“We weren’t expecting you Mildred.”
Mildred Pierce certainly makes the impression of a film noir. Its James M. Cain source novel establishes its noir groundwork, while its stirring Max Steiner score sounds like noir and Ernest Haller’s rich black and white cinematography sure looks like noir. But there at the center of this twisty tale of greed, ambition, and betrayal is a middle age mother, twice married, just trying to get ahead. That is not to say women aren’t vital to noir (the genre would scarcely exist without a host of strong female characters), but rare is the film of this type that adopts a predominantly feminine point of view, let alone one with a woman as its central focus. At the very least, there has never been a noir heroine quite like Joan Crawford’s entrepreneurial Mildred.
And yet, that a formidable woman would surface like this shouldn’t be all too surprising. Born out of a post-war anxiety fueled by national uncertainty that mixed potential prosperity with the lingering effects of the depression, noir excelled in the escalating representation of assertive women, especially those resilient ladies who stood strong on the home front as men waged the battles overseas. Though Mildred Pierce was released in September of 1945, after World War II had ended, the film is set in 1943. It therefore reflects something of the during and the after of this precarious empowerment, which could, on one hand, go the way of melodrama (also a socially illuminating genre), or head down the road into darker territory. Here, both routes are present, with one path constantly intersecting the other.
Though its noir characteristics occasionally recede, never straying for too long, the opening of Mildred Pierce is the film at its most exuberantly formal, leaving little doubt about where the picture is going to fall, at least stylistically. Gunshots ring out, a mirror gets blasted, and a body falls. We don’t know it at the time, but this is Mildred’s second husband, Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott). A pistol is tossed to the ground by his side, and just before passing, the soon-to-be deceased says simply…“Mildred.” (In a conversation between he and Molly Haskell, included on the new Criterion Collection Blu-ray of Mildred Pierce, Robert Polito compares Monte’s one word utterance to Orson Welles’ Kane whispering “Rosebud”—it’s one word upon which all that follows will hinge.) Outside the house, a car speeds away, the driver obscured.
Then there she is. Mildred is walking despondently down a pier, it and she soaked in rain, tears, the all-pervasive moisture that glistens on a routinely drenched noir night. She has jumping on her mind but is promptly halted by a police officer. Instead, she seeks shelter (and what else?) in a seaside bar owned by a former associate (and what else?) Wally Fay, played by a half-and-half jovial-devious Jack Carson. Now, Mildred turns. The sob sister takes her liquor straight—something she says she learned how to do; it’s clear the film will show us how and why this education took place. She is suddenly serious and firm. Even if one were to assume she did not shoot Monte, by this point, seeing the abrupt change in her demeanor, she surely seems capable of it.
Made aware of her husband’s death (if she didn’t know), Mildred is taken to the police station where more people pop in like pieces of a puzzle that director Michael Curtiz will start putting into place (the police chief likens the assembly of disparate personalities and their respective stories to automobile construction). As opposed to the rapid series of events that kick-started Mildred Pierce, time stands still at the police station, and Curtiz holds back, visually, in wider shots of fur-coated Mildred amongst the tin-can greyness of shadowy desks and grim cops, and in the story progression. The film seems slow. There is time to actually study Mildred (and Crawford’s already fine performance), to watch her and wonder what it is she knows. The police say they have the murderer: it’s Mildred’s first husband, Bert Pierce (Bruce Bennett). He has the motive, they say—jealousy, of course—but she is quick to come to his defense. Maybe a little too quick.
Around this time, the film’s first flashback starts, complete with voice-over (two quintessential noir tropes if there ever were). The narrative goes back to when Mildred was “always in the kitchen,” back to domesticated days gone by when she and the hopelessly unemployed Bert quarrel about money, about their marriage, and about their parenting styles, the latter topic mostly revolving around spitefully precocious 16-year-old Veda (Ann Blyth). There is also cutesy comic relief younger sister Kay (Jo Anne Marlowe), but she is soon out of the picture (literally—she dies of pneumonia). As she will throughout the film, it is Veda who steals the spotlight—and Blyth who nearly snatches it from Crawford. Bert says the teen is spoiled, and when we hear her utter phrases like “distinctly middle class,” or when she haughtily complains about the dress her mother gave her, we see that maybe he’s right. But oh, how little he and Mildred know, and how little the viewer is prepared for when it comes to the full extent of this young woman’s maliciousness.
Bert and Mildred separate, and the financial woes worsen. Under a stack of overdue bills, Mildred reveals a gun. It’s a fitting enough link: money, or the lack thereof, is often present with the threat of violence underneath. This is when Bert’s former business partner Wally arrives. Wally is more enamored with the newly available Mildred than he is keen to scheme for financial reward (that comes later), and the scenes of he and Mildred, he coming on strong and she pushing back just as vigorously, are wonderfully alive with mutually assured repartee. But this night seems different. With pawing Wally pushing his way into her house, her life, and, he hopes, her bedroom, the house doesn’t look the same as it did earlier when glossed over in the crisp and clear humdrum sameness of suburbia. The film itself doesn’t feel the same. That tinge of fatalistic noir dread returns, and it hovers around for the duration.
Out on her own, Mildred is a quick learner as a waitress. She is astute and shrewd and she continues to bond with Wally, who, as sleazy as he is, is also good at what he does. Together they enter into a real estate restaurant deal with Monte, who emerges as the money man and, in the process, the love interest (it may not be the prevailing description of Crawford, especially for anyone forgetting what she was like in a film such as Grand Hotel , but she is downright sexy in their flirtatious seduction). Before long, the restaurant is off and running, and so is the romance, and the suspicion. Back from flashback land, the police are pressing Mildred and she confesses to the murder of Monte. But we’re not so sure, and neither are the authorities. Monte likes to perform a kitschy little fortune teller routine, an ironic shtick given how much of this film soon becomes unpredictable.
At the helm of Mildred Pierce, Curtiz had the year prior won an Oscar for Casablanca (he had been nominated another four times in the past 10 years, though his first, for Captain Blood in 1935, was an unofficial write-in nomination). Quite possibly the most underrated major Hollywood director, as noir guru Eddie Muller contends when discussing Mildred Pierce with Blyth during a charming Q&A preserved on the Criterion disc, Curtiz balances a number of conjoined themes with this first-rate production. For starters, Mildred Pierce is a film about work. It is Bert’s joblessness that initiates the separation of he and Mildred, and it is her professional aptitude that advances and, in a certain sense, dooms Mildred. Wally likewise displays a ruthless occupational proficiency, while Monte and Veda enjoy the spoils of labor but not the toil. The film is also about independence, about one doing what they want, on their own time, in their own way. Further blending that noir-melodrama combination, there is also a revealing glimpse at the wicked underbelly concealed by complacent American malaise. But Curtiz had to be careful with all this. Delving into the thick of the corruption could get ugly, and could push the limits of 1940s Hollywood allowance. Producer Jerry Wald added the murder of Monte, but he also added the subsequent jailing of the guilty party. This gave the picture that inviting initial salaciousness but also the punishment that the production code necessitates. Even still, studio oversight didn’t do anything to diffuse the shocking suggestiveness of Veda and her twisted vindictiveness and equally perverse passions (with snaky Monte slithering right behind).
With so much to chew on, Blyth rightly scored one of the film’s six Academy Award nominations, in this, just her fifth film (it was only Scott’s fourth). Other nominations came in for Best Picture, Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Eve Arden (as Mildred’s former boss and eventual best friend, she is perhaps the only totally honest character in the film, without an ulterior motive), and for Best Screenplay (also fresh on this moviemaking scene, Mildred Pierce was the second film written by Ranald MacDougall; his script for Objective, Burma! was also turned into a 1945 film). Haller’s cinematography was also recognized, and in this 4K digital restoration supplied by Criterion, it’s easy to see why, beginning with the magnificent opening sequence, in which Haller has a field day with the flickering firelight bouncing around the beach house, its architecture of lines and levels creating a dazzling black and white canvas. Noticeably absent from this list of 1946 Oscar hopefuls is Curtiz, but considering the nominees that year included the likes of Clarence Brown, Alfred Hitchcock, Leo McCarey, Jean Renoir, and the winner, Billy Wilder, one excuses the Academy for the omission.
The lone Mildred Pierce victor on Oscar night was, of course, Crawford, who was sick in bed (and would miraculously feel much better upon winning). It was sweet satisfaction. Two years before, Crawford had been released from her contract at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and she badly wanted the role of Mildred Pierce (she tells David Frost in 1970 that it was her favorite role—though winning most likely had something to do with that). It wasn’t easy to come by. While Crawford had been in movies for more than two decades, by her 40s, her career was on the downward slope and Mildred Pierce was just the gas it needed. After the part went through other major actresses of the day (Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Olivia de Havilland, Joan Fontaine), most of whom hesitated to play a middle age mother, Curtiz only approved Crawford after a screen test, and the two remained at odds for much of the production. And still some weren’t satisfied, feeling she was too glamourous to pull off the depiction of an average housewife. It’s a reasonable argument. Simply in terms of Haller’s cinematography, as others have lights put upon them, only Crawford is really lit like a star. He probably couldn’t help it. She probably couldn’t either. “True, Crawford is never quite convincing as an ordinary, downtrodden housewife,” writes Imogen Sara Smith in an essay for Criterion, “but could a woman who builds a chain restaurant empire, makes a fortune, and marries the scion of a fallen old-money clan, all out of desperation to please a snobbish daughter, ever be described as ordinary?” No, Mildred is no ordinary woman. Just as Joan Crawford was no ordinary actress and Mildred Pierce is no ordinary film.