It is perhaps tempting to name Mildred Pierce strictly as a film noir. Based on the novel of the same name by James M. Cain, one of the progenitors of hard-boiled crime fiction, and shot in gloriously shadowy black-and-white, it rightly bears the hallmarks of that most hallowed of film styles. Yet it feels like something more, owing as much to melodrama as to noir in the hands of Michael Curtiz while still remaining refreshingly down-to-earth. More than anything, it is a devastating blend, using each genre’s strengths in order to develop its wrenching tale of a woman undone by the people around her, fatalistic yet hopeful.
It perhaps goes without saying that the most noir-inflected scenes in Mildred Pierce are confined to the framing scenes. Jarringly, the film begins in medias res at the film’s very end, and while this is perhaps a concession to the conventions of noir, it conveniently allows for Joan Crawford’s superb, part-satisfied-part-wistful narration to supplement the story—the film’s tone isn’t the most consistent, and the narration helps to smooth over and remind the viewers of the tragic conclusion to come. In tandem, the police station where Mildred relates her “confession” is almost preposterously shadowy, complete with a glaring lamp, shuttered windows, and a haze of cigarette smoke, which only makes the fade back to the past more astonishing.
The mood of Mildred Pierce quickly pivots to a much more sunny, and perhaps more emotionally involved tenor, following Mildred from practically the moment that she makes the pivotal decision of her life—separating from her husband Bert (played by an admirably stolid Bruce Bennett). The shadows from the aftermath of a crime are replaced with a sunny, domestic situation, but if anything the emotions and broiling tension are accentuated. Even here, the narrative begins at the end of one stage of life, but Mildred’s character seems almost fully formed from the start, such is the magnetism of Crawford’s confidence and poise.
Crucially, Mildred is conceived as a remarkably well-rounded character, possessing in equal amounts ambition, care, and a strong work ethic. Despite her pampering of her daughters, especially Veda, she is never blind, and works as a waitress even while Veda disparages the profession in order to support them all. But the filmmakers take care to show that, no matter how successful she gets as an improbably profitable restaurant owner, she will never achieve a true sense of happiness; her two marriages fall apart, Veda looks down on her mother and her work while becoming more and more ingrained with the upper class, and she eventually has to compromise her own principles to satisfy Veda, sending her life into a downward spiral.
All of this isn’t necessarily novel, but what distinguishes Mildred Pierce is the cumulative force that imparts practically every single scene with a sense of importance. As mentioned before, the voiceover plays a large part in sustaining the momentum of the film, but the two most important parts are the performances of Crawford and Ann Blyth as Veda. The two clash frequently, but the relationship becomes almost one-sided as it is clear Mildred cares about Veda more than anything in the world, a fact which Veda exploits. The film is fundamentally about a daughter’s betrayal of her mother, and Blyth is as cruel as Crawford is desperate, a potent combination that comes to a head in the devastating climax.
Mildred Pierce is a film of power, more concerned with emotions than anything else, but nevertheless everything in the film is done to perfection. After the narrative inevitably boils over, it ends on a note of surprising optimism: Mildred and Bert silhouetted against a glistening skyline. The world is theirs, though the shadows still linger.