Classical film review: "Mildred Pierce"

By Diego Chiri

Based on the novel by James M. Cain, “Mildred Pierce” (1945) tells the story of a divorced middle-class mother of two who decides to waitress her way to success in 1930s California. Mildred (Joan Crawford) faces many difficulties: she is a woman living in times of male domination, her ambitious and cold daughter Veda (Ann Blyth) refuses to forgo her life of complete luxury and she becomes the main suspect when her business partner and second husband Monte (Zachary Scott) is murdered under strange circumstances.

“Mildred Pierce” cannot be considered in its entirety a noir film. First, it does not have a male detective hero as a main character. Instead we have Mildred, a strong and idealistic mother whose only sin is to be a woman in the workplace. Mildred is punished throughout the film because she does not stay home to take care of domestic needs, but decides to move freely in a traditionally male-dominated business.

Although it seems the film tries to portray Mildred as a threat to the institution of family, the audience knows that her intentions are noble— she wants to maintain her family’s social position through hard and honest work. Mildred cannot be a “femme fatale,” another key element of noir films, because she is not a fetishist powerful woman who causes psychological terror to men. Daughter Veda instead fulfills the profile of the dangerous but innocent male sexual fantasy.

But what does film noir actually mean? What is it? Is it a genre, a series, a mode or a historical movement? Literally “black film” in French, film noir imposes a dark tone into stories that draws from the underworld of American pulp fiction in the 1940s and 1950s. Film critic John Belton explains it in his 2009 book “American Cinema, American Culture” as the “uniquely American experience of wartime and postwar despair and alienation” made byAmerican cinema to be dominated by “crime, corruption, cruelty and an apparently unhealthy interest in the erotic.” From the French perspective, American film had turned grimmer, bleaker and blacker. “Mildred Pierce” represents the values and identity of family and women in society through a dark perspective.

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