film. There are also some excellent film noir-like visuals throughout, including ominous shots of staircases, a mirror cracked by a bullet hole, dark and gloomy scenes in the beach house at night, and other shadowy, depressing shots that contrast with the sunny, California setting. The script also added common elements of the film noir: voice-over narration, flashbacks, and a lengthy police interrogation. There’s some wonderful cinematography from Ernest Haller that brings plenty of German expressionist elements into this tale of suburban America.
This is a loveless, oddly cold film, even though it is essentially about a mother’s love for her daughter. Everyone seems to be motivated by money; even Mildred is never shown giving affection – she simply tries to buy it, directly leading to Veda’s offensive attitude and obviously skewed perspective on life. Money appears in nearly every scene, whether Mildred’s employee and friend Ida is counting it, Mildred is earning it or spending it, or someone is taking money from her. While Veda is awful, the climate of the film and the behavior of the other characters makes it clear why she turned out this way – she is a direct product of her environment, which also somehow makes her more sympathetic. The distaste of the upper classes for employment and labor was something that essentially died out around this period (check out some Agatha Christie novels if you want to read about murder and the idle rich), when enterprising members of the lower classes found themselves wealthy and began to strike it rich and replace the hereditary aristocracy.
The concept of nouveau riche – making one’s fortune within their own generation or lifetime – clearly applies to Mildred herself. This distasteful term implies a lack of class, education, or breeding and Veda – despite the fact that she herself was born in a lower class – constantly throws this in Mildred’s face. Nothing Mildred provides will ever be enough, because it is not inherently Old Money. The film points out this hypocrisy through the only moneyed character, Monte. He is a broke, idle, useless, and immoral scoundrel who skates through life on his charm, grace, and family name. He bankrupts Mildred after agreeing to marry her, has a long-running affair with her 17-year-old daughter, among other things.
Ironically, Mildred’s struggles are all of her own doing. Her first husband, who strangely winds up being a minor hero by the film’s conclusion, is a jobless loafer, racking up bills and ignoring his wife and children. Even at the start of the film, the married Mildred bakes around the clock to bring in extra money and remains blinded to Veda’s increasingly nasty behavior. She consistently surrounds herself with lecherous, greedy men and willingly gives them a share in her business, despite the fact that it’s clear she and Ida could handle anything. She makes a deal to marry Monty – knowing his faults – and is somehow surprised when he ruins her financially and is caught having an affair with her daughter.
This was Joan Crawford’s only Academy Award – for Best Actress – through it revitalized her career and she went to on to appear in some other films noir, including Possessed and Johnny Guitar. Director Michael Curitz did not allegedly want her for the role, thanks to her demanding, difficult reputation, and tried to get everyone from Bette Davis to Barbara Stanwyck. Crawford fought for the role and is one of her finest.
Hungarian director Michael Curitz – known primarily for Casablanca, Angels with Dirty Faces, and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex – remains a forgotten and underrated Hollywood figure for reasons that I can’t quite figure out. Mildred Pierce moves at a decent pace, expertly includes film noir elements into what was initially a dark melodrama, has lovely visuals, and some great performances. Arguably, both Mildred Pierce and Casablanca are supported by incredibly strong leading and side performances and benefit from wonderful scripts. It’s difficult to say whether or not Curitz was a master director, but he certainly knew how to choose great projects and excellent casts.
Aside from Crawford, Mildred Pierce is full of solid performances. Eve Arden (Anatomy of a Murder, Grease) is great as Mildred’ employee, friend, and confident, Ida, and steals every scene she appears in. Ida is both a spirit of positivity – with her wisecracking humor – and negativity, as most of her dialogue revolves around complaining about men or Veda. She certainly lightens the tone of the film, matter-of-factly drawing attention to Veda’s horrible personality and the wolfish nature of all the men in Mildred’s life. Unfortunately, Mildred ignores her advice, which is to forget about the lot of them and cut them out of her life.
While Ann Blyth (Brute Force) is excellent as Veda, Martha Vickers (The Big Sleep) was allegedly considered for the role and I would have loved to see her in the film. Zachary Scott is perfect as the charming, slimy Monte Beragon, someone whose true character is obvious from the beginning of the film, but, in keeping with her treatment of Veda, Mildred fails to see the truth. Monte represents the corrupted wealthy class; raised in opulence and splendor, his wasted life is spent leaching off others, carrying on affairs with women, and going to parties.
Mildred Pierce is a strange, unsettling film, but one that comes highly recommended. It is difficult to really like or feel sympathy for any of the characters, but it presents an interesting slice of wartime life and a poignant look at the changing roles of women. The film is available on DVD, though hopefully sometime soon it will receive the Blu-ray, special edition treatment.