Mildred Pierce

US (1945) Dir. Michael Curtiz

How far would a mother go to secure the love of her daughter? It really needn’t be asked as filial piety should be unconditional as is the love between parent and offspring, but it is pondered in this classic noir drama that saw Joan Crawford win her only Oscar for Best Actress and stoke the flames of the feud between her and Bette Davis in the process.

The body of Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott) is found in his beach house, shot several times. The police interview his wife Mildred (Crawford) yet have already arrested her first husband Bert Pierce (Bruce Bennett) who confessed to the murder. Mildred insists Bert didn’t kill Beragon and admits she did it, yet the police remain unconvinced. 

In order to understand why Mildred believes her ex-husband is innocent and to discredit his alleged motives as inaccurate, Mildred recounts the complex events of the last few years of her life to the police, leading up to Beragon’s murder. But is she actually telling the truth?

Based on the novel by James M. Cain, this film marked Crawford’s first major starring role at Warner Brothers having been released from her long time home of MGM. Warners at that point was the domain of Bette Davis, whose legendary dislike of Crawford was already in full swing by the time she showed up on her doorstep, partly due to Crawford marrying actor Franchot Tone with whom Davis is said to have been in love.

Legend has it Mildred Pierce was a script Davis rejected which Crawford then lobbied for instead, so you can imagine how pleased Davis was to see her arch rival bag the Oscar for one of her cast offs. The fact is Crawford deserved it, not in the least for “slumming it” so to speak as a regular housewife, a role I doubt anyone would ever imagine seeing La Crawford play.

In fact, we first meet Mildred in the flashbacks slaving over a hot stove in her kitchen while hubby Bert comes home from work, stressed out and in need of a drink to be served by his good lady wife. Remember this was 1945 before uxorial duties and women’s lib had been introduced to one another. Bert is in a bad mood having fallen out with his real estate business partner Wally Fay (Jack Carson) leading to a domestic row.

Mildred stands up for herself and sends Bert packing, upsetting their two daughters, spoiled Veda (Ann Blyth) and tomboy Kay (Jo Anne Marlowe). In need of income, Mildred takes a job as a waitress in a café while also baking cakes for it, but keeps this from Veda to avoid her snobbish disapproval. After a few months in the job, Mildred earns enough money to open her own restaurant, buying the property for her first site from Beragon.

From here things start to get a little convoluted. Beragon and Mildred appear to get romantically involved yet with Beragon low on cash, Mildred funds his lavish lifestyle which he shares with Veda, inflating her already lofty idea of social status. When Kay dies of pneumonia, Mildred promises to dote on Veda and give her a good life, which proves to be a costly mistake in many ways.

There is a lot more to this but I’d end up recapping the entire plot but even if you’ve not seen the film, you can probably begin to formulate a fairly accurate idea of where it is going from here. If you’ve read the original novel however, you probably won’t as this adaptation differs somewhat from Cain’s work, in which he deviated from his familiar noir thriller for this psychological thriller – Hollywood’s censorship rules at the time prompted a number of these changes.

I’ve not read it (natch) but the characters also underwent a bit of change according to the Wiki comparison article which makes it sound like a completely different story, but the way there are presented in this film version are well suited to the tale being told here. Mildred’s growth as an independent woman is the central journey of the film, stepping out from the kitchen to become a successful and savvy businesswoman, yet the one thing never wavers is her love for her daughter.

Veda may be the reason Mildred works so hard but the spoiled brat doesn’t appreciate her mother’s sacrifice, interested only in the rewards it reaps. This doesn’t seem much of surprise from when we first meet Veda; at least we don’t suspect that she would turn into a deceitful and manipulative bitch for money. This forces Mildred to play Veda at her own game where the winner is still a loser; this may be a case of two wrongs not making a right where the message is never underestimate a mother’s love.  

Michael Curtiz is an Oscar award-winning director with quite the CV including perennial classic Casablanca and his flair for the noir is in full effect. From evocative camera angles, to the use of shadows to create mood – including shooting Crawford in the dark – the aesthetic exudes class and style. The tone carries a tacit weight as a prelude to each dramatic development, if only the intrusive musical score didn’t over egg the moment.

Crawford’s performance is a tour de force and subject to better essays than this review can’t compete against, so we’ll look at the other great turn in this film, that of 16 year-old Ann Blyth as the scheming and self-centred Veda. An antecedence to the modern vain materialistic teen Blyth is frighteningly on point, missing only the regular selfie, while her vituperative side is raw in its ferocity but carefully controlled in its spite.

Wondering what Bette Davis would have made of Mildred Pierce is rendered moot even beyond Crawford’s personal triumph. Some plot points admittedly feel contrived but this deliciously compelling noir is nonetheless the sum of each of its superlative integral parts. Outstanding.