Dark surf and full-throated music wash over the credits of Mildred Pierce, building to a knockout opening with a volley of gunshots in a beach house and a man in black tie keeling over in flickering firelight. Almost two hours later, however, the movie closes not with the swell and crash of waves but with the toiling sponges of scrubwomen on their knees, cleaning the floors of the Hall of Justice at daybreak. These mute women have the last word, bringing to the surface the film’s undercurrent of tough-minded sympathy for unseen, undignified, and unrewarded female labor, and pointing to its unusual blend of realism and high style. Beneath the sheen of glamour and the throb of melodrama, Mildred Pierce (1945) is an acute, unsparing study of relationships poisoned by class and money. The plot reveals a cruel sting in the tail of the most essential American promise—that hard work, sacrifice, and self-improvement will find their ultimate reward in the next generation’s success. But these caustic insights are embedded in a movie as satisfying as the comfort food Mildred serves in her neon-lit upscale diners: the dialogue crisp and salted with wit, the decadently rich emotion cut by just enough acerbic tartness.
We first hear Mildred’s name on the lips of a dying man, and first see her walking alone on a deserted pier that extends into the enormous blackness of the ocean. Her silhouette—the huge, boxy shoulders of a fur coat and the steep ankle-strap heels lengthening slim legs—announces Joan Crawford even before the first tearstained close-up. The role of Mildred won Crawford her only Oscar and distilled her essence as a star: a fiercely hardworking perfectionist driven by a dogged, unappeasable longing for approval. She could play tough, she could play capable and hardheaded, but in her eyes burned a volatile blend of fiendish energy and quivering need. In Mildred Pierce, this molten core is tamped down by steely restraint; she was never better, and—at something like forty, depending on which birthdate you believe—never more beautiful.
Director Michael Curtiz often clashed with Crawford during shooting, complaining that she insisted on glamorizing the woman whose daughter calls her a “common frump.” But the veneer of gentility and obsessive care for her looks that clung to the actress—born into miserable poverty as Lucille LeSueur—perfectly suits Mildred Pierce, who sells cakes and pies out of her kitchen to pay for her daughters’ piano and ballet lessons, even when her husband is out of work. True, Crawford is never quite convincing as an ordinary, downtrodden housewife, 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? This is a woman who, forced to take a job waiting tables to support her children, throws herself into the work like an Olympian in training, becoming an almost frighteningly competent waitress.
Mildred recounts her history in a police station, where she is being questioned after the murder of her husband, and the accompanying flashbacks begin with her staking a claim to averageness, recalling her street in the stereotypical Southern California suburb of Glendale, “where all the houses looked alike,” her feeling of having been born in the kitchen and lived her whole life there. The trappings of motherhood and pie baking may not seem like the stuff of film noir, but Mildred’s obsession with her older daughter is as perverse and destructive as any man’s enslavement to a femme fatale. Veda (Ann Blyth, only around sixteen when the film was made) is a femme fatale in bobby socks: manipulative, deceitful, selfish, and cold-blooded. Blyth’s primly immaculate, doll-like prettiness, with a head too big for her tiny body, perfectly suits this bad seed who is wily as a grown-up and amoral as a baby.
In this fatally unhealthy relationship, it is the mother who fears the daughter’s judgment: the scene where Veda accuses Mildred of “degrading” the family by waitressing is so painful it’s hard to watch. Later, in a fit of ecstatic contempt, the girl insults her mother’s family and breeding—as though they weren’t also her own—and triumphantly tells the self-made success that money and a new hairdo will never give her class. But Veda also knows when to drop this crushing disdain and play what can be described only as love scenes—flinging herself into Mildred’s arms with kisses and tears and promises to change. The only change comes when her smug entitlement curdles into sociopathy; she detests the “smell of grease” on the money from her mother’s restaurants but is delighted with the $10,000 she extorts from a wealthy family with a fake pregnancy. In the end, she blames her mother for all her crimes—“It’s your fault I’m the way I am”—and for once, perhaps she’s right. Veda is a monster, but she’s the monster Mildred created with her insistence on putting the children first and giving them advantages.
“Why don’t you just forget about her?” Mildred’s friend and coworker Ida (Eve Arden) asks, as they drink straight bourbon in the afternoon. Even knowing the bitter truth about Veda, Mildred realizes she can’t live without her and will do anything to get her back. Ida can’t shake her from this abject trance—not even with the benefit of Arden’s wry, drawling contralto, the Campari in the cocktail of American cinema. But she gives the movie a solid base of female sanity and solidarity to balance the neurotic central relationship, as well as an invaluable dash of astringent humor—from her praise of alligators that “eat their young” to her toast: “To the men we have loved—the stinkers.”
There are three men in Mildred’s life, and each has his flaws, though only one is really a stinker. Her first husband, Bert (Bruce Bennett), is a gloomy defeatist who resents her greater spine and energy, though he correctly diagnoses her toxic obsession with their children. Having lost his job, he consoles himself with a mistress, and sees his wife’s own earning capacity as a deliberate rebuke. When she throws him out, he sneers, “Let’s see you get along without me,” which she proceeds to do quite well, as he later admits. Women’s willingness to do whatever it takes to survive and support their children is a truism of Depression-era women’s sagas like Blonde Venus, Call Her Savage (both 1932), and Baby Face (1933). These films argue that the fluidity of women’s identities and their ability to accept degrading compromises make them tougher than men, whose pride and cherished dignity are handicaps. So is their cockiness. “I’m so smart it’s like a disease,” crows Wally Fay (Jack Carson), an affable blowhard who makes a pass at Mildred at least once a week. She bats back the passes but uses him mercilessly, first turning to him for help in building her business, then turning him into a fall guy when she has need of one.
Mildred Pierce was made during the Second World War but not released until about a month after V-J Day. There are only a few glancing references to the war—for instance, a line about the shortage of nylon stockings—but the film captures its pivotal moment by looking back at the struggles of the Depression and ahead to postwar prosperity. (The latter is gloriously envisioned in the gala opening of Mildred’s first restaurant, trumpeted by searchlights like a Hollywood premiere, with carhops serving drive-in patrons, swing music on the jukebox, fried chicken and dry martinis, and the sweet music of greenbacks riffling in the cashier’s hand.) Similarly, in its treatment of men, the movie follows the pattern of classic 1930s women’s pictures, in which males remain marginal plot devices, and at the same time previews film noir’s gallery of suckers, heels, and pawns of fate.
It is often said that men’s discomfort with women’s entry into the workforce during World War II conjured the figure of the femme fatale, which demonized strong, ambitious women. This theory makes no sense, since the femme fatale is never a woman who works or is independent; she is always a woman who uses men to get what she wants, relying on the most traditional feminine wiles. Women who do work, like Mildred and Ida (or like the secretaries played by Ella Raines in Phantom Lady and Lucille Ball in The Dark Corner, or the nightclub performers portrayed by Ida Lupino in The Man I Love and Ann Sheridan in Nora Prentiss) are invariably good eggs, while femmes fatales are like Veda, avaricious gals who would rather cheat and exploit their desirability than work for what they want.
The male version of this type is Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott), the penniless heir to a once-wealthy Pasadena family, who proudly admits that all he does is loaf “in a highly decorative and charming manner.” At first, his seduction of Mildred seems to be motivated by sincere if superficial attraction, and it’s easy to see why the grass widow who spends her life sweating in kitchens succumbs to a man who makes her feel desirable again. Soon she is bankrolling the lifestyle he can no longer afford, eventually buying him outright when they marry—not because she’s in love with him but as a means of holding on to her daughter, who worships the aristocratic, polo-playing gigolo. Monte and Veda are two of a kind, equally devious and narcissistic, and between them they strip poor Mildred of everything she has or cherishes.
In this respect, the movie is faithful to the 1941 James M. Cain novel from which it was adapted, but there are subtle differences in tone, as well as a glaring departure: the murder that frames the film and has no equivalent in the book. This is a case where infidelity to the source is mostly well judged, particularly in the abandonment of Veda’s sudden transformation into a celebrated opera singer, a twist in the novel that not only is unconvincing but seems to validate the girl’s haughty conviction that life with her “common” mother can never be good enough for her. The murder serves both to sharpen the dramatic thrust of the story and to satisfy the Breen Office censors who enforced the Production Code, by pushing amorality into outright villainy and ensuring punishment. It also seals the movie’s status as a film noir, though the body count matters less than the emotional violence that hits as hard and cuts as deep as bullets.
This was Curtiz’s first noir, and he pulls out all the stops in the opening sequence, aided and abetted by veteran cinematographer Ernest Haller. The beach house is a modernist labyrinth of split levels, spiral stairs, dark rectangular spaces sliced by diagonal low-angle shafts of light. Huge shadows loom on the walls, watery ribbons of light play on the ceiling, and firelight twitches spasmodically in the room where a man lies dead. All of the film’s interiors—from the California Spanish bungalow where Mildred starts out to the oppressively grandiose mansion where she winds up—are exceptionally detailed and expressive. Curtiz matches each scene’s style to its mood, from the flamboyant prologue to the plain lighting and framing of Mildred’s everyday life in the suburbs. The director’s films of the forties are all lustrously handsome, often suffused with a faintly visible atmosphere—like humidity, or breath—that gives volume to the light and shade. But Curtiz is never distracted by style; his power as a storyteller comes from the simplicity and stinging clarity he can give the most dramatic moments. Mildred Pierce has its flourishes of operatic excess—Veda slapping her mother is perhaps the most stunning—but its most painful scenes are quiet and pitilessly straightforward, like the one where Mildred watches her younger daughter, Kay, struggle for life in an oxygen tent.
Mildred Pierce was Crawford’s great comeback after a string of flops and a humiliating departure from MGM in 1943, and it led to a late-career peak at Warner Bros. Having struck black gold, she continued to mine it in a series of terrific noir melodramas, like Humoresque (1946), Possessed, Daisy Kenyon (both 1947), Flamingo Road (1949, again with Curtiz), The Damned Don’t Cry (1950), Sudden Fear (1952), and Autumn Leaves (1956). In many of these films, she plays gritty, determined women who work—as a carnival dancer, a model, a magazine illustrator, a playwright, a typist—and for whom love and marriage, far from representing security, are violently destabilizing, leading to suicide, beatings, murder, madness. Challenging the false assumption that noir always takes the male point of view, these films find in women’s dilemmas the essence of noir’s you-can’t-win pessimism. Mildred gets everything a woman can have—marriage, children, a high-powered career, a passionate love affair, a fur coat—yet none of it brings her happiness. She wants only the one thing she lacks, her daughter’s love.
This is where film noir and melodrama converge: both are fueled by people wanting what they can’t have, and going too far trying to get it. With her talent for going too far, and for glamorously suffering the consequences, Joan Crawford was made for the noir melodrama. In a career marked by endless transformations and hard-fought comebacks, she also embodied the glamour of work: that hard work of being a woman that is never done.
Imogen Sara Smith is the author of In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City and Buster Keaton: The Persistence of Comedy. Her writing has appeared in Film Comment, Sight & Sound, Cineaste, Film Quarterly, Reverse Shot, and other publications.