Precious Bodily Fluids

Mildred Pierce

Surrounded

Surrounded

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.

Crisp focusing...

Crisp focusing...

...soft focusing

...soft focusing

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 interrogated...

The interrogated...

...briefly the interrogator

...briefly the interrogator

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.

Right at home

Right at home

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.

"I like your ladder."

"I like your ladder."

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.

Taking after mommy dearest

Taking after mommy dearest

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.

One of the boys

One of the boys

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.

Full gender reversal - she's in business & he's wearing an apron

Full gender reversal - she's in business; he's in an apron

Objectifying herself?

Objectifying herself?

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This entry was published on September 14, 2008 at 7:22 pm. It’s filed under 1940s Cinema, American film and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

7 thoughts on “Mildred Pierce

  1. I heartily disagree with your feminist critique, but I must say you are very persuasive. It seems you have a pre-conception and then see only in the film what supports that belief. I assume you are woman, though I wonder why you cloak your blog in anonymity, but that is just by the by.

    An aging male baby-boomer, I see Mildred Pierce, differently. Some from the opening scenes of the movie, mistakenly see Mildred as a femme-fatale, after all she does try to frame Wally for Monte’s murder. So when first we meet Mildred she is not passive but assertive, and later we know she is acting instinctually as a mother in a hopeless effort to save here no-good daughter. The whole police station sequence can be analysed fairly reasonably without reference to gender politics: the framing and mise-en-scene are classic police-procedural with the cop in authority and the “suspect” untrustworthy.

    We then move to the domestic sphere. Mildred bakes all day to supplement her husband’s income, throwing him out when admits his infidelity, and then, confidently repulses the vulture advances of Wally.

    Mildred’s doting on Veda is complex, but is perhaps an attempt to keep close to her a daughter who becomes more of a stranger with each passing day. Kay is not neglected, she is a strong gorgeous child that is testimony to loving and caring parenting. Her death is not a punishment, it is a tragedy in a melodramatic noir universe, where fate is captive to capricious chance. Veda fate is already sealed by her vanity and selfishness.

    While Mildred makes tragic mistakes and misplaces her trust and love, she is always true to herself, and in even in her darkest hour towers above the morass of greed and selfishness that would suck her down. Mildred pursues honest hard-work and ambition, but her dreams are destroyed by the wastrel conceit and shameless greed of men. It is the homme-fatale, Monte, that grooms Veda into a murderer. This picture is as strong an indictment of the moral corrosiveness of wealth and privilege as Hollywood has achieved.

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  3. I appreciate your honesty and thoughts – I apologize for taking awhile to reply, but I wanted to give your response the time it deserved. I will try to address everything you discussed in order.

    I fully admit that I came to this film with preconceptions and saw the film through that grid. Welcome to critical analysis. The Greeks had established that this is an epistemological condition of the human race long before Kant showed up to remind us all that no one is “objective.” If you knew my background, you would laugh at the assertion that I am a “feminist,” and if we were to meet face-to-face, you would laugh at the assertion that I am a woman (I hope). The article that I referenced at the beginning of this post was written from a rather feminist point of view, but I didn’t read it until after I had watched the film and come to the same general conclusion. The article was helpful in identifying specific instances of the themes I am sure are present in the film.

    That being said, I don’t think most films from this era and in this genre were made with the particular intent of being misogynistic. I think it was in the air at the time, as they say. The field of psychoanalysis is useful here. Artists may not always be conscious of themes and ideas present in their work, but in the same way that you may have identified unconscious feminist tendencies in my writing (I’ll admit the possibility), someone like Michael Curtiz may very well have been “old-fashioned” (to put it nicely) regarding gender issues.

    Granted, we’re talking about a genre of film with certain conventions. Curtiz, however, I think was playing with those conventions in a subtle and ingenious way. Joan Crawford, you are right, is not presented as the femme fatale that, say, Rita Hayworth plays in Gilda. However, I attempted to show that both cinematically as well as historically (see the note about WWII), her character returns to the position in which film noir tends to put women: subservient to men, powerless, and morally deficient.

    I think that your depiction of Mildred as a good mother who has a no-good daughter is naive. The two daughters actually reinforce my point regarding gender depiction in the film. Kay is clearly, multiple times, presented as a very boyish girl, and she is good. It is a tragedy when she dies. Veda, on the other hand, is full of femininity in her desires, her self-presentation, and in Mildred’s identification with her (Mildred makes clear that she wants Veda to have everything Mildred herself didn’t have at her age). Further, Mildred’s treatment of Veda more than qualifies as spoiling her. By giving Veda everything she wants, Mildred enables Veda to become increasingly arrogant and selfish, shortcomings which directly lead to her killing Monte.

    You mentioned the framing of the police station scenes and its lack of reference to gender issues. Sure, it’s a conventional setup. But whether or not Curtiz was conscious of it, it’s another instance of male domination that might have been negated by Mildred’s eventual empowerment or vindication. But, as she was not vindicated but rather blamed (albeit indirectly), the framing and mise-en-scene reinforce Mildred’s subjection to the men in charge.

    When I said that Kay’s death works as a sort of “punishment,” I meant that, in the larger context of the film’s structure, it is one of the Mildred’s many punishments that begin as soon as she kicks her husband out of the house. Yes, she is assertive. But one will notice that when Mildred is questioned as to “what happened” regarding Monte’s murder, this is where she begins. The implicit confession is that this all started with her taking action and assuming authority.

    I’m not sure about Monte as an “homme-fatale.” A problem with this is the film’s presentation of Monte. Sure, he’s a bad guy. But, though you may dislike the terminology, he is a castrated man. The reason why he meets Mildred in the first place is because he needs money, and this condition doesn’t change. Mildred becomes the man in their relationship, lending him money as she works and he assumes the more maternal role of spending time with Veda. (Of course, his intentions turn out to be warped.) In a word, Monte is not presented as a “real man.” And though he and the other men in the film are very flawed in character, interestingly, none of them commits a murder, and none of them takes responsibility for the murder. Veda kills, and Mildred claims fault.

    That being said, I completely agree with your last sentence regarding the film as an indictment of moral corrosion of wealth and privilege.

    As for this blog being “cloaked in anonymity,” hmm. Maybe I like believing that if people don’t know, say, what gender I am, they will give my thoughts a more objective reading. No, actually, I’ve just had a couple of bumps in the past with people who used things against me (personally). Once my enemies are out of the picture, maybe the blog will change.

    Again, thanks for your thoughts. I’ll try to include more film noir stuff so as to maintain the dialog.

  4. Thank you for taking so much effort with your reply. You have certainly given me more to think about. I look forward to more posts from you on film noir.

    On reflection, my opening remarks on anonymity and your gender were pretty stupid, and I apologise.

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