The Story (continued)
Mildred Pierce (1945)
Before long, Mildred mentions to Ida that she is curious about her daughter's well-being and whereabouts. She has had second thoughts about tossing Veda out and is willing to be a 'mother-sacrifice' again:
Mildred: Have you seen her, Ida? Is she all right?
Ida: Why don't you forget about her.
Mildred: I can't. I've tried, but I can't.
Ida: Well, try, try again. That's my motto.
Mildred: You don't know what it's like being a mother, Ida. Veda's a part of me. Maybe she didn't turn out as well as I hoped she would when she was born, but she's still my daughter and I can't forget that. I went away to try. I was so mixed up I didn't know where I was or what I wanted. But now I know. Now I'm sure of one thing at least. I want my daughter back.
Ida: Personally, Veda's convinced me that alligators have the right idea. They eat their young.
Mildred takes a phone call from Bert, who invites his ex-wife to dinner the following night. To possibly rekindle their relationship, he explains that he is freed from Mrs. Biederhof - she was married a few weeks earlier, and he's not unemployed but "working now" - with Condor Aircraft. The man-hating Ida raises her drink glass and clinks it with Mildred's as she proposes a toast:
To the men we have loved. The stinkers.
Bert and Mildred dine at Wally's cheap and tawdry establishment on the pier. It was Bert's insistent choice, although he's now unsure about the place: "Well, I thought it was a good idea at the time. Now I'm not so sure." Veda enters the stage area in a decorative costume, singing: "Billy McCoy was a musical boy..." Sailors in the audience provocatively wolf-whistle at her. Bert then apologizes for deliberately exposing Mildred to her daughter's cheap performance: "I'm sorry I did it like this, Mildred, but I didn't know how to tell you."
Embarrassed and disturbed by Veda's musical performance, Mildred tells Wally that she is taking Veda home. Knowing Veda's stubborn, headstrong, and willful nature after working with her for a month at the restaurant, Wally suggests: "If you want her to do anything for ya, just hit her in the head first." In a backstage dressing room, Mildred implores her cold-hearted, rebellious daughter to return home and find happiness. Veda haughtily rejects the offer, not wanting to live the kind of sub-standard life that Mildred promises. But she indicates that she would return home if Mildred could provide the luxurious life she demands - the life she had with Monte Beragon:
Mildred: I want you to come home, Veda. You don't belong here. This isn't your kind of life...Veda, it isn't easy for me to beg like this, but won't you please come home?
Veda: No, Mother! You must think I'm on a string. 'Go away, Veda! Come back, Veda!' It isn't that easy. I'm free now. No one tells me what to do and what not to do. I do what I think best and I like it that way.
Mildred: I've had the house redecorated. All new furniture. Even a new piano. You'd like it, I know.
Veda: You still don't understand, do you? You think new curtains are enough to make me happy. No, I want more than that. I want the kind of life that Monte taught me. And you won't give it to me. I'm sorry for all the trouble I've caused, but if I went home, it would start all over again. You know that. You know how I am. The way you want to live isn't good enough for me.
Mildred: If I could give you the kind of life Monte taught you, would you be willing to come home then?
Veda: But you couldn't, could you, Mother?
Soon after, at the Beragon mansion (which is up for sale in Pasadena), the now-affluent Mildred speaks to a cash-poor Monte about purchasing his "antiquated," run-down property - to provide a proper residence for Veda. When Monte offers her a drink, Mildred startles him when she states her drink preference: "I prefer it straight." Monte realizes that Mildred's pretense about buying the property has other hidden motivations. Dryly, Mildred proposes a marriage of convenience: "Ask me to marry you." The caddish, opportunistic Monte isn't "exactly enthusiastic" about marriage, unless it includes a one-third share of Mildred's successful business:
Monte: You went to considerable trouble to get rid of me once. So naturally, I'm startled by your proposal of marriage. This is so sudden.
Mildred: I have my own personal reason for wanting to marry you.
Monte: A reason named Veda, I think.
Mildred: Why should it be?
Monte: 'Cause your reason for doing anything is usually Veda.
Mildred: Well, whether it is or isn't, what's your answer?
Monte: I can't afford you, Mildred. You have money and I haven't. All I have is pride and a name, and I can't sell either.
Mildred: I see.
Monte: I'm not enjoying this, Mildred. Things are very different now from the way they were in the beginning.
Mildred: I know. I haven't forgotten.
Monte: Neither have I. I want you to love me again the way you did then. I need that more than anything else. I'm lost without it. I told you that day I knew you were the only woman in the world for me. I loved you then, Mildred, and I love you now.
Mildred: Well then why...
Monte: I can't marry you. I won't go on taking tips from you as I used to. Of course, if I owned a share in your business...
Mildred: Oh I see. I think I understand now. How much of a share would your pride require, Monte?
Monte: Please don't put it that way, Mildred. You know it hurts me to do this. I'm only doing it because I...
Mildred: (steadfastly) How much of a share?
Monte: One third.
Mildred: All right. (He moves to kiss her. She raises her glass to block him.) Sold. One Beragon.
Mildred marries Monte Beragon for his social status and family name, and to provide the kind of social background that Veda craves. Their marriage is more like a business proposition, and the headlines in the society column of the newspaper read: "Business Woman and Beragon Heir Wed." The camera pulls back, showing Bert seated in an armchair - in silhouette - reading the newspaper article. He crumples it up in front of him.
A few months after the wedding, Bert visits the Beragon home to see Mildred. Admitting his nerve in asking, Bert questions her motives in her loveless marriage, knowing that the heartless Veda underlies all of Mildred's decisions:
Bert: Are you in love with this guy?
Mildred: No, Bert. I'm not exactly in love with him. Monte and I understand each other. I thought too if I moved away from that other house and fixed this place up, I thought maybe...
Bert: ...that Veda would come back. I thought that was why.
Mildred: I know you think I'm a fool, Bert. I can't help it. I'd do anything, anything to get her back. After all, I couldn't leave her where she was, now could I, Bert?
Bert: No, I guess not. Anyhow, that's all I wanted to know.
Mildred: I guess we'll always fight about her.
As a "wedding present," Bert has brought Veda with him - according to him, she "wanted to come home" anyway. Oblivious to Bert's presence as he stands in the background, there is a tremulous reunion as the two hug each other and embrace happily, promising never to say mean things to each other again. As Mildred gratefully thanks Bert for bringing Veda along, Monte emerges in the room and glances joyfully toward Veda: "I don't believe it. I simply don't believe it. Well, well, the prodigal returneth. We'll have a fatted calf for dinner." (Unfortunately, Veda and Monte continue to carry on behind Mildred's back.)
At the celebration of Veda's nineteenth birthday, "business trouble" arises regarding the restaurant, and Ida naturally suspects Monte: "Don't look now, but you've got canary feathers all over your face." Veda is bored by her mother's single-mindedness toward the business: "Business and making money. That's all Mother thinks about."
The restaurant business is being threatened - Wally's lawyer, representing one of Mildred's business partners, explains how she will lose the management rights of the restaurant or face bankruptcy: "Now you must satisfy your creditors or show cause why control of Mildred's Inc., should not be taken away from you. If you resist, your creditors force you into bankruptcy." Wally explains the real reason for the take-over - Monte is selling out his one-third interest in Mildred's business:
You've been bleeding this business dry so you could live the way you have since Veda came home. You said so yourself...You let a few bills go by. Then a few more. Pretty soon, you're in real trouble. Now the creditors want your hide and I can't stop 'em. What did you expect? Another month like this and we'd all be out in the cold...You'd still be all right if Monte hadn't forced the situation...I thought you knew. This was his idea. He wants to sell his share of the business and I gotta go along with him or I'm out too. Didn't you know?
Mildred is stunned and dazed by the double-dealings going on behind her back by her new husband. [And after repeated rebukes from Mildred, Wally has also found his revenge in a take-over of the business.] As Mildred leaves the restaurant following the business meeting, she searches for a gun in a drawer and places it in her right fur coat pocket. [Is she planning to kill Monte for his business betrayal?] In the rain, she drives to the beach house and pulls up in front.
END OF SECOND FLASHBACK
The scene returns to Peterson's office, where from a high-angle camera angle, Mildred tells the inspector that she murdered her husband - she takes the blame to cover up and protect someone else. But unbeknownst to her, Mildred has been set up to reveal confirming evidence, since Peterson knew all along that she was innocent [presumably because of fingerprint evidence that Veda was also in the house]:
Mildred: I went to the house. Monte was alone. And I killed him.
Peterson: You're lying, Mrs. Beragon. We know you weren't alone in the house with him. We have proof of that - and various other things...You see, Mrs. Beragon, we've had a slant on you from the beginning. You were the key and we had to put the pressure on you. Well, the key turned, the door opened, and there was the murderer.
The door to the office opens, and two detectives bring in Veda - she has been picked up at the airport on a plane bound for Arizona. Peterson begins to viciously question Veda, prompting her to incriminate herself and confess to the killing:
Peterson: We know all about it. Your mother told us everything. Why did you kill him?
Veda: (To Mildred) You promised not to tell! You promised. You said you'd help me get away!
Mildred: (To Veda) Veda - don't say anything!
Peterson: Too late, Mrs. Beragon. That's all we needed. (To Veda) You left the party at approximately eleven fifteen with Beragon. Your mother left her office at eleven forty-five. You were already at the beach house when she got there shortly after midnight. Isn't that right, Mrs. Beragon?
Mildred: (responding with great difficulty) Yes. I didn't know Veda was there when I came in. I expected Monte to be alone.
START OF THIRD MAJOR FLASHBACK
In a dissolve to the third and final flashback of the film, Mildred descends the beach house's spiral staircase and walks forward out of the shadows. In a startling discovery, Mildred spots Monte kissing Veda over the bar. The camera tracks forward as she approaches toward them. Viciously and quasi-incestuously, Veda admits a long-term, surreptitious affair with her own mother's husband (and her step-father):
Monte: (sheepishly and guiltily) We weren't expecting you, Mildred, uh, obviously.
Veda: It's just as well you know. I'm glad you know.
Mildred: How long has this been going on?
Veda: (taunting) Since I came home, and even before. He never loved you. It's always been me. I've got what I wanted. Monte's going to divorce you and marry me.
Mildred: No Veda.
Veda: And there's nothing you can do about it.
After deliberating, Mildred reaches inside her coat for the gun. Monte approaches and grabs her arm, cautioning: "Mildred, use your head. This won't solve anything." Her forces her to drop the gun on the floor. Distraught, Mildred runs up the staircase and goes outside toward her car. Monte turns toward Veda and confronts her. He rebuffs and scorns her:
Monte: Just where did you get the idea I'm going to marry you?
Veda: Monte, don't joke like that.
Monte: I'm not joking. If you think I'm going to marry you, you're very much mistaken.
Veda: (struggling and pleading with him as they climb the stairs) Monte, listen to me. You told me over and over again that you loved me.
Monte: Did I? Then I must have been drinking.
Veda: Monte, listen to me!
Monte: Look. You don't really think I could be in love with a rotten little tramp like you, do you?
As Mildred struggles to start her car, she hears six shots from inside the house (the same six shots from the beginning of the film). In an insane rage and acting as the tragically-wronged woman, Veda is shown aiming and firing the gun at Monte - he collapses on the floor. He repeats his dying word: "Mildred." After hearing the shots, Mildred returns to the house and finds her crazed, impassioned daughter:
Mildred: Veda, what's happened?
Veda: It's Monte. (Crying, she cups her head in her hands.) He's dead. He said horrible things. He didn't want me around anymore. He told me to get out. And then he laughed at me. He wouldn't stop laughing. I told him I'd kill him. He said I didn't have guts enough. I didn't mean to do it. I didn't mean to, I tell you. But the gun kept going off, over and over again. Then he was lying there, looking at me, just looking at me. You've got to help me. Give me money to get away - and time. I've got to get away before they find him.
Mildred: (wearily) I can't get you out of this, Veda.
Veda: What are you going to do? What are you going to do?
Mildred phones the Santa Monica Police Department, but cannot find the words to report the murder, as Veda desperately pleads for her life and for help in escaping. To create sympathy for herself, Veda plays upon Mildred's guilt for creating her in her own image with wicked flaws. [Veda viciously shot Monte in the place of Mildred, acting out her mother's own hatred for Monte]:
Think what will happen if they find me. Think what will happen...Give me another chance. It's your fault as much as mine. You've got to help me. Help me, Mother! Just this once. I'll change, I promise I will. I'll be different. Just give me another chance. It's your fault I'm the way I am. Help me.
END OF THIRD FLASHBACK
The scene dissolves back to Peterson's office, where Mildred explains her actions. Veda is led away, leaving her stunned mother standing in the middle of the room:
Mildred: I thought maybe, in a way, it was my fault. So I tried to help her. I wanted to take the blame for it.
Peterson: Not this time, Mrs. Beragon. This time, your daughter pays for her own mistake. OK, book her.
Mildred (rising to speak): Darling, I'm sorry. I did the best I could. (She embraces her daughter)
Veda: Don't worry about me, Mother. I'll get by.
Peterson (to other detectives): See that those others are released. (Peterson raises the window shade) We need some fresh air in here. Looks like a nice morning. You can go now. We'll call you when we want you. You know, Mrs. Beragon, there are times when I regret being a police officer.
In the hallway as Mildred exits, two washwomen are down on their hands and knees scrubbing the floor of the patriarchal police station - a classic image of repression (or oppression). At the end of the hallway, Bert is waiting. The two walk out of the shadows, down some steps, and together they exit through a bright, sunlit arch into the approaching dawn. Now that Veda has been purged and can no longer poison their relationship, they are restored to each other. (But the two working women serve as a reminder to Mildred that she cannot pursue illicit relationships with men.) A bright, positive future is implied for the reconstituted couple when Mildred realizes she had always neglected her husband for her daughter.
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AMC Filmcritic's Review of Mildred Pierce