September 24, 1945, release date
Directed by Michael Curtiz
Screenplay by Ranald MadDougall, Catherine Turney (uncredited)
Based on the novel Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain
Music by Max Steiner
Cinematography by Ernest Haller
Joan Crawford as Mildred Pierce Beragon
Jack Carson as Wally Fay
Zachary Scott as Monte Beragon
Eve Arden as Ida Corwin
Ann Blyth as Veda Pierce Forrester
Butterfly McQueen as Lottie
Bruce Bennett as Albert “Bert” Pierce
Lee Patrick as Mrs. Maggie Biederhof
Moroni Olsen as Inspector Peterson
Veda Ann Borg as Miriam Ellis
Jo Ann Marlowe as Kay Pierce
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Mildred Pierce opens with gunshots and the murder of a man whose dying word is “Mildred.” The killer, who is off screen, throws the gun at the body. The film cuts to a woman driving away into the night and arriving at a bridge. She contemplates jumping over the railing, but a patrol officer stops her.
When Mildred returns to the beach house with Wally Fay (played by Jack Carson), she knows that Monte is already dead, and her hope is to pin the murder on Wally. Viewers see the light and shadow that is so characteristic of noir, and these lighting effects are the result of diegetic light: reflections from the ocean off screen, flickering flame from the fire in the fireplace, headlights from a car (complete with horn honking) passing by the front of the beach house. All these effects draw viewers into the story and especially into Wally’s predicament when he discovers that he is alone in the beach house with a dead body. Mildred Pierce was released in 1945, but it showcases some sophisticated production techniques that would be worthy of any film. They are especially effective at enhancing the film’s noir characteristics.
(This blog post about Mildred Pierce contains spoilers.)
After leaving Wally, Mildred returns home, only to be met by police detectives who take her to headquarters for questioning. Other characters are also brought in for questioning, and they pass by Mildred, now seated in an uncomfortable chair waiting for her interrogation to begin. The setup of the shots in the police station show the lead actors most often framed by police officers—in other words, hemmed in by authority figures. The change in the sound is subtle: Now, at the police station, there is a slight echoing to everything, which emphasizes Mildred’s discomfort and the gravity of her situation. Conversations and all the other sounds are slightly exaggerated: the clock ticking, an officer sharpening a pencil, the crackling of newspapers folded and unfolded by others (witnesses? suspects?), an officer whistling. The lighting is dim, but it brightens when Mildred starts telling her story in flashback; the change in lighting emphasizes the transition.
Most of the story is told in flashback (a hallmark of noir), from Mildred’s point of view. The only people who have any idea who killed Monte, the man in the opening shots, are the police officers and detectives investigating the crime. Mildred talks of the events leading up to that fateful night, and viewers aren’t sure whether she killed Monte or if she knows who did. The story is written so anybody and everybody could be a suspect, including Mildred.
Did I mention that the story line heaps betrayal (another hallmark of noir) on betrayal? Mildred endures the ultimate betrayals in this film. Is it fate that deals her such hardships? Or does she bring tragedy upon herself because of her own flaws? Joan Crawford plays the title role so expertly that it’s hard for me to say whether fate plays the bigger part or whether Crawford’s performance brings out the character’s flaws so clearly. When she and her daughter Veda argue on the staircase of their home over a check that Mildred just tore into pieces, Veda slaps her mother, and Crawford, while falling backward, sends the pieces of paper flying and then grabs at the railing. The expression on her face throughout it all shows how stunned she is by her daughter’s actions. When Mildred is on the bridge contemplating suicide in the opening sequence, the expressions on her face do the most to reveal her intentions. Viewers really don’t need the patrol officer to talk about what he thinks Mildred is contemplating when he interrupts her. But even that bit of dialogue reveals the noir characteristics of the film: The patrol officer stops Mildred because he doesn’t want to have to dive in after her! He doesn’t show much sympathy for her state of mind.