To make any finite claims on Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945) is to limit both the complexities of the film and its eponymous character. The stark contrasts between light and dark, large shadowy figures, geometric shapes, non-linear narrative, and the unfolding murder mystery present in Curtiz’s post-Second World War drama certainly fulfill many conventions of film noir, but the film cannot be easily classified as such (Cook, 1980).
While its present tense sequences exist in a dark, crime-underworld, the flashbacks of the film, which explore Mildred’s complicated love life and her difficulties raising two kids as a single mother, certainly transport viewers to the emotion suffused world of a maternal melodrama. As the film cuts back and forth from present-day to flashback, Mildred herself oscillates between the conventionally male space of film-noir and the female world of melodrama respectively. Literature discussing Mildred Pierce is largely interested with which locale she dominates most, if any, seeks to determine if Crawford’s character is truly genre defying and challenges traditional gender roles instated by patriarchal society. Rather than drawing a stern conclusion on the film and Mildred,this paper instead intends to examine how both may be interpreted in different ways by thoroughly analyzing the film’s form.
One undeniable interpretation of Mildred Pierce is to read the picture and Joan Crawford’s character as empowering to the feminine as both tamper with conventions of male-dominated noir films. First and foremost, as suggested in the opening sequences, the film establishes Mildred as its protagonist and predominately aligns viewers with her experiences more than any other character. The film opens with six loud gunshots which riddle who we soon learn to be Mildred’s second husband, Monte Beragon. As Mr.Beregan slowly falls and whimers “Mildred”, the camera presses on a bullet stained mirror successfully inciting the murder mystery. A slow dissolve reveals Mildred’s silhouetted figure walking aimlessly on a boardwalk with her back to the camera.The deep frame space, dark shadows, and low-lighting seemingly position viewers within a recognizable noir setting. Following this establishing shot, Crawford’s teary-eyed and deeply distressed face is revealed to the camera for the first time. Mildred travels further into the docks and later attempts to commit suicide in response to what viewers then understand as a mode of dealing with her killing.
The composition and unfolding murder mystery of this present-tense sequence are elements present in noir film, but instead of attaching viewers to Humphrey Bogart, or another recognized male star of the genre, all of our emotional investment is attached to Joan Crawford and her realization of a distressed and suicidal Mildred. Furthermore, it’s Crawford’s voice-over-narration, a common device used in film noir, which prompts the flashback sequence which transpires within her headspace. It’s quite “unusual”, as Pam Cook pens in her essay “Duplicity in Mildred Pierce”, for a female character in a noir film to have such immense narrative power (Cook, 1980). Mildred does not only control the shifts in temporal space and locales but she also does not conform to the “sexually alluring”, femme fatale roles women typically portray in film noir making Joan Crawford’s infiltration of an “invariably” male-dominated genre undoubtedly empowering (Thompson & Bordwell, 2002)(Benshoff & Griffin, 2011). While in no way wrong, this reading of Mildred Pierce is quite facile and does not fully examine what Cook argues is duplicitous about the film (Cook, 1980).
Contrasting the first interpretation of Mildred Pierce, many critics and film theorists argue that Crawford’s seemingly empowering portrayal of Mildred is undercut by the male-voices which truly control the film’s narrative. Further analysis reveals that Mildred’s voice-over, for example, was motivated by a detective, Inspector Peterson, who brings her in for questioning. At this moment in time Peterson, and hence the viewer, believe that Bert Pierce, Mildred’s first husband, was the murderer of Monte Beragon. Mildred is adamant that Bert is too kind and wonderful to commit such a crime, to which Peterson asks, “But if he’s so wonderful Mrs.Beragon, why did you divorce him?”.The final cut of this present-day sequence is a close-up of Mildred’s face, followed by a slow dissolve which indicates a shift in temporal space, or in other words a flashback. This first flashback, however, does not strictly concern the murder mystery and instead transports viewers to Mildred’s disordered home life. The high key lighting featured in the flashbacks visibly contrasts the dark, low-lit world seen in the present-day sequences. This conspicuous shift from murder mystery to family drama, and dark underworld to surban setting unmistakably relocates the narrative to the world of melodrama. Pam Cook contends that this failure to explore Monte’s murder in the flashbacks confines Mildred’s voice to to the feminine space of the “Women’s Picture”, thus shielding her away from the criminal, masculine world of film noir Peterson dominates. She writes:
“Mildred’s discourse is markedly different from the framing discourse of the detective, in that he is simply concerned with establishing the Truth, with resolving the enigma, while Mildred’s story contains complexity and ambiguity, showing a concern for feeling rather than facts” (71) (Cook, 1980).
Here, Cook suggests that Mildred’s voice, which revolves around familial and marital life, is undermined by Inspector Peterson as his “discourse” finally discloses Monte’s murderer to be Veda, Mildred’s daughter (Cook, 1980). Although quite detailed, one component absent from Cook’s essay is how Mildred does not have full control over the diegesis despite it being situated within her headspace. In one scene, for example, nearly a third of the frame comprises of Mildred’s legs hanging off a ladder while Monte is positioned in the background. Identically, in another scene where Wally, Bert’s former business partner, is visited by Mildred, he quickly glances at Mildred’s exposed legs, indicated through a point-of-view (PoV) shot, until she notices and readjusts her skirt. In both scenes, Mildred is quite aware of Monte’s and Wally’s gaze but she’s completely unconscious of the audience. The narration of the camera objectifies Mildred, therefore belittling her power within her own headspace, and reinforces what feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey describes as the “male gaze” through Monte and Wally, whose stares are successfully projected onto viewers (Mulvey, 1999) .
Cook maintains that the film’s duplicity stems from the undermining of Mildred’s character as well as it’s true intentions to reinstate “patriarchal order” as shown in the film’s last moments when Veda is convicted of murder (Cook, 1980). Afterwards, Mildred and Bert leave the police station at the crack of dawn, thus abandoning the dark crime filled noir world, and pass two women on their knees scrubbing the floor. In a thorough analysis of these last few seconds, Cook argues that the film reinstates the conventional hetereseuxal couple and constructs, “an image of sacrifice which closes the film with a reminder of what women must give up for the sake of the patriarchal order” through the two working women. Additionally, Cook also contextualizes Mildred Pierce in 1945 America, and argues that when Mildred’s business ultimately results in financial failure the film is mirroring the needs of a post-war Economy which sees men returning home marking the end unparalleled levels of female employment (Cook, 1980).
Cook’s detailed scene analysis and historical contextualization strengthen her arguments on Mildred Pierce, but her conclusive claims somewhat simplify both the movie and Crawford’s character. Mildred Pierce, for example, may very much reinstate the hetersexual couple and, beyond that, patriarchal order, but at the same time the film can be read as quite empowering— although a wholehearted attempt at empowering the feminine. The flashback sequences, for example, see Mildred successfully raise two kids after her husband leaves for a mistress. Mildred also becomes a waitress, grasps an understanding of the food chain business, and soon becomes the owner of several restaurants. Despite her businesses ending in financial failure, Mildred’s economic ascension and ability to support her family as a single mother is quite empowering to witness. Readings of the film suggest otherwise as Mildred’s successes unfold within the world of a maternal melodrama after she is denied access to the male space of noir film. Mildred, although objectified and thrusted into a traditionally female space, actually has much more diegetic control than film theorists and critics argue. Inspector Peterson does reveal Veda to be Monte’s murderer to viewers, but the visuals used to validate this revelation are attached to Mildred’s memories and not his. Peterson may prompt the flashbacks, but it’s Mildred’s memories and voice which dominate the narrative and meet the eyes and ears of audiences, not his.
What makes Mildred Pierce such a difficult film to analyze is the fact that director Michael Curtiz has stringently aligned viewers to Mildred, both narratively and emotionally, while also managing to objectify her. Is it an empowering film, a wholehearted attempt a being such or simply fails at transcending the female character in noir film at all? Contrary to what much of the literature writes, the film could easily be all three of said options. Male voices seep into the text but, at the same time, Mildred Pierce, both film and character, admittedly work to create a very unique film by blending the styles of noir and melodrama together. Why must Mildred conform to the conventions of noir film and its male protagonists in order to not be deemed “duplicitous” (Cook, 1980)? Arguably, her failure to do so is the strongest part of her character. Any denial of this reality undermines Mildred, an admittedly flawed character, and Joan Crawford’s compelling portrayal of her.
Benshoff H. M, & Griffin S. (2011) America on Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies. John Wiley & Sons.
Cook P. (1980) Duplicity in Mildred Pierce. Women in Film Noir. 68-82
Mulvey. L (1999) Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Oxford UP
Thompson. K, & Bordwell D. (2002) Film History: an Introduction. McGraw Hill.