The classic film noirs – The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep – are not always known for their complex or sympathetic female characters, so often characterised as dissembling sirens or maidenly ideals.
Not so with Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce, a pitch dark noir whose eponymous anti-heroine (Joan Crawford) is surely one of the most compellingly flawed women of the genre. Faultlessly resilient yet maddeningly weak, Mildred could have been lifted from the pages of Greek tragedy, a woman with seemingly inexhaustible personal resources brought down by a fatal flaw.
Recalling 1944’s Double Indemnity, Mildred Pierce opens with the heroine’s confession to a murder. Mildred cops to the crime in a bid to save her ex-husband, who the police have fingered for the real culprit. Mildred recounts her marriage to Bert (Bruce Bennett), unemployed and loafing about the house. Accusing Mildred of loving their two daughters more than him, she promptly kicks him out of the house. Dispensing with her deadbeat husband is an apparent triumph for Mildred, but as we are to learn, it sets a catastrophic precedent for her badly flawed sense of priorities.
Namely, her insatiable need for the approval of her eldest daughter, Veda (Ann Blyth); if Mildred is one of noir’s best-written women, then surely Veda is one of cinema’s most perfectly monstrous. A monument to bratty entitlement, Veda manipulates her mother at every turn, and in perpetually capitulating, Mildred cultivates in her daughter a spoiled monster, a situation not helped by the endless procession of feckless, lascivious men who are all too ready to pounce on Mildred’s emotional weaknesses.
Yet Curtiz’s film refuses to reduce even these men to type: lunkish Wally (Jack Carson) – whom she will later try to frame for murder – persistently pesters her for affection but also offers her advice on Veda’s behaviour, whereas seductive parasite Monte Baragon (Zachary Scott), by all accounts a reprehensible leech, appears to have at least some affection for Mildred, albeit one that he is quite happy to forgo in favour of pursuing the teenage Veda. No matter the extent of Veda’s bad behaviour, Mildred relentlessly acquiesces to her.
Whether it’s Veda’s marrying in secret, her faking pregnancy for alimony, or sleeping with Baragon, Mildred keeps coming back for more, ruining herself and her business, all the while feeding Veda’s sense of consequence-free entitlement. By the film’s terrific climax, Veda’s poisonous accusation that “You’re the reason I’m the way I am” stings because it is true: Mildred has created this monster and her own ruin is the consequence. The tragedy of Mildred Pierce is an essential film noir, a fantastically crafted character study, and a moving study of parental weakness and responsibility.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell