Mildred Pierce (1945)

Mildred Pierce opens with a very noirish murder, a few bullets fired, a cracked mirror, and a man lying dead in a swanky beach house by the shore, an isolated cabin in the middle of an expanse of sand, the kind of unreal, romantic Hollywood location that's prefabricated for murder. But the film isn't a noir, and it isn't a murder mystery, not exactly. Instead, it's a kind of dark, proto-feminist nightmare, the story of a woman who struggles violently against all the constraints placed on her as a woman, all the straitjackets and exploiters. Mildred (Joan Crawford) claws her way up through the world, always doing more, pushing further, than anyone expects from her, and still it isn't enough: she can't satisfy the demands of her snotty, nasty monster of a daughter, Veda (Ann Blythe), and she can't break free of all the weak people who would lean on her strength, weighing her down with their own inconsistency. Over the course of the film, Mildred pushes aside her lazy, philandering first husband Bert (Bruce Bennett), she goes to work as a waitress and eventually starts a chain of restaurants, she dodges the advances of the slimy opportunist Wally (Jack Carson), and she's alternately ensnared by and evades the decadent but now broke society heir Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott), the man who dies in the film's opening scenes.

Throughout it all, Mildred suffers and struggles, never quite getting beaten down by anything that's handed to her. The film, directed by Michael Curtiz, is a parable for the life of the strong, independent woman: sometimes it seems that every time Mildred clears one hurdle, a new and more forbidding obstacle is erected in her path. She's besieged on every side, and still she fights. The film is a class A melodrama, casting an admiring glance equally on Mildred's determination and strength and on the sheer scope of what she's forced to overcome. It's a pretty scathing portrait of men, too, as virtually none of the film's men emerge with their dignities intact. Mildred's first husband not only loses his job and fails to look for another one, while Mildred scurries around the kitchen baking pies to sell, but he runs off with another woman. Wally, supposedly Bert's friend, takes this split as an opportunity to begin instantly smothering Mildred with his attention, coming on to her like one of the girl-hounding foxes of a Tex Avery cartoon, the context for Mildred's chilly remark that he makes her feel like Little Red Riding Hood. Even Beragon, who initially seems like a more conventional movie romantic — enough so that Mildred even falls in love with him, at least for a little while — winds up being a useless, wasting loser, clinging pathetically to the last of his society prestige while accepting handouts from the more successful Mildred.

Within its melodramatic story, the film examines the struggles of a truly independent woman within a world that isn't ready for her. Mildred has a friend, Ida (a wisecracking Eve Arden), who's as independent as she is, a woman who's made her own way in business, but Ida, though she alludes to some disappointments with men, seems to have had an easier time of it than Mildred. Ida had never married, never had children, and now she simply works hard and makes a success of herself. She's a great character, with a quick wit (she gets some of the crackling script's funniest lines) and a self-assured manner that shows that she doesn't give a damn what anyone thinks of her. She's what Mildred could be, or could have been, if not for so many entanglements pulling her down; Mildred's surrounded with people, mostly Veda and Beragon, who rely on her success, who use her and take her money, but who simultaneously despise and pity her for it. There's a class component to the film as well as the gender component: it's about the idle rich's snobby distaste for those who are willing to get their hands dirty, those who work for a living. Mildred isn't afraid of work, she isn't afraid of baking or waiting tables or working long hours, whatever it takes to provide for the people she cares about. Veda, the film's villain, a little demon with a scrubbed-clean face and a chilling ability to turn her emotions on and off as though flicking a switch, leeches off of the fruits of Mildred's labor, but hates her mother for her work ethic, hates the whole idea of having to work. She sees herself as belonging to the upper class, despite her middle class birth, and she's determined to live as though she's a society heiress.

Veda is an infuriating character, and a despicable one, and the film handles her very cleverly: she initially just seems like a mildly bratty kid, a bit distant and pouty, a bit ungrateful, a bit spoiled, like a lot of teenagers. Over the course of the film, she reveals herself as something else entirely, a real outsized movie villain, hiding an almost sociopathic indifference to her mother's feelings behind her cheery, charmingly girlish face. She becomes almost terrifying in the way she exploits and manipulates her mother, draining the strength from this strong, intelligent woman. Blyth's performance, this sweet but emotionally empty aura she projects, is fascinating when juxtaposed against Crawford's tough, expressive tour de force. As Crawford runs a gamut of feelings from steely determination to near despair, delivering a powerhouse performance, Blyth maintains her slightly creepy composure except when, with obvious forethought, she turns on a particular emotional reaction to get a desired effect. The girl's disconcerting control over her emotions is captured most tellingly in a sequence where she announces her engagement to a rich young boy; when her fiance is looking at her, she's all smiles and affectionate glances, but the moment he turns away from her she betrays a flash of a cold, cruel expression, her lips curled into an expression of distaste, her eyes dead and empty.

Coldness and warmth, the traditional dichotomy of womanly behavior, are embodied in these two characters, mother and daughter, but not in the usual ways. Mildred, for all her independence, for all her strength and ability to survive without a husband, isn't a caricature of the cold, loveless career woman. She feels a great deal, maybe even too much — her compassion, her love and tolerance for people who don't deserve it, is her ultimate weakness. It's Veda who's the cold one, Veda who isn't strong at all, who only knows how to use and exploit people, how to take advantage. Veda is contrasted, in the early scenes of the film, against Mildred's younger daughter Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe), another independent woman in the making, a girl who likes to play, who likes to join in on the boys' games, not caring if she gets dirty, like her mother who digs in at work, and very unlike the prim Veda. Mildred takes Kay for granted, knowing that the girl isn't demanding, that like her mother she can take care of herself — it's Veda, who can't, who gets all the attention. This situation symbolically comes to a head in a staggering tragedy, as Mildred loses Kay, loses the girl who might have otherwise grown up to be like her strong, spirited mother. Later in the film, when Veda returns to Mildred after a time apart, a photograph of Kay is tellingly placed in the foreground as Mildred runs to the window to see her inconstant daughter. The photo is a reminder of the very different daughter who'd suffered the fate of so many other cinematic independent women.

Mildred Pierce is fascinating for the way it both upturns and upholds these kinds of stereotypes about independent women: the film is conflicted at its core, torn between rival visions of womanhood. Its ending, sadly, suggests a compromise, a return to the dependency of marriage, as though Mildred hadn't learned any lessons from her ordeals. This is a pretty insubstantial reassertion of the romantic norm, however, a weak gesture towards convention that does little to reverse the subversion of marriage and motherhood represented by the rest of the film.