Director: Michael Curtiz
Production: Warner Bros.; black and white; running time: 110 minutes. Released October 1945.
Producer: Jerry Wald; screenplay: Ranald Macdougal and Catherine Turney, from the novel by James M. Cain; photography: Ernest Haller; editor: David Weisbart; art director: Anton Grot; special effects: Willard Van Enger; music: Max Steiner.
Cast: Joan Crawford (Mildred Pierce); Jack Carson (Wally); Zachary Scott (Monty Beragon); Eve Arden (Ida); Bruce Bennett (Bert Pierce); Ann Blyth (Veda Pierce); Jo Ann Marlowe (Kay Pierce); Mannart Kippen (Dr. Gale); Lee Patrick (Mrs. Biederhof); Moroni Olsen (Inspector Peterson); Barbara Brown (Mrs. Forrester); Charles Trowbridge (Mr. Williams); John Compton (Ted Forrester); Butterfly McQueen (Lottie); Chester Clute (Mr. Jones).
Award: Oscar for Best Actress (Crawford), 1945.
Macdougall, Ranald, and Catherine Turney, Mildred Pierce, edited by Albert J. La Valley, Madison, Wisconsin, 1980.
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* * *
When Monty Beragon (Scott), a playboy whose worthlessness is immediately apparent from his thin moustache and quivering chin, is shot dead in a shadowy beach house—a triumphantly noir-ish opening sequence—restaurateur Mildred Pierce (Crawford) confesses to the crime and her complicated life story unfolds in a series of flashbacks. As in the other great James M. Cain adaption of the 1940s, Double Indemnity, a confessional narration "explains" to us the route which has taken the central character from a brightly lit, drably ordinary daytime world into a nightmare of carnality, criminality, corruption, and chaos. Mildred walks out on her marriage to dull, struggling middle-class broker Bert (Bennett) so that she can provide for her spoiled, petulant, demanding daughter Veda (Blyth). Becoming a waitress, which causes the nasty teenager to turn snobbishly against her, Mildred struggles for a living, and finally opens a restaurant, "Mildred's," which becomes a successful chain. Meanwhile, she is torn between the romantic advances of the puzzled and decent Bert, the smarmily lecherous Wally (Carson), and the slickly empty Monty. She marries the playboy, and he squanders her hard-won fortune while making a play for the tramp Veda. Unlike Double Indemnity, which is notable for Walter Neff's unflinchingly honest confession, the film leads up to a series of revelations which cast doubt over what we have seen. Although the movie generally reveals the truths about the characters that they are trying to hide, Mildred's confessional narration is essentially a lie, designed first to throw suspicion on Wally and, then, to claim the guilt for herself, though it was actually Veda who committed the murder.
Mildred Pierce is an unusual film noir, in that the amour fou which drags the central character down into the gutter inhabited by such doomed protagonists as Edward G. Robinson in Scarlet Street or Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past is not sexual in nature. Crawford's Mildred, one of the few obsessional female protagonists in the genre, is in the line of material sacrifice that extends throughout the women's weepie genre from Stella Dallas to Terms of Endearment, while Ann Blyth's girlish monster is a less substantial femme fatale than is usual in noir, almost like the petulant teenager who will grow up into Barbara Stanwyck's Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity, and all the more horrifying for her lack of psychotic class. The film is rooted in the shadowy alleyways of film noir, and the director, Michael Curtiz, and the cinematographer, Ernest Haller, use the darkest possible compositions, while the composer, Max Steiner, overlays a driving, downbeat, relentless score to add to the oppression. A perfectly assembled Warner Brothers contract stable supporting cast—including Eve Arden as the heroine's traditional wisecracking girlfriend—are exactly right as a collection of variously feckless, selfish, flawed, and feebler-than-Joan Crawford characters.
This is a film full of night and rain, of trapped characters struggling against their situations, dragged down by their weaknesses. But Mildred Pierce is at least as much a woman's picture as it is a film noir. The versatile and visionary Curtiz, whose only pure noir was The Unsuspected, was here channelled by ex-journalist producer Jerry Wald, whose allegiance to the form resulted in such female-centered psychodramas as Humoresque, Possessed, Flamingo Road, Caged, Miss Sadie Thompson, and Peyton Place. Wald's women suffer, but generally come through in the end, and Mildred is saved despite herself, as Veda is dragged off screaming, "I'll change, I promise I will," to Tehachapi while Bert reappears to take the heroine off to a possible happy ending. Whereas the male protagonists of Scarlet Street or Double Indemnity were too corrupt in their love to be free even after they have murdered their scheming mistresses, Mildred can be redeemed because her maternal love, though misguided, is untainted by sin. (Given the posthumous image of Crawford presented by Mommie Dearest, this aspect of the film has a heavy irony now.) Her essential strength of character, the quality which makes her movie heroine material and the quintessential Joan Crawford role, is rewarded in the understated but emotive fade-out by the implication of a bright future.