Mildred Pierce is a good example of a film that demands a particular kind of reading, no matter one’s best efforts to avoid the rather unavoidable gender issues inherent in classic American film noir. The sexism and racism of this film is striking if not shocking, and apparently it has a strong historical foundation to support it. First, to show my cards: Pamela Robertson, “Structural Irony in Mildred Pierce, or, How Mildred Lost Her Tongue.” Cinema Journal in Vol. 30, no. 1 (Autumn 1990), pp. 42-54. This is a good article that seems to be missing only a minor point of the film.
Mildred Pierce is a mystery, a whodunit?, as indicated by its opening scene of a murder. We are given a view of the man being murdered and are allowed not only to see his reaction but hear him utter the name “Mildred” as he gasps after being shot. The name has a few functions at this early juncture. Perhaps most deliberately on the part of the director/writer, the name offers a hint as to who might have committed the crime, though a savvy viewer will guess that the film probably wouldn’t give away the doer of the deed so early and obviously. Second, the name of Mildred alerts the viewer for the second time as to who is the most important character in the film. (The first indication would be the film’s title.) Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the viewer already has it in his/her mind now that Mildred, at some level, actually is responsible for the murder, though (as we discover later) she didn’t actually pull the trigger. From beginning to end, then, Mildred Pierce is a film that lays the blame of the climactic crime on its title character.
The film’s diegetic “present” is in a police station; the rest of the film being flashbacks from Mildred’s point-of-view, or so we are to believe. Mildred’s interrogation establishes the film’s main point: she is not in charge, nor should she be. The officer questioning her is usually shot from behind, de-personalizing him and objectifying him as the source of truth and authority. Mildred may be narrating the story, but he is the arbiter of truth. At the police station, Mildred is forced to wait and to keep quiet for hours prior to her questioning. Significantly, the men are questioned first, and once Mildred is brought in, she is told that her testimony is no longer needed, that they have determined who committed the crime. In the end, it turns out that this claim from the police is a ploy in order to get Mildred to put the final brush strokes on the “true” version of the story. Once she does so, the officer still shrugs off her testimony, telling her that they already had the key to what happened; they simply needed her to turn it. Being the woman that she is, she is fooled into doing just that.
Mildred’s narration abruptly changes the setting of the film from the shadowy police station to the brightly-lit kitchen where she is clad in an apron, contentedly at home doing her feminine/maternal duties. It has been pointed out that while the police are seeking an objective testimony of the facts behind the crime, Mildred is instead only capable of providing feminine testimony: inherently subjective, feelings-oriented, and located in the feminine spatial context. However, it isn’t long after Mildred starts to tell her account of the background of the crime and the crime itself when she loses the power over her narration to the “implied filmmaker” (Roberton’s term). For one thing, shots are composed rarely from Mildred’s point of view, especially when Mildred herself (or another woman) is being physically objectified on account of her gender. When her male interest walks through the door of her diner, the camera is situated on the other side of Mildred in order to put Mildred’s legs, hanging from a ladder, between the camera and the man entering. That Mildred is doing the work of changing a light bulb (a masculine task) is irrelevant. Her legs are the focus, and if there were any doubt, the man’s eyes and overall expression confirms the fact.
The film features scenes like this throughout, scenes that could not be from Mildred’s point of view, because she could not have seen them happening. This is particularly true in one instance where Mildred was utterly absent and could not have known about it – as Wally, Veda, and her new husband drink champagne. Once Mildred’s narration reaches the point of the crime itself, the flashback ends. Now her dialogue is accompanied by the present footage of her telling the officer what happened. As we discover soon after, this account is flawed. The implied filmmaker, once again, has priority over Mildred’s own telling of the events. Only once the officer tells her what really happened is the viewer privy to the images of the crime.
Further, Mildred herself confesses to the officer that divorcing Ted was a mistake on her part, that he is a good man and could not have committed the crime. Though Veda committed the crime, it was Mildred’s incessant pampering of Veda that led to it. Just as Mildred’s neglect of Kay is implied to have led to Kay’s premature death, so Kay’s death made Mildred all the more determined to spoil Veda with every material possession Mildred herself could never have had.
It turns out that this film was released in 1945 just as the troops were returning home from the war. It also turns out that the film overtly attempted to reinstate masculine authority after a period of women running many of the businesses in the country. The film’s middle has Mildred a successful businesswoman and entrepreneur, opening a series of restaurants and operating them with Ida, her female partner. (Interestingly, Mildred may be successful in her business, but by being in the restaurant business, the film manages to keep her in the kitchen.) Mildred’s eventual business failure confirms Ted’s initial suspicion: that Mildred can’t manage without him (or at least some man in her life). Robertson does well to point out the masculinizing of Mildred and Ida, both of whom assume distinctly male characteristics as they climb the business ladder. They begin to drink their liquor straight-up, they wear male clothes, they talk “man-to-man,” and they identify with emasculated men (e.g., Monte, Wally, etc.). Robertson also identifies an incestuous component between Mildred and Veda. The idea is that the shots tend to objectify Veda through Mildred and link her with an object of desire. However, if all the above is true regarding Mildred’s loss of POV to the implied filmmaker, this may be a weak point. What Robertson fails to point out is that Mildred’s other daughter, Kay, was herself highly masculinized prior to her death. Much more boyish in character than Veda, Kay dresses in boy’s clothes, doesn’t care about dresses and primping herself like Veda, and states at one point to her mother, “I know, I should have been a boy!” She makes the statement very lightly and in passing, without any offense at all. Like Ida, Kay is a character close to Mildred who has lost her femininity and who essentially dies. While Kay’s character literally dies (of pneumonia), Ida’s character symbolically dies by virtue of her identification with Mildred’s business, which ends up utterly failing. These female characters are micro-versions of the character of Mildred, who, after trying to adapt herself to be masculine in a male world, ends up failing. Mildred’s failure, worst of all, extends beyond the realm of business to her moral failure which turns Veda into a murderer.