This ongoing experiment in film writing freezes a film at 10, 40, and 70 minutes, and keeps the commentary as close to those frames as possible. This week, I examine Mildred Pierce, directed by Michael Curtiz.
Mildred Pierce (1945, dir. Michael Curtiz)
Who is Mildred Pierce?
A commanding presence in the film (which is based on James M. Cain’s 1941 novel), taking up huge chunks of screen time, she remains as indecipherable at the end as she does at the beginning. Feminist icon? Insecure mother? Victim? Champion? All of these? None of these? Three years earlier, Michael Curtiz had directed Casablanca, filmed in all its glorious flatness. Here, there are flashes of expressionist deformity, as in this frame. Mildred’s suitor Wally (Jack Carson) happens across the dead body of Mildred’s second husband Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott) and in attempt to escape the scene, he knocks over the lamp. The action and lighting are choreographed anarchy, as the background is practically painted with shadows, angular and curved, trapping Wally — in classic noir fashion — in a cage of formless light and dark. A man trapped by circumstance, by fate. Wally’s body is just another object in motion, along with the falling lamp and the leaping shadows.
Mildred and her monstrous daughter Veda (Ann Blyth) trapped in a different sort domestic cage. They have just had an argument:
Mildred: You know, don’t you?
Veda: Know what? Know what, mother?
Mildred: You knew when you gave that uniform to Lottie that it was mine, didn’t you?
Veda: Your uniform?
Mildred: Yes. I’m waiting tables in a downtown restaurant.
Veda: My mother. A waitress.
Mildred: I took the only job I could get so you and your sister could eat and have a place to sleep and some clothes on your backs.
Veda: Aren’t the pies bad enough? Did you have to degrade us?
Mildred: Veda. Don’t talk like that.
Veda: I’m really not surprised. You’ve never spoken of your people — who you came from. So perhaps it’s natural. Maybe that’s why father . . . [Mildred slaps Veda]
Mildred, framed beneath the arch, gazes off camera as she justifies her actions and explains her dreams of opening her own restaurant to Veda, who stands like some dumb accuser. It is the strength of Joan Crawford’s fierce acting that she holds that gaze steady for so long, until you feel as if she is looking directly at you, even though she is not. This frame captures all the wonderful genre mash-ups in the film: melodrama, noir, thriller, romance, police procedural, even documentary of the break-up of an American family.
Mildred with Wally, who pines after her and who has helped her start her new restaurant. The frame exposes the film’s deeply conflicted ideology. As a business owner in 1945, a divorced woman, Mildred is someone who has come dangerously close to transgressing certain boundaries. She is at an office, not at home. Not only is she is at an office, but she sits in a position of authority, behind the desk, working the books, and Wally pleads with her. There is very little cutting to close-up in this scene. Instead, we see the full extent of Mildred’s power, and watch her uninterested face and body language as Wally pleads with her. And yet he has power too, as he has helped Mildred secure the loans for the restaurant. The film makes it clear that although Mildred runs the restaurant, it was men who capitalized it.
The Production Code governing the content of movies during this era stipulates that “correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.” Are Mildred’s behaviors — divorcing a husband, opening up her own restaurant so that she neglects her domestic “duties,” raising her daughter Veda to be a moral monster — are these behaviors “correct” in terms of the norms of the era? Mildred is punished at the end, but only sort of. She remains a cipher, a powerful woman who comes across as both admirably determined and strangely aloof.
William Faulkner had a hand in writing the screenplay. Who knows which lines he wrote, or how much he was drinking when he wrote them, or if he gave a twat about James M. Cain, or if the plasticity of Hollywood poisoned his noodle, or if he was bored in a Johnny Rotten way, but Veda’s admonition to her mother — “you’ve never spoken of your people — who you came from” — is like Absalom, Absalom! sucked through a black hole and coming out the other side in just that one accusation.
The past. Its own self-fulfilling vortex.
“who you came from”
Who you came from, Mildred Pierce?
Who is Mildred Pierce?