Mildred Pierce plays like a melodrama and looks and feels like film noir, but it cleverly subverts a few of the tropes that primarily define the noir genre, setting this tale of betrayal and murder within a different and more complicated gender paradigm.
Joan Crawford won the Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Mildred, a mother of two who, deserted by her philandering husband, takes it upon herself to provide for her daughters, Kay (Jo Anne Marlowe) and Veda (Ann Blyth). However, Mildred's assumption of a traditionally male role takes a toll on her family, and as she earns success, she finds herself preyed on for her money as well as for her sex appeal — and the decisions she makes in each instance have repercussions later.
Beautifully staged by director Michael Curtiz — with Ernest Haller's cinematography capturing shadows with the zeal of a fetishist — and brilliantly performed by the strong-yet-fragile Crawford, Mildred Pierce is fascinatingly both feminist and anti-feminist, depicting a woman who is both triumphantly independent and inescapably undone by the conflict between her "male" ambitions and her female instincts. All of the usual archetypes of film noir are in conflict not only outside Mildred, but within her, as well: she is as much as anyone both the heel and femme fatale of her own story. Mildred Pierce also works simply as a roller-coastering soap of hard and tawdry emotions, with Blyth, Jack Carson and Zachary Scott memorably playing the distinctly defined parasites who complicate Mildred's strident self-actualization.
In 2011 Todd Haynes produced and directed an equally fine HBO miniseries also based on James M. Cain's novel, starring Kate Winslet, Evan Rachel Wood and Guy Pearce.
Mildred Pierce was brought to my Potluck Film Fest by Flickcharter Alex Christian Lovendahl, who ranks it at #106/2193 (95%) on his Flickchart, making it his favorite movie melodrama out of 25. Mildred Pierce landed on my Flickchart at #618 (84%), where it's #12 out of the 56 movie melodramas that I've seen.