Based on James M. Cain’s 1941 novel, Mildred Pierce tells the story of a woman trying to create a new life to raise her family during the Great Depression as she succeeds. When her ambitious and ungrateful daughter Veda becomes a success, Mildred tries to win her love. Directed by Michael Curtiz with an adapted screenplay by Ranald MacDougall, William Faulkner, and Catherine Turney. The film is a noir-like take on Cain’s novel with elements of melodrama in the days of mid-1940s Hollywood. With Joan Crawford in the title role that would win her an Academy Award for Best Actress. The film also stars Ann Blyth, Jack Carson, Zachary Scott, and Eve Arden. Mildred Pierce is a stylish yet captivating drama from Michael Curtiz.
Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott) has just been shot dead as his last words is Mildred’s name. Later that night at the house when Mildred’s friend/business partner Wally Fay (Jack Carson) joined her for a drink at her beach house that she shared with Monte. Fay is locked inside the house as he escapes where two policeman arrive where they found Monte’s body. After Mildred is called into question over Monte’s death where her ex-husband Bert (Bruce Bennett) has confessed to shooting him. Inspector Peterson (Moroni Olsen) asks Mildred about Monte and why she doesn‘t believe Bert killed Monte.
Mildred reveals her life story years before when her marriage to Bert deteriorated as he left her and their daughters Veda (Ann Blyth) and Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe). With no source of income to support her daughters, notably the ambitious yet snobbish Veda. Mildred decides to find a job as she becomes a waitress where she befriends restaurant supervisor Ida (Eve Arden). Mildred succeeds in being a waitress though Veda isn’t impressed as Mildred reveals ambition to open her own restaurant. With Wally’s help, they meet Monte who help invests in Mildred’s restaurant as she falls for the rich man who is about to inherit a fortune from his family.
While Mildred becomes successful with the restaurant, it doesn’t give her happiness as she encounters tragedy as well as seeing Veda be enamored with Monte’s rich lifestyle. With Mildred opening more restaurants and becoming rich, she is forced to make Veda happy by giving her riches while Monte also takes advantage of Mildred’s success. With Mildred deciding to get rid of Monte, Veda ends up causing more trouble. With Veda pushing her away and Mildred desperate to have her home. Mildred makes a deal with Monte to marry her so she can have Veda back as it comes with a terrible price.
While some viewers might believe that a story like Mildred Pierce is about a woman trying to succeed following the dissolution of her first marriage while trying to please her ungrateful daughter. That’s only in terms of a simple plot summary. Really, it’s about a woman trying to win her daughter’s love only to be blinded and be taken advantage by the young girl who continuously manipulates her. It’s really the story about Mildred and Veda as they are two different personalities that represents different ideas of ambition and class struggle. Mildred is a woman trying to succeed at a time when women aren’t allowed to run their own businesses without the permission of her husband. Yet, she had to because she needed to support her daughters. She succeeds by becoming a waitress and later managing her own chain of restaurants.
If Mildred’s determination to succeed and provide a good life for her daughters is one that is inspiring. There is also a flaw to that as the thing that keeps Mildred from being truly happy is Veda. Veda is part of Mildred’s determination to succeed yet Veda scoffs at her mother’s working class background. When Mildred succeeds and has Monte at her side, Veda takes advantage of Mildred’s new finances with people such as Ida and a very reluctant Wally trying to tell her that Veda is talking money. The character of Monte is a playboy who is enamored by Mildred’s ambitions but is charmed by Veda and her love for the posh world. Monte would end up taking advantage of Mildred as well once his fortunes dwindle and eventually, he would put Mildred into ruins both professionally and personally.
The narrative starts off with a noir-fashion once Monte is seen shot but no one knows who kills him. Yet, everyone is a suspect as the story is told through Mildred with her own voice telling the story as she talks to the inspector. It’s a wonderfully told script that plays to not just melodrama but also with a dash of film noir. While some might feel that Mildred ends up being conned over and over again, it’s because it’s all about a woman’s love for her daughter and how she can be blinded where she reaches a breaking point. The script is definitely engaging in its adaptation as it plays true to the complicated drama between Mildred and her daughter.
Michael Curtiz’s direction is definitely captivating from the noir-like look of the police scenes to the melodramatic tone of the rest of the film where it chronicles Mildred’s rise from waitress to businesswoman. Curtiz also lets the scenes play out as he goes reaction whether it’s the heavy drama between Mildred and Veda to even scenes of sexual innuendo. Yet, considering it was made during the era of the Hayes Code, the sexuality of the film from the way Monte and Wally would look at Mildred’s legs is very subtle. Not overtly but it does let audience get the idea of who Mildred is but also in the way she starts to become her own woman.
Curtiz also plays up to the noir style of the film by creating an amazing opening sequence while never revealing who kills Monte. This would create a tone where it becomes very dark during Mildred’s interrogation scenes. By the time the third act arrives, the mixture of melodrama and noir finally blend as the tone of the film darkens. Even as Curtiz is always playing up to the drama whether its having a two-shot between Mildred and Veda while building up the momentum to the climatic moment of the moment that Monte gets shot. Curtiz’s direction is truly superb in the way he presents the story as well as delving into the mind of its titular character.
Cinematographer Ernest Haller does a phenomenal job with the film‘s black-and-white photography from the wondrous, sunny look of the suburbs that Mildred lived in early in the film to the dark, eerie world that comes in later in the film. Haller’s work also plays to the noir-like tone for the scenes at the police station as well as the shots at Monte’s beach home late and very early at the film. It’s definitely one of the film’s technical highlights as Haller’s work is spellbinding. Editor David Weisbart does an excellent job with the editing from the rhythmic cuts to play up to the drama including the dissolve transitions needed to help structure the story from the interrogation to the scenes of Mildred as a housewife.
Art director Anton Grot and set decorator George James Hopkins do an amazing job with the set pieces of the film. From the 1940s look of the suburban home that Mildred lived early in the film to the somewhat-posh like look of the restaurant that Mildred runs. The art direction is superb as it plays to Mildred’s rise and the eventual fall she would take. The film’s sound by Oliver S. Garretson is very good from the atmosphere of the restaurants to the sounds of gun shots that plays to the noir aspects of the film. The film’s music by Max Steiner is superb from its sweeping theme that plays to the melodrama of the film to more uplifting pieces that plays to Mildred’s rise. Steiner’s score is definitely another of the film’s highlights as it’s truly spectacular.
The cast is definitely wonderful for its array of some very memorable performances from the big actors to some small roles by other actors. Among the memorable small roles that stand out includes Butterfly McQueen as Mildred’s maid/associate Lottie that adds some needed humor the film as well as Veda Ann Borg as a fellow dancer at Wally’s own little bar. Lee Patrick is good as a woman that Bert is supposedly having an affair while Moroni Olsen is excellent as Inspector Peterson who believes that what is going on isn’t what it seems. Jo Ann Marlowe is very good as the tomboyish yet grateful Kay, the youngest daughter of Mildred. Bruce Bennett is also good as Mildred’s first husband Bert who struggles with Mildred’s new life while often warning her about Veda’s personality.
Eve Arden is brilliant as Ida Corwin, Mildred’s restaurant associate who is a tough-talker as she dislikes men while wondering why does Mildred put with Veda. Adren steals every scene in the film as she also delivers some of the film’s best lines. Jack Carson is great as Wally Fay, a man who likes Mildred while having trouble dealing with Monte as well as trying to be the guy to calm things down only to feel screwed over what happened. Zachary Scott is excellent as Monte Beragon, the man who falls for Mildred only to take advantage of her wealth as he leaves and then comes back only to be killed in the beginning of the film.
Ann Blyth is superb as Veda, the ungrateful daughter who wants to become rich and ambitious as she is also a selfish, spoiled, uncaring little bitch. With a stylized yet dramatic performance, Blyth succeeds in creating an unsympathetic character that everyone loves to hate. Even as she claims she tries to be good as there is also someone with an innocent look but is truly full of shit as Blyth captivates in the moments she’s in. Finally, there’s Joan Crawford in one of her finest performances as the title character that would win her an Oscar for Best Actress. Crawford brings a sexiness as well as a bit of realism to a woman in the 1940s trying to do what is right for her children. Even as she brings a sense of frustration over the fact that she’s a woman trying to do what is right and doesn’t feel appreciated by her ungrateful daughter. It’s an overall iconic performance from the legendary Crawford.
Mildred Pierce is an extraordinary yet stylish noir-drama from Michael Curtiz with a radiant performance from Joan Crawford. Audiences of stylish noir-like films of the 1940s will no doubt see this as a fascinating melodrama that features great scenery and some memorable dialogue. Anyone interested in the career of Joan Crawford will find this as one of her essential films. In the end, Mildred Pierce is a phenomenal film from the great Michael Curtiz.
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