Mildred Pierce (1945) Michael Curtiz
Warner Brothers DVD
The longer you think about Mildred Pierce, the more you realize how completely devastating it is. You may not know exactly how to feel about the film once it’s over and that’s understandable. You may not even know what to call it: film noir, melodrama, women’s picture, or all three. You can certainly make a case for each, but over the years, melodrama seems to have won out. If Mildred Pierce is indeed a melodrama, it’s one of the best you’re likely to see.
Ranald MacDougall’s screenplay deviates from James M. Cain’s original chronological novel by starting with the murder of Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott, below right), Mildred Pierce’s second husband. Mildred (Joan Crawford, below middle) has cleverly set it up to look like her friend and real estate agent Wally Fay (Jack Carson) killed Beragon. But Mildred’s first husband Bert Pierce (Bruce Bennett, below left) has already gone to the police and confessed to the crime.
Confused? Don’t be. All will be revealed through film noir’s best friend, the flashback.
Mildred tells the police (and, of course, us) her story: while her first husband Bert was unemployed, Mildred worked baking cakes and pies out of her home. Somebody had to provide for their two children, 10-year-old Kay (Jo Anne Marlowe, above left) and 16-year-old Veda (Ann Blyth, above right). Kay wants only to be a tomboy, but Veda longs for the good life and doesn’t care what she has to do to get it. When Bert finally walks out on the family, Mildred is forced to get a real job, not only to provide for her girls, but to feed Veda’s enormous desire for possessions. Things – many of them good – start happening for Mildred, but I won’t spoil it for you.
If we choose to call Mildred Pierce a film noir, it’s a rarity in that it’s presented from a woman’s point of view. Noir is filled with examples of the femme fatale, but Mildred Pierce treats both women and men as equally dangerous. Few of the men here come out looking honorable or even “good,” but Monte Beragon sinks to the lowest depths, charming women all along the way. He gets what’s coming to him in the film’s opening scene and for the next hour-and-a-half, we understand why.
Yet it is Veda, far more than Beragon, who poisons everyone around her in ways that might surprise even 21st century audiences. Credit young Ann Blyth, whose cold, conniving portrayal almost upstages Crawford’s Oscar-winning performance. The men in Mildred’s life are actually just as conniving as Veda; they just aren’t as vocal or as obvious about it.
Mildred Pierce – thanks largely to Ernest Haller’s breathtaking cinematography and Curtiz’s meticulous attention to detail – is a gorgeous, glossy outer layer to a story that’s bursting with the raw devastation of a family gone horribly wrong. You can draw your own conclusions about how and why it happened, with a multitude of social and sexual issues to explore, but at the end of the film, you may seem unsure whether to feel a sense of hope or total despair. After all, that’s what film noir is all about.