In contrast to the novel on which it is based, the film is structured as a fragmented flashback which gradually unravels the story of a murder. The deliberate omission of a standard reverse shot that would have clarified the situation, tricks the viewer into thinking there is no ambiguity regarding the identity of the murderer, but questions are raised and complexities gradually woven into the story as it progresses. Throughout, maintains her devotion to her daughters, especially the spiteful, hard-nosed Veda. When her neglected husband turns to another woman for attention and solace, Mildred asks him to leave and decides to fend for herself financially. Much to Veda’s disgust, she finds work as a waitress; later, she summons all her powers of persuasion to buy a restaurant which she develops into a successful business. Still her daughter is resentful and her selfishness gets dangerously out of control, until eventually both mother and daughter must confront tragic consequences.
Mildred Pierce was a huge hit when it was first released in 1945 and remains a favourite to this day. As the first film she made with Warner Brothers after her contract with MGM came to an end, it was responsible for revitalising the flagging career of classical Hollywood icon Joan Crawford.1 It was nominated for six Academy Awards in 1946, with Crawford winning Best Actress Oscar for her performance as the self-sacrificing heroine.2 Based on a novel by James M. Cain, known for hardboiled noir fictions, the screenplay reworks his plot, cutting characters and reorganising the structure, but retains the sharp edge of the original.
Taking a hybrid approach that was relatively unusual for its time, the film embraces many key generic features of both noir and melodrama, setting itself up as a site of struggle and uncertainty in structural terms that is reflected by the emotional conflict between its main characters. Thus, the moody lowkey lighting and disruptive shadows of noir are set against the cluttered sets and emotive score that are more familiar to viewers of melodrama. Themes of love, betrayal and revenge, suffering and torment, mother/father-daughter relationships, female solidarity and the burden of family duty are amongst those articulated in this complex tale.
Historically, the context of Mildred Pierce is the austere yet uncertain 1940s post-war era of social and economic transition. While this is not strictly a period piece in that it does not explicitly deal with a specific moment of history, the film nevertheless responds to key concerns of the time. As Corrigan and White have argued, Mildred Pierce ‘visibly embraces a crisis in the public narrative of America’ (2004: 252) with its heart-rending portrayal of the collapse of the nuclear family at a time when many women resisted attempts to force them back into the home. As a fictional story of intimate, personal experiences, it nevertheless resonated so intensely in large part because many women of the day could identify with Mildred’s plight.
An intermittent voice-over narration delivered by Mildred confirms this as a story that privileges her point of view; it also acts as the principle device to establish identification between the spectator and the protagonist, thereby securing initial support for her position. This approach to storytelling, with its apparent focus on the female perspective, was very much at odds with the anti-feminist slant of most noir films. However, any tension provoked by this ambiguity is eventually relieved when Mildred’s version of events is called into question by the detective who has spent all night listening to her only to reveal that he knows full well she is hiding the truth. The binding structure of sympathy that had been developed is abruptly ruptured, and an alternative view of Mildred as social menace is offered. She is finally punished for threatening patriarchy by causing the downfall of the three men in her life, and the representative of the Law is able finally to restore order and stability.
Partly because of its ambivalent relation to the genre system, Mildred Pierce is complex in terms of its articulation of gender issues, and attempts to interpret these have drawn on Marxist and psychoanalytic approaches to film theory. As part melo drama, it is bound to give greater attention to its female characters than most other classic genres, while melodrama is also ‘one of the few generic areas in Hollywood in which masculinity in general, and “virile” masculinity in particular, has been constantly qualified, questioned, impaired or castrated’ (Neale 2000: 186). Indeed, in Mildred, the protagonist’s own husband has his masculinity called into question by her supposed neglect of his emotional and sexual needs and his lack of employment. Meanwhile, suitor Wally Fay constantly sees his advances rejected and second husband Monte, who comes to rely financially on his wife, is punished for his deception and betrayal of her with the loss of his life.
In film noir, as E. Ann Kaplan points out, ‘women are central to the intrigue’ (1980: 2). Nevertheless, given that this is noir, the strong women portrayed must never be allowed to rise far above their station and patriarchy must triumph in the end. Independent women such as Mildred who abandon the home, seek solace in female friendship and reject male comfort are regarded as a social menace, a threat to the order which upholds those capitalist values upon which western society rests. Mildred is a particularly complex character as she assumes both archetypal female roles of noir: the nurturing figure and the ‘spider woman’ described by Janey Place as the ‘evil seductress who tempts man and brings about his destruction’ (1980: 35). She becomes a ‘tycoon’ restaurateur, owning a chain of quite glamorous establishments; she lures Wally Fay into a trap that threatens his freedom by framing him as a murderer; yet she also remains a self-sacrificing mother, risking everything she owns for the sake of her daughters. Even more dangerously for patriarchy, she takes on the conventional father’s role of providing for her daughters when Bert is no longer able to do so, denying him a social role (and effectively erasing him from most of the rest of the narrative).
Noir films often also include corrupt, duplicitous children, especially daughters, who have to be punished just as their mothers are. Here the excessive Veda, only around 14 at the start of the story, gradually steals the role of treacherous femme fatale from her more sexually uncertain mother. Since Veda is the source of most of the marital tension between her parents, she and Mildred have to be separated in order that husband and wife might resume their ‘normal’ relationship.3 Even more shocking perhaps, as Pam Cook explains, is the way in which Monte and Veda’s relationship verges on ‘transgression of the ultimate taboo: that against father incest’ (1980: 75).
As Corrigan and White point out, Mildred Pierce is so compelling partly because its narrative structure oscillates tantalisingly ‘between the classical and alternative narrative traditions’ (2004: 252), both deploying and deliberately tampering with the conventions of cinema storytelling. The extended flashback (lasting four years) proceeds in a linear fashion, pausing only a few times to return to the ‘present’ of her so-called confession before the detectives (lasting one night). This ‘present’ is where most of the noir conventions of the film are to be found and where, ultimately, its ideological force resides. However, this interpretation is complicated by a retelling of the past from Mildred’s point of view which more clearly draws on the features of melodrama, during which the increasingly elaborate costumes and sets reflect, at a glance, Mildred’s changing social status and developing sexual allure. The multi-layered approach is reinforced by the use of noir lighting conventions that draw attention to shadows that suggest that all may not be revealed while by contrast, the more even, high-key lighting used in the sections recalled by Mildred gives the impression of plenitude and truth. That the latter eventually gives way to the former indicates that Mildred’s account of events might be dubious, even before the detective confirms this suspicion.
In the end, despite all its complexities and transgressions, Mildred Pierce offers a ‘reassuringly’ conservative and conformist resolution. Mildred is forced to recognise the error of her independent ways, and returns to her ex-husband. Her ‘confession’, a strategy for maintaining control, is finally rebuffed. In effect, ‘the temporal and linear progressions in Mildred’s material life are … ironically offset by her loss. of emotional and spiritual life’ (Corrigan and White 2004: 252) throughout the film. Her ‘dangerous’ sexuality has already been punished, for example, with the sudden death of her younger daughter, Kay, after her one night of illicit passion with Monte. While it is clear from the outset that Mildred wants to be found guilty of an actual crime of murder, according to the conventions of noir, she is also considered guilty of an offence against patriarchy: for having abandoned her marital vows and her domestic duties, albeit for the sake of her children.
In the film’s final shot, the reunited couple leaves the police station together and walks away from the institution that represents national law and order. As they become engulfed by the modern building’s enormous structures and exit through the perfectly framed archway, the silhouette of the Empire State Building, absolute symbol of western capitalism, is clearly visible in the background. Meanwhile in the foreground, two women can be seen scrubbing the steps, on their knees, as a reminder of the inextricable link between domesticated repression and patriarchy.
After all, part of the project of Mildred Pierce was to highlight the need to restore clear gender-based boundaries, and to encourage ‘acceptance of the repression which the establishment of such an order entails’ (Cook in Kaplan, 1980: 63). Thus, finally, after the struggle, torment, loss and self-sacrifice, Mildred reluctantly acknowledges that it is her social duty to return to the family home and support her (ex) husband. Her adventures as an independent career woman are over. Moreover, the ambiguity and blurred boundaries of generic hybridity are also finally resolved as the rational logic and cool intellect of noir overcome the emotional excess of melodrama.
1. Crawford later claimed she ‘found’ the part of Mildred, which had already been turned down by arch rivals Bette Davis and Rosalind Russell. Jack Warner was sceptical about casting Crawford in this more mature role, but was rewarded with a hit that marked a change of direction in the star’s career.
2. Nominations for Best Actress in a Supporting Role also went to Ann Blyth as Veda and Eve Arden as feisty restaurant manager, Ida. According to her daughter, Crawford desperately wanted to win the Oscar but was so nervous about attending the ceremony that she took to her bed with ‘pneumonia’, from which she miraculously recovered in time for the celebratory press photographs. See Joan Crawford: The Ultimate Movie Star (DVD Special Feature, 2002).
3. In feminist discourse, this enforced separation is described as a form of ‘castration’ in that the beloved child, in Freudian terms, is considered to be the extension of the female body, the phallus she refuses to let go.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: USA. Production Company: Warner Brothers Pictures. Director: Michael Curtiz. Screenwriter: Ranald MacDougall. Cinematographer: Ernest Haller. Music: Max Steiner. Editor: David Weisbart. Art director: Anton Grot. Cast: Joan Crawford (Mildred Pierce), Jack Carson (Wally Fay), Zachary Scott (Monte Beragon), Eve Arden (Ida Corwin), Ann Blyth (Veda), Bruce Bennett (Bert), Jo Ann Marlowe (Kay), Butterfly McQueen (Lottie).]
John Belton, American Cinema, American Culture, New York, McGraw-Hill, 2005.
Pam Cook, ‘Duplicity in Mildred Pierce’, in E. Ann Kaplan (ed.) Women in Film Noir, London, BFI, 1980, pp. 68–82.
Timothy Corrigan and Patricia White, ‘Narrative Value in Mildred Pierce (1945) and Daughters of the Dust (1991)’, in The Film Experience, Boston, Bedford/St Martins, 2004, pp. 252–4.
E. Ann Kaplan (ed.) Women in Film Noir, London, BFI, 1980.
Steve Neale, Genre and Hollywood, London and New York, Routledge, 2000.
Janey Place, ‘Women in film noir’, in E. Ann Kaplan, Women in Film Noir, London, BFI, 1980, pp. 35–54.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.