The film noir Mildred Pierce is a murder-mystery that unfolds primarily through flashbacks. The film uses both the flashback structure and a recurring shadow motif to indicate the inevitable conclusion and the reasons for its occurrence.
The film begins with the murder of Monte Beregon, as revealed in a brief initial scene, which shows only the barest details of the circumstances surrounding his death. Mildred walks along a pier immediately following this, the crashing of the dark waves only adding to the sense of bleakness that is evident from her distraught expression. Her face is shadowy and damp, and her heavy fur coat reinforces the idea that there is a mantle of darkness surrounding her. As Mildred is persuaded away from the edge of the pier, toward the lights and the music, she seems as separate from that world as the audience is from hers—looking through a window at the lives others lead, with the muted music and the indistinct conversation highlighting her aloneness. Even when her old friend Wally pulls her inside the bar, she cannot even pretend to belong, instead drinking grimly and saying ominously, “I’ve learned how these past few weeks. I’ve learned a lot of things.”
The use of shadows is prominent in many scenes, such as when Wally discovers Monte’s body on the floor of the beach house, an obvious moment of thematic darkness. Later, a flashback features the silhouettes of Wally and Mildred against the wall as they leave together to attempt to buy Mildred’s restaurant. “Oh Wally, you’re wonderful!” the shadowy form of Mildred says, to which Wally replies, “This is all business, remember?” Though both characters seem optimistic and at ease with each other in this scene, the shadows hint at the dark turn this friendship will soon take, when Mildred attempts to frame him as the murderer. Another example of this shadowy foreshadowing is the silhouette of Bert crumbling the newspaper that announces the marriage of Monte and Mildred, a union that was, as the audience already knows, doomed from the start.
The first hint the audience receives in the flashbacks that Mildred may, in fact, be capable of violence is an example of when the shadowy visuals and importance of flashbacks collide. As Mildred finally realizes the truth of the extent of Veda’s greed and corruption, her face in the close-up has none of the half-shadow of her earlier confession scene, but is completely illuminated, fitting for the moment in which she, as she herself puts it, sees Veda for the first time. Veda’s slap on the staircase literally forces Mildred into the shadows, and as she rises and utters her shocking pronouncement—“Get out before I kill you”—the shadows begin to creep in on the edges of her face. The use of chiaroscuro, the harsh lines of shadow, is effective in emphasizing the importance of the scene, but not so obvious as to distract from the action.
The final shot of the movie, in which the two parents of the murderess leave the world of shadow, together, to emerge in the light, is a poignant last shot of the film—with the darkness that crept in between them firmly in the past, they can, perhaps, look optimistically toward the future at last.
Both the flashback format and the use of light and shadow are essential in telling the story at the center of Mildred Pierce. The flashback structure means that the viewers will consider each image, event, and spoken word in the context of what they already know is to come. Seemingly inconsequential lines become illuminating when they are regarded as possible motivation for future events. This fact is a distinct advantage of using flashbacks in regards to the film noir genre, since this ensures that the audience will be paying close attention in order to find out who committed the crime. The same is true when using distinct visual styles, such as a shadow or chiaroscuro, to reinforce the storytelling, whether by causing the viewer to question the goodness of a character or making them reconsider what is happening in regards to future events. Viewers that may not normally pay attention to visual storytelling techniques are pulled in by the mystery and end up paying attention to the methods used to tell the story, making a richer viewing experience for all.