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Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1948) is a dynamic film that attempts to reconstruct a post-war economy by teaching lessons about the importance of gender roles and a balanced family to the men and women in the theaters. Mildred Pierce illuminates “the historical need to reconstruct an economy based on a division of labor by which men command the means of production and women remain within the family, in other words the need to reconstruct a failing patriarchal structure” (Cook, 69). The film also touches on a fear of women by men returning from the war. Women were more independent and less feminine that before the war. “[T]he films themselves seem to indicate just how threatened and unsure hegemonic patriarchy was during the postwar years” (Benshoff, 264). This essay will deal with a scene from Mildred’s first flashback within the film beginning with Mildred fixing up her newly purchased restaurant as Monty enters and flirtatiously invites her to the beach house and ending with Mildred and Monty’s exchanged words of affection pertaining to their beating hearts. This scene overlaps Kay and Veda’s trip to the beach with their father Bert during which Kay comes down with pneumonia. This essay deals with the symptomatic meaning of the film Mildred Pierce. “This is abstract and general. It situates the film within a trend of thought that is assumed to be characteristic of American society during [a certain time period]” (Bordwell, 62). This film deals with the deterioration of a family in postwar America. “While birth rates did soar after the war, so did divorce rates…Men and women had very different experiences of the war, and the two often did not easily mesh” (Benshoff, 262). The film teaches its audience how to avoid such a failed family ideal. “The first sign of deterioration comes when Mildred’s one night of illicit passion with Monty is followed by Kay’s death” (Cook, 74). This film establishes ideal gender roles for the redevelopment of society while defining the fear of women present in postwar America.
It is important to point out that this scene is Mildred’s flashback. Mildred Pierce has two distinct points of view: Mildred, the woman, and the detective, the man. “The basic split is created in the film between melodrama and film noir, between ‘Woman’s Picture’ and Man’s Film, a split which indicates the presence of two ‘voices’, female and male” (Cook, 72). Mildred’s flashbacks are evenly lit, but cannot be trusted. “The viewer’s process of picking up cues, developing expectations, and constructing an ongoing story out of the plot will be partially shaped by what the narrator tells or doesn’t tell” (Bordwell, 92). The detective’s perspective explains the truth of the narrative, but is presented in shadows and low-key lighting. “Mildred’s discourse is the discourse of melodrama, her story is the stuff of which the ‘Woman’s Picture’ was made in pre-war and war years when woman were seen to have an active part to play in society and the problems of passion, desire, and emotional excess” (Cook, 71). The melodramatic tone to Mildred’s narration helps to pull the woman in the theater into the storyline. This is crucial considering the message the film presents to women to stand behind their men and to go back into the kitchen and cook pies. The detective’s discourse is a representation of the man’s role to find the truth through hard evidence.“ [The detective] is simply concerned with establishing the Truth, with resolving the enigma, while Mildred’s story contains complexity and ambiguity, showing a concern for feelings rather than facts.” (Cook, 71).
This scene begins with an establishing shot of the exterior restaurant, still under construction, and quickly dissolves into the interior of the restaurant with Mildred’s legs, detached from her body, in the upper right side of the screen. Mildred’s legs are fetish sized in order to control her sexuality. “One part of a fragmented body destroys the Renaissance space, the illusion of depth demanded by the narrative, it gives flatness” (Mulvey, 838). By the man taking a small part of the woman and focusing in on it, the woman, as a whole, is no longer a threat to the man. This entire scene sexualizes Mildred. First a close up of her legs is presented and then her in a two piece bathing suit. At this point in the film the viewer has not yet seen the epitome of Veda’s evil actions, nor the reverse shot revealing Veda as a killer; therefore, Mildred is still under great suspicion for the murder in the first scene. Mildred appears to be using her sexual prowess to control Monty in this scene. Joan Crawford’s acting is that of a confident woman in control. Monty asks if she needs help with her zipper and she replies “no” with a large smirk on her face. Her business is not yet a success, but she is on her way due to the property Monty has loaned her. “Joan Crawford, who plays Mildred, is an ambiguous sexual figure as a star with a history of playing ‘independent women’ roles” (Cook, 77). It is almost as if Mildred is “sealing the deal” with her body in this scene. Men in postwar America were threatened by the woman’s sexual prowess and often tried to repress it. The film gives an example of the “brutal and enforced repression of female sexuality, and the institutionalization of a social place for both men (as fathers and husbands) and women (as mothers and wives) which rests uneasily on this repression” (Cook, 69). Mildred’s sexuality is repressed by the realization later in the film that it is Monty who is using Mildred and not the other way around.
The most interesting cinematic shot in this scene shows Mildred entering a room at the beach house with Monty close behind. Monty stops in the doorway while Mildred approaches the closet to look for a bathing suit. Initially, nothing appears unordinary or strange about this camera shot. However, As Mildred moves closer to the camera something the viewer was not expecting happens: Mildred enters the frame from screen left, when just moments before, she was moving downward from right to left on the screen. Then two images of Mildred are presented and the viewer realizes that the initial shot was not real. It was only a reflection on a closet door mirror. This cinematic trick causes the viewer to question what is real and what is simply an illusion. At this point, the viewer can question the validity of Mildred’s flashback all together. Even though Mildred is not the femme fatale in this film, but she is a woman. In postwar America women could not be trusted.
This scene is all a flashback sequence told from Mildred’s point of view. One could argue that the flashback sequences, such as the one in question, are being presented according to how Mildred remembers them. “Mildred’s story is revealed as duplicitous, thus foregrounding the work of repression involved in narrative resolution” (Cook, 73). Curtiz’s choice of high-key lighting is appropriate because this appears to be a happy time in Mildred’s life. There is no need for stark contrasts between light and dark, like so many other less light-hearted scenes in the film. “Low-key lighting has usually been applied to somber and mysterious scenes” (Bordwell, 130). Instead, Curtiz relies on double meanings to highlight the question of what is real and what is an illusion. One example is when Mildred, looking at the ocean from the window in the beach house, replies, “You have a wonderful view.” Monty, looking at her body, responds, “Well, I wouldn’t say that…I hope the suit fits better than the robe.” Monty knows that she is speaking about the ocean and not her appearance, but twists her question. There are other ways to interpret Mildred’s question. Mildred could be drawing attention to Monty’s point of view, the point of view of a man. The point of view of a man represents truth in this film and in postwar America a man’s point of view is what mattered. Through denial of the woman’s point of view, man can take over again. “As if to restore proper patriarchal order, American culture attempted to deny or degenerate the stronger woman that wartime conditions had created” (Benshoff, 262). After a wide shot of Mildred and Monty jumping into the ocean together, the film dissolves into the interior of the beach house where Mildred is drying off by the fire. Another illusion is presented here through Mildred’s reflection in the mirror while Monty makes a drink to the left of the screen. Curtiz is once again playing with the viewer’s perception of reality versus illusion, who to trust in this scene, and if the scene should be trusted at all.
In this scene the viewer is not yet aware that it is Veda whom is the true femme fatale and not Mildred, however Mildred is still a woman in postwar cinema and therefore is painted in a negative light. Her narrative can not be trusted and she oozes sexuality. Mildred’s character is paralleled by Veda’s character. “The film asks us, through the device of metaphorical substitution , to confuse the wicked Veda with the honest Mildred, thus establishing Mildred’s innate guilt, even though she is not guilty of the actual murder” (Cook, 71). Although Mildred did not kill Monty, she is guilty of an even bigger crime in postwar America: pursuing a career and becoming the head of a family. “Mildred’s take-over of the place of the father has brought about the collapse of all social and moral order in her world” (Cook, 75).
At the end of this scene, Monty and Mildred embrace and exchange words of affection. However, through camera movement, Curtiz allows the viewer to see past Mildred and Monty’s false feelings for each other. As Monty and Mildred embrace there is music in the background coming from a record player off screen. The record begins to skip and Mildred replies, “The record Monty, the record.” Just before Mildred says this Monty says, “When I’m close to you like this there’s a sound in the air like the beating of wings. Do you know what it is? My heart beating like a school boy’s.” To which Mildred replies: “I thought it was mine.” The camera then slowly pans right until it reveals the record player and the mirror image of Monty and Mildred embracing in the same shot. The viewer can now make the connection and understand that it is not their hearts beating. It is only the sound of the record player skipping along.
The setting of the beach house is important to the entire narrative of the film. The beach house in this scene provides the location for romance between Mildred and Monty and will later provide a location for Monty’s murder. Monty’s murder is a direct result of his bond with Mildred; therefore the beach house should provide a sense of foreshadowing for the viewer. A parallel can be drawn between Mildred and Veda through their intimate happenings with the same man at the same location (Mildred later discovers Veda and Monty kissing at the beach house). It is clear that “cinema setting can come to the forefront; it need not be only a container for human events but can dynamically enter the narrative action” (Bordwell, 115).
As Mildred opens Monty’s closet at the beach house she finds a large collection of bathing suits. Monty jokes, “They belong to my sisters”. However, they clearly belong to other lady friends of his because towards the end of the scene, in front of the fire, Monty states, “You’re very beautiful like that.” And Mildred jokingly replies, “I’ll bet you say that to all your sisters.” There is a very serious issue being alluded to here: the taboo of incest. This scene is foreshadowing the eventual relationship between Veda and her stepfather Monty. Incest is one of the worst ways a family can fall apart and it appears to be Mildred’s punishment in the film for her choice to be an independent career woman. This film sends a message to the audience of postwar America that women should find their places back in the home or their families will fall apart.
As Mildred and Monte converse in front of the fire another interesting point is brought up. Another message seems present and this one is intended to teach the men in the audience. Mildred asks, “And just what do you do, Mr. Beragon?” Monty replies, “Oh, I loaf in a decorative and highly charming manner.” Monte clearly lacks a career or any ambition to pursue one. In postwar America “woman were unceremoniously fired from their jobs in order to create employment opportunities for returning men” (Benshoff, 262). Society demanded that woman be in the home and that men be at the workplace. Mildred’s involvement with a man that doesn’t fit this mold consequently ends in her downfall and the deterioration of her family. The message presented in the film clearly outlines gender roles and what is expected of each sex in order to restore patriarichal order to America at this time. This message is also seen earlier in the film through Bert’s character. He cannot hold down a job and temporarily looses his family. He however has ambition to work and reunites with Mildred in the end of the film. Monte, however, is punished with death.
Mildred Pierce is an entertaining film with ulterior motives. In 1947, America was recovering from an economic crisis, altered gender roles, a deteriorated male population, and high divorce rates. Leave it to Hollywood to instruct American’s on how to set everything straight again. Not only does this film present a number of messages detailing the woman’s place in the home and the man’s place at work, but it also reflects a fear that woman had gained too much control, become too masculine, and would no longer be a link in healthy family units. Sixty years later, society has come a long way towards accepting women as important figures in the world’s career market. Although this film and others like it were successful in creating the “leave it to beaver” atmosphere of the 1950’s. It was only a short while before this ideal crumbled. Now men and women can compete on a more even playing field. Women need not be punished, like Mildred Pierce was, for pursuing a career.
Benshoff, Harry M., and Sean Griffin. “America on Film: Representing Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies.” Noir Film Coursebook, 2007. 260-264.
Bordwell, David, and Kristin Thompson. Film Art: an Introduction. 8th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008.
Cook, Pam. “Duplicity in Mildred Pierce.” Women in Film Noir. Ed. E. Ann Kaplan. London: British Film Institute, 2005. 69-79.
Mulvey, Laura.“Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Noir Film Coursebook, 2007. 833-844.
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