The film opens with a single gunshot. Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott) collapses onto the floor, and chokes out "Mildred" before dying. Mildred herself is walking out to the docks, looking over the edge as if to jump. The police take her to the station and she relates her story via flashback.
Mildred Pierce (Crawford) is a typical middle-class housewife in suburbia. Bert (Bruce Bennett) is her recently unemployed husband, and they have two spoiled daughters — pre-teen Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe) and teenaged Veda (Ann Blyth). Bert is against Mildred's parenting style, which he calls "buying them love", but Mildred sees it as protecting them. After fighting over this and Mildred's claims that he has been cheating on her, Bert decides to leave.
Mildred rebuilds her life by becoming a waitress — though Veda sees the work as degrading — and eventually becomes the owner of a successful restaurant chain with help from her friend and former boss Ida Corwin (Eve Arden) and money borrowed from Bert's onetime business partner, callow heel Wally Fay (Jack Carson). Mildred does anything she can to impress Veda, but the snobbish girl insists on regarding her mother as "a common frump whose father lived over a grocery store and whose mother took in washing." Mildred eventually marries Monte, a rich playboy, to impress Veda. Things go downhill from there, until we find out how Monte was killed.
Joan Crawford won a Best Actress Academy Award for her performance, and the film was nominated in several other categories.
In 2011, the original novel was adapted into a three-part, five hour mini-series by Todd Haynes for HBO, with Kate Winslet as Mildred, Evan Rachel Wood as Veda and Guy Pearce as Monty. The mini-series followed the novel more closely than the movie, restoring the novel's Downer Ending and plot points such as Veda becoming a successful opera singer.
Sonic Youth named one of their songs after the film.
Tropes used by the story:
- Adaptation Distillation: The movie; while the entire third act and murder plotline are invented for the movie, it is largely seen as a move that better fits the story. Having Joan Crawford as Mildred helps as well, as Crawford's strong will makes Mildred's blind spot towards her daughter's sociopathic nature all the more believable.
- Adaptation Name Change: The name of Mildred's younger daughter was changed from Ray (short for Moire) to Kay in the movie. Also, Monte's name was spelled as Monty in the book.
- All Take and No Give: Mildred's relationship with Veda, obviously.
- Bratty Teenage Daughter: The story deconstructs this trope, through Veda, who manipulates her mother and everyone around her to get what she wants.
- California Doubling: In the miniseries, New York doubles for Southern California.
- Color-Coded for Your Convenience: Kay, the sweet good child has blonde hair. Veda, the bratty, manipulative daughter is a brunette.
- Composite Character: Lucy Gessler, who is Mildred's neighbor and best friend in the novel is left out from the movie, but a part of her personality is incorporated into Ida's character.
- Cool Car: Mildred gets Veda a very nice, expensive car.
- Cut-and-Paste Suburb: Where the Pierces live.
- Cut Himself Shaving: In the movie, Wally says this is where he got the cut on his hand when he was framed for Monte's murder.
- Deadpan Snarker:
- Ida — oh, so much!
- Kay, awesomely (when Veda whines about her new dress not being good enough, she drawls, "Oh, you're breakin' my heart."). Sadly, she doesn't get too many good lines.
- Death by Adaptation: Monte. While the novel ends with him leaving with Veda, the film opens with his murder.
- Downer Ending:
- In the original ending from the novel, Mildred throttles Veda after she catches her with Monty. Veda fakes being rendered mute, in order to use the "injury" to get out of her existing contract and to a more lucrative one, that would relocate her to New York. However, there is the matter of the public scandal her actions have caused: Wally uses it to force Mildred to resign from her company, while Veda fakes a reconciliation in order to salvage her career. While Bert and Mildred remarry once Mildred divorces Monty, the couple spends their days getting drunk and not noticing Veda's plot until Christmas morning, where she drops the bomb on them via speaking for the first time in months and announcing her move to New York to live with Monty. And for the final indignity, Mildred has gotten fat and ugly since strangling her daughter and Monty is physically repulsed at Mildred when he sees her as he picks Veda for the trip to New York.
- The miniseries takes the downer ending and turns it into a Bittersweet Ending: Mildred loses the company, Monty, and is back-stabbed by her daughter; however, her friends are still by her side and Ida is begging Mildred to start a new company. Veda keeps her distance from Mildred as she "recovers from her injury", with Mildred calling her out on her scam within seconds of finding out that Veda was trying to get the New York job offer. Mildred disowns Veda and gets drunk with Bert, who FINALLY convinces Mildred to renounce her evil daughter once and for all.
- In the movie, Joan Crawford gets a bikini scene at Monte's beach house, leading to this funny moment:
- In the miniseries, Kate Winslet rises to the occasion.
- Evan Rachel Wood gets a full-frontal nude scene at the end (though considering how revolting her character is by that point, it could be something else).
- Femme Fatale: Mildred fits this role in the movie. While a fairly good person throughout most of the story, she frames Wally for Monte's murder.
- Fille Fatale: Veda in the movie.
- Film Noir: The movie. After all, it's from the man who wrote The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, and the man who directed Casablanca.
- Food Porn: Any scene with Mildred cooking or serving food.
- Framing Device: Mildred telling her story to the cops.
- Freudian Excuse: Veda insists on it. "You're the one who made me the way I am..."
- Good Girls Avoid Abortion: In the book, Bert and Mildred consider "an operation" when Veda falls pregnant, but veto it for health and moral reasons. Turns out she was faking it anyway.
- Gosh Darn It to Heck!: In the movie, we get:Kay: Aw, pretzels!
- Hope Spot:
- In the book, once she is stripped of her restaurant empire, it is stated that Mildred doesn't have the will to try again at business.
- In the mini-series, Ida (who now runs the business) is still friends with Mildred and makes it clear to Mildred, that she needs to get back into the food service industry when Ida points out how their customers have noticed a drop in quality in the product ever since Mildred was forced out.
- Housewife: Mildred, when married to Bert. After the divorce, she becomes a working single parent in order to please her ungrateful daughter.
- How We Got Here: The movie uses flashbacks to explain how Monte ended up shot dead.
- Incurable Cough of Death: Kay develops one right before going on vacation with her father.
- It Is Pronounced Tropay: Mildred's younger daughter is named Moire in the novel. Her parents think that it's a French name and pronounce it as "Mwaray" (and shorten it to "Ray"). Mildred only learns the correct pronunciation at Ray's funeral.
- Karma Houdini: Monte and Veda in the novel; in the miniseries, Monte gets one, but Veda at least gets one last chewing out by her mother before walking away.
- Kill the Cutie: Ray/Kay, Mildred's sweet and innocent younger daughter, dies of a sudden illness in all versions.
- Mama Bear: Mildred, so much. She'll do anything for her ungrateful daughter. Even taking her murder charges as her own.
- MayDecember Romance: Veda and Monte.
- Manipulative Bitch: Veda full stop. At first, she mostly just uses her mother to get things she wants. Later, she does this other people. At one point, she gets married to a rich young man, then almost immediately demands separation in order to get money out of him. When she doesn't get much at first, she lies about being pregnant in order to squeeze more money out of him and his mother.
- Parental Favoritism:
- Bert favors Kay above Veda, due to how spoiled the latter is. Mildred doesn't sway too much toward either daughter, though she is the reason Veda is the way she is.
- In the book, Mildred favors Veda — to the point when Kay (Ray in the book) dies,, she (guiltily) thinks to herself that she's glad it wasn't Veda.
- Playing Gertrude: The miniseries has a slight example and probably justified as the story takes place trough several years, but Kate Winslet is only about 12 years older than Evan Rachel Wood, who plays the older version of her daughter Veda.
- Pretty in Mink: Mildred has a sable coat and hat at the end.
- She's Got Legs: Mildred's attractive legs are commented upon by both Wally and Monte.
- Smoking Is Glamorous: Veda begins to smoke to fit in with her social groups once her mother gets rich enough to please her.
- Social Climber: Veda is one of these, which leads to Mildred becoming one as well in an attempt to make her happy.
- Teens Are Monsters: Veda for definite. The story follows her teenage years of her greed and her obsession with her social status.
- Ungrateful Bitch: Veda will gladly waste Mildred's hard-earned money while she spends every second complaining about how Mildred earned it in the process. And then she'll ask for more.
- The Vamp: Veda, much to everyone's surprise.
- Who Names Their Kid "Dude"?: In the book, Mildred's daughters are called Veda and Moire, due to "the principles of astrology, supplemented by numerology". Mildred and Bert mispronounce Moire as "Mwaray", and shorten it to Ray.
- Your Cheating Heart: Monte cheats on Mildred with Veda.