Mildred Pierce (1945)
Mildred Pierce (1945) is a classic, post-war film noir mixed with typical soap-operish elements of the woman's melodramatic picture or "weeper," including a strand of a typical murder mystery often told by flashback. The family melodrama was significantly modified from its original source due to pressures of the Production Code regarding its sordidness - namely, the incestual behavior of the dissolute playboy character named Monte.
Famed Hungarian-born director Michael Curtiz (who had already directed many diverse film genres, including The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), Dodge City (1939), The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), The Sea Hawk (1940), Casablanca (1942), Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942), and This is the Army (1943)) shaped this significant film in the genre. Curtiz reluctantly began filming with 'has-been' star Joan Crawford, who had developed a reputation for being mannered and difficult, but was pleasantly surprised when she delivered one of the best performances of her career.
This film, a tremendous box-office hit and critical success, was an adaptation by Ranald MacDougall and Catherine Turney (and William Faulkner) of James M. Cain's 1941 'hard-boiled' novel of the same name. Cain's original novel was a satire about bourgeois values, and a tale of poor parenthood. [Cain was responsible for two sources for film noir classics - his 1936 novella for Double Indemnity (1944) and his best-selling work for Mildred Pierce (1945).] Atypical for film noirs, the main protagonist in the film is a female - but she is typically brought down by a femme fatale - her own daughter. The intriguing murder story is told with a flashback structure reminiscent of Citizen Kane (1941). Successful promotional copy for the film read: "Mildred Pierce - don't ever tell anyone what she did."
The gripping and cynical film was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress (Eve Arden and Ann Blyth, both with their only career nomination), Best Screenplay (Ranald MacDougall), and Best B/W Cinematography (Ernest Haller who had previously co-won the Color Cinematography Oscar for Gone With the Wind (1939)). Former MGM star Joan Crawford performed in the melodramatic Warners' film in an astonishing comeback role (and debut role for Warner Bros.) after a two year absence and slumping decline. [The role was first considered by Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck and Ann Sheridan.]
Crawford won the film's sole Academy Award Oscar (it was also her sole Academy Award win out of three career nominations) as Best Actress for her title role. She went on to star in such films as Humoresque (1946), Possessed (1947), Flamingo Road (1949) - again with Curtiz directing, the self-produced thriller Sudden Fear (1952), Johnny Guitar (1954), a string of flops in the late 50s, and then What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962). Her career really went into decline with her appearance in low-budget 60's B-grade horror films (i.e., the slasher film Berserk! (1967), The Karate Killers (1967), and her last film Trog (1970)).
The title character is a hard-working, neurotically-devoted, long-suffering and determined mother who has a status-seeking, spoiled, detestable and mean-spirited, unloving daughter named Veda (Blyth). [Mirroring her real life, Joan Crawford supported herself as a waitress and saleswoman before she began making films.] Mildred's ruinous but noble downfall occurs as the result of poor choices of men (including her dull, middle-class broker husband Bert (Bruce Bennett)) and her caring for an ungrateful Veda. (Other films of maternal self-sacrifice for an insufferable child - before this one - include Imitation of Life (1934) with Claudette Colbert, and Stella Dallas (1937) with Barbara Stanwyck, and later would include Terms of Endearment (1983) with Shirley MacLaine.)
Although Mildred's maternal sacrifice is portrayed as noble, some have claimed that the film is cautionary and anti-feminist, with Mildred presented as a typical 1940's post-war housewife whose 'American dream-fulfilling' role-switching movement from suburban, middle-class home-maker to divorced, successful business entrepreneur (restaurant-chain owner) results in corruptive, destructive disaster (both financial and personal). This was symbolized in the film in movements from bright, daytime S. California scenes to dark, criminal, nightmarish scenes.
In 2011, HBO Cable TV created a five-part mini-series, directed by Todd Haynes, of the melodramatic James M. Cain story set in Depression-era Los Angeles. It starred Kate Winslet as the frumpy title character Mildred Pierce, Morgan Turner (younger) and Evan Rachel Wood (adult) as her daughter Veda, Brian F. O'Byrne as estranged husband Bert Pierce, Melissa Leo as neighbor Lucy, James LeGros as Bert's sexually-aggressive partner, Guy Pearce as handsome playboy Monte Beragon, and Mare Winningham as Ida.The Story
Oceanfront waves crash to the shore in the moonlight, rippling over and washing away each screen of the cast and credits, accompanied by Max Steiner's dramatic score. [The time period of the film extends over four years in the early 40s, including most of the war years. One of the film's posters, titled "Oh boy! Home and Mildred Pierce," promoted the idea that the film was a good date film for couples following the war's end: "Warner's Mildred Pierce is the big date of the day."]
In the memorable opening scene typical of film noirs, at the dark, shadowy Beragon beach house at night, a car with its headlights on is parked in front. A gun fires six times in rhythmic tempo, killing thin-mustached owner Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott). The murderer is unseen - a missing action shot in the film is not revealed until the end.
The bullets shatter a mirror behind the victim. As the victim lurches forward, slumps over and falls to the floor in front of a flickering fire in the dimly lit room, the gun is tossed in front of the body. The murdered man's only word as he expires is the first dialogue in the film:
As the camera pans up to locate the killer, it moves toward the bullet-pierced mirror. [In the real sequence of events - revealed by the film's more complete flashbacks, there are more events that actually occurred here.] A door shuts. The car parked in front of the beach house pulls away with an unrecognizable driver.
In a dissolve, on an almost-deserted, fog-shrouded oceanside pier at Santa Monica, California that same night, an unidentifed, fur-clad woman appears from the dark shadows and walks down to the end of the long pier. [At first sight, she appears to be the film's femme fatale.] She looks distressed and tense as she pauses by the iron railing. With a fixed look, she peers down into the swirling, dark ocean, illuminated by a few pier lights and moonlight. As tears come to her eyes, a policeman appears in the scene and stands and looks at her. When she tightly grabs the railing and contemplates suicide by jumping over, the policeman raps the iron railing with his nightstick and shocks her back into reality. He asks: "What's on your mind, lady?...You know what I think? I think maybe you had an idea you'd take a swim. That's what I think." With an apathetic response, she responds: "Leave me alone." The policeman encourages her to move on:
You take a swim, I'd have to take a swim. Is that fair? Just because you feel like bumpin' yourself off, I gotta get pneumonia? Never thought about that, did ya? OK. Think about it. Go on, beat it now. Go on home before we both take a swim.
Mildred Pierce-Beragon (Joan Crawford) is encouraged to leave the pier and not commit suicide. She walks back down the pier and wipes the tears from her cheek. From inside a dingy pier restaurant, Wally Fay (Jack Carson) recognizes Mildred and raps on the window to catch her attention. He comes out and asks: "What are you doing around this pigeon perch? Slumming?...You sick or something?" Noticing that she is visibly upset, he leads her inside to have a drink in his own restaurant: "For free!" [On stage in the rear of the restaurant, a female performer (later identified as Miriam (Veda Ann Borg)) is singing: You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby - a coincidental pairing of the song's title to the film's theme of a mother's love for her baby.]
Wally is a former business partner (with her and her first husband) and a real estate man - and as a sexually-aggressive acquaintance, he is forever making unsuccessful passes at Mildred:
Wally: You know, buying this joint was the smartest move I ever made...Right now, I'd rather talk myself into something (he rests his hand on hers). Know what I mean?
Mildred: Still trying...
Wally: It's a habit. I've been trying once a week since we were kids.
Mildred: Twice a week.
Wally: OK. Twice. Anyhow, I'm still drawing blanks.
Circumstances are difficult for Mildred and she appears fearful (or guilty). She suddenly consumes her drink, throwing it back down her throat and Wally notices: "You never used to drink it straight like that." [Four years earlier, Mildred was a non-drinker.] She lures him back to the beach house to set him up: "There's better stuff to drink at the beach house, Wally." His match ignites in front of her and he accepts her dare: "Is that a dare?...All right. I'll take it. You know, I like good stuff. Maybe this is my lucky day."
Wally drives both of them to the beach house - at the door, he pauses nervously: "How about your husband? Is he, uh, being broad-minded all of a sudden?" She confidently recognizes his smooth-talking demeanor: "You can talk your way out of anything, can't you?" As they enter the dimly-lit interior and proceed down a spiral staircase to the den/bar area, Mildred turns on a few of the lights and avoids the living room where her husband Monte Beragon's body is sprawled on the floor. As they share a drink, Wally admits that inside, his "heart is singing" but he is also very suspicious of Mildred's friendly invitation:
Wally: I wonder why you brought me here tonight. I mean, all of a sudden, voom! Husband gone. Soft lights, quiet room. Opportunity. Why?
Mildred: Maybe I find you irresistible, Wally.
Wally: Yeah. You know, you make me shiver, Mildred. You always have.
Mildred: You make love so nicely, Wally. (Mimicking him) You always have.
As Wally leans over to kiss Mildred, she deliberately knocks his drink away and spills it all over. Apologetic, but feeling "sticky," she goes to change her dress and promises Wally: "I'll only be a minute." They talk through the open bedroom door for a few moments, but then the door latch clicks shut, and Wally becomes bored drinking alone while carrying on a "one-sided conversation" with himself. Frightened, Mildred huddles against the mirror in her room, planning what to do next. She exits the beach house and runs along the beach.
Realizing that he has been stood up after trying her bedroom door and finding it locked, Wally adds: "But don't get me sore." In the visually expressionistic, dramatic scene, he ascends up the spiraling staircase, visually entrapped by its circularity. (The house is a maze of rooms and staircases.) He frantically calls out for Mildred and searches for her and for a way to get out of the house. His oversized shadow, reflected in giant relief on the wall, pounds vigorously on the locked front door. (He is illuminated by a passing car with its horn blaring.) He knocks over a floor lamp in the living room, causing it to fall directly toward the corpse where it illuminates the dead body of Monte Beragon. Perspiring, Wally looks petrified with fear and desperately wonders what to do next.
He approaches the telephone, identified in close-up - as he reaches for it, it begins ringing. Wally disconnects the cord, and then rushes into another area of the house to try another door. Finding all the doors and exits locked, he breaks out the window panes of one door with a chair and kicks his way through to an outside porch, cutting himself in the process. A passing squad car shines its glaring searchlight on the house, illuminating the figure of Wally hurriedly running through the sand around the house. The police are suspicious of Wally's motives - they think he may be a thief: "This guy came through that window like he was shot out of a cannon."
Cop: What were you doing in that house, pal? Picking up a few souvenirs, maybe?
Wally: No, pal. Nothing petty. You know, this is a pretty big night for you...Lots of excitement. There's a stiff in there.
Cop: Is that so? Oh, and I suppose you were running right down to the station to report it, huh?
In the next scene, a taxi drops Mildred off in front of her elegant house (in Pasadena). She enters the mansion's foyer where her distressed nineteen year-old daughter Veda Pierce (Ann Blyth) rushes to her, upset that two trench-coated detectives "from headquarters" are already in their living room. She is summoned for questioning by one of the men:
Mildred: Why? What's the matter?
Detective: I'm sorry lady. We only ask the questions. Besides, we don't rightly know what the trouble is. It's probably just something about the car - or something.
Veda: At this time of night?
As they leave, Mildred asks again at the front door: "What's wrong? What's the matter?" She is told: "I didn't want to say anything in front of your daughter. It's your husband. He's been murdered."
The emblem of the Los Angeles Hall of Justice that is cut into the floor identifies the next locale, where Mildred is brought and flanked by the two detectives. In the Main Office of the Criminal Division (Room 220), Mildred identifies herself as "Mildred Pierce Beragon." She is ushered into an anteroom where she is told to sit next to a detective's desk and remain silent. The clock on the back wall reads: 1:08 am. Mildred's wise-cracking friend Ida Corwin (Eve Arden), who is already seated in the office, is restrained from leaning toward Mildred and rising. Ida (always ready with a quick one-liner) quips to the cop: "Look, I bruise easy." Ida passes Wally as she is summoned away for questioning - she sarcastically greets him: "Well, what is this, the class-reunion?" Wally grimly tells Mildred: "I'll have a tough time talking my way out of this."
In an often-overlooked scene that occurs in the police station, sounds are noisily over-exaggerated. A loud-ticking clock on the wall reads 2:01 am as time passes. A reporter enters the room - and then in a smooth continuous shot, a guilty-looking Bert Pierce (Bruce Bennett) enters - Mildred's first husband. The clock shows 2:45 am. Sharp noises accentuate the enforced silence in the room and the mounting paranoia and fear in Mildred's mind: a pencil sharpener, footsteps, whistling, the cracking sound of a sharply-opened newspaper. Finally, a buzzer summons Mildred to talk to Inspector Peterson (Moroni Olsen): "He wants you now." Peterson begins half-embarrassed and apologetic, explaining to an unprepared, perplexed Mildred:
Peterson: We don't need you.
Mildred: You don't need me?
Peterson: I don't know how to apologize for bringing you down here for nothing, but you understand, we had to be sure. Well, now we are sure.
Mildred: Aren't you going to ask me questions? I thought you would ask me questions.
Peterson explains the mechanics of how his detective work has succeeded: "Being a detective is like - well, like making an automobile. You just take all the pieces and put 'em together one by one, and first thing you know, you got an automobile (he pauses) or a murderer. And we got him. Oh you're in the clear, Mrs. Beragon. The case is on ice. You can go now." Mildred is inquisitive and wants to know the identity of the murderer. After learning that her ex-husband confessed to the killing, Mildred protests his guilt:
Mildred: No Bert, I won't let you do this. (To Peterson) What about Wally Fay? How do you know he didn't do it.
Peterson: Fay had no motive. This man had. You see, Mrs. Beragon, we start out with nothing. Just a corpse, if you'll pardon the expression. OK. We look at the corpse and we say why? What was the reason? And when we find the reason, we find the man that made the corpse. In this case - him.
Peterson explains the undeniable facts of the case: the gun that committed the murder belonged to Pierce, and he didn't deny killing Beragon - in fact he thought it was a "good idea." Mildred doesn't believe that her "gentle and kind" husband (whom she divorced four years earlier) would commit such a crime.
START OF FIRST MAJOR FLASHBACK
In a long flashback (the first of three such flashbacks in the film), Mildred recalls the unfolding events that led to the breakup of her first marriage and to the murder. In voice-over, Mildred first explains the end of the business (real-estate) relationship between Bert and Wally, and how she was always a traditional home-maker wife in her early 30s. [Mildred's confessional begins in a brightly-lit, daytime environment, where she was married, at age 17, to a real-estate broker and was a doting super-mom to her children in a clean, suburban home in Glendale.]:
He and Wally Fay were partners. For a long time, they made good money. They built a lot of houses. Suddenly, everybody stopped buying. The boom was over...Then one day, they split up. Wally was in and Bert was out. They weren't partners anymore. That day when Bert came home, he was out of a job...We lived on Corvallis Street where all the houses looked alike. Ours was number 1143. I was always in the kitchen. I felt as though I'd been born in a kitchen and lived there all my life, except for the few hours it took to get married...I married Bert when I was seventeen. I never knew any other kind of life. Just cooking and washing and having children - (The camera pans toward a framed picture of Mildred's two beloved, teenaged daughters perched on the piano) two girls, Veda and Kay.
As her dull, middle-class husband Bert flops down on the sofa with a newspaper, Mildred nags him, slightly dissatisfied by the lean financial status of their strained marriage and his loss of employment. He sourly replies: "It might be nice, Mildred, if you left me alone once for just five minutes. When the time comes, I'll get a job." She softens her insistence: "I know you will, Bert, I was just trying to help."
A delivery man brings an oblong box to the door - in it is an expensive dress for their spoiled, ungrateful, unappreciative daughter Veda, bought with Mildred's own money. Their conversation becomes a vicious argument, especially since it reflects on Bert's own struggle and inability to provide for the family:
Bert: Where'd you get the money?
Mildred: Baking cakes and making pies for the neighbors. That's where I got it. I earned it.
Bert: That's right. Throw it up to me that I can't support my own family.
Mildred: I'm sorry Bert, but I don't say half as much as most women would say with nothing but bills staring them in the face.
Bert: Go ahead, keep it up. Maybe you wouldn't have so many bills if you didn't try to bring up those kids like their old man was a millionaire. No wonder they're so fresh and stuck up. That Veda! I tell you, I'm so fed up with the way she high-hats me, that one of these days I'm gonna cut loose and slap her right in the face.
Mildred: Bert, if you ever dare touch Veda, I'll...
Bert accuses Mildred of buying Veda's love with blind adoration, and of channeling all her devotion to her children, especially to the demanding and taunting older daughter. Veda has been indulgently showered with gifts, nice clothes, and piano lessons, provided by Mildred's sacrificial baking of pies and cakes. Mildred's love for Bert has been unnaturally displaced and misguided to their daughter:
Bert: The trouble is, you're trying to buy love from those kids - and it won't work. I'm no bargain, but I make enough to get by. But no, that isn't good enough. Veda has to have a piano and lessons and fancy dresses so she can sit up on a platform smirking her way through a piece any five-year-old with talent could play.
Mildred: Veda has talent. Just ask any of the neighbors.
Bert: Yeah? She plays the piano like I shoot pool. And Kay, a nice normal little kid who wants to skip rope and play baseball. But she's got to take ballet lessons! She's going to become a ballet dancer so you can feel proud of yourself.
Mildred: All right, what of it? What if I did want them to amount to something. I'd do anything for those kids, do you understand? Anything!
Bert: Yeah? Well, you can't do their crying for them.
Mildred: I'll do that too! They'll never do any crying if I can help it.
Bert: There's something wrong, Mildred. I-I don't know what. I'm not smart that way. But I know it isn't right to...
Their conversation is interrupted by a phone call from Maggie Biederhof (Lee Patrick) - another sore point in their relationship. Bert has found consolation with this 'other woman' and Mildred wonders if he is a philanderer: "She won't play gin rummy with you anymore. It is gin rummy, isn't it?" The unhappy marriage dissolves on account of the unbalanced, smothering, obsessive, insistent maternal love of Mildred for the daughter:
You might as well get this straight right now once and for all. Those kids come first in this house. Before either one of us. Maybe that's right and maybe it's wrong, but that's the way it is. I'm determined to do the best I can for them. If I can't do it with you, I'll do it without you.
Bert threatens: "Let's see you get along without me for a while. When you want me, you know where to find me...I go where I want to go." Mildred breaks their marriage, calmly and sternly telling Bert to "pack up."