Mildred Pierce, a recent divorcee and mother of two daughters – Kay and Veda, soon realizes that she must acquire wealth to support her spoiled and materialistic daughter. Veda’s goal to acquire prestige, wealth and social status becomes Mildred’s main focus. The death of Kay intensifies Mildred desire to please Veda. Everything Mildred does become a first priority to Veda wants and desires. As Mildred’s business picks up Veda becomes more greedy and extravagant. Mildred realizes her daughter greed and materialistic nature. This realization is exposed when Veda pretends to be pregnant by wealthy Ted Forrester in order to deceive his family for $10,000. Mildred takes a short vacation to take her mind off Veda. When Mildred returns she finds Veda singing in a cheap club. This frustrates Mildred; and a mother’s love for her daughter proves inseparable. Veda blackmails her mother and will only return home if Mildred promises luxury. Mildred agrees to marry Monte Beragon in exchange for a third of her business. Veda and Monte begin to have an affair behind Mildred’s back. Mildred learns of their affair after Monte has sold his third of her business leaving her bankrupt. Mildred is determined for answers and yet discovers reality in the illusion of love.
Mildred Pierce was initially turned down for production because it violated the Production Code (1944). Joseph Breen of the MPPA wrote a letter on February 2, 1944 stating that, “the story contains so many sordid and repellent elements that we feel that the finished picture would not only be highly questionable from the standpoint of the Code, but would likewise, meet with great deal of difficulty in its release.” Furthermore, Mildred Pierce had created a mixture between film noir and melodrama that before its time had not been conceived of. This mixture added to its difficulty in been released by a studio. This atypical cynical film was nominated the following year for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress, Best Screenplay and Best B/W Cinematography.
Mildred Pierce is the story about an investigation of the murder of Mildred’s Pierce current husband, Monte Beragon. Mildred immediately confesses to the murder to protect her daughter Veda. The movie begins with the end of the action (the murder); this leads to the police office where the investigation begins. Mildred is brought to the police department to tell her story. Mildred’s understanding of the story is told through three major flashbacks in which we learn how she adopted from housewife to wealthy entrepreneur, from rational to irrational, from innocent to potential murderer and from wealthy to bankrupt. These flashbacks are essential to her story and false confession of the murder. Likewise, these flashbacks are the bulk of the story and add to its melodramatic qualities. I will analyze and define its genre(s) and its traits, and employ the aspects of social status between the characters with implications of their dominant and subordinate roles. Furthermore, this criticism will discuss the symbolic implications of the ocean and mirror portrayed in the movie. These symbolic connotations are important characteristics in the movie and prevail in the flashbacks and foreshadowing.
Mildred Pierce’s narrative is told with a flashback structure pertinent genre of film noir. Film noir is distinguished by a serious, somber, even gloomy tone; fast pace, complex texture; exaggerated contrast of light and shade; unusual angles and perspectives; voice-over narration; frequent flashbacks; settings mostly urban, interior, nocturnal. Consequently, film noir typically uses a 10:1 ratio of light and dark, rather than the more typical 3:1 ratio. Film noir in this sense is made up of deep shadows and carefully directed lightning. An example of noir is shown when Wally realizes Mildred has stood him up. He ascends up the spiraling staircase, visually entrapped by its circularity. The light to dark ratio intense as he frantically calls out for Mildred and searches for her, and for a way to get out of the house. His oversized shadow reflected on the wall represents his excitement. Wally discovers Monte’s body and then approaches the phone. The phone is identified in close-up, as he reaches for it, it begins to ring. Furthermore, this scene represents melodrama. It is melodramatic because it expresses strong visual expression and drama. Melodrama’s object is to keep the audience thrilled by the arousal of strong feelings of pity, horror, or joy. The audience becomes empathetic to Wally because we know he is innocent, and understands that Mildred is trying to set him up as the murderer. However, at this point we do not understand why Mildred wants to set up Wally.
This developing understanding leads us to the police station where Mildred begins to tell her story of the past and present through flashbacks. A voice-over usually introduces and accompanies a flashback to some prior action of event and is seen as the most narrative strategy in noir. It is seen as the most narrative strategy in noir because it may be a bridge between scenes, and a statement of facts needed by the viewer. Mildred’s story begins through the 1st flashback when Mildred recalls the unfolding events that led to the breakup of her first marriage and to the murder. In voice-over, Mildred first explains the end of the real estate business relation between Bert (her 1st husband) and Wally, and how she was always a traditional homemaker wife in her early 30’s. This voice-over includes the 1st of three flashbacks, and marks the beginning of Mildred’s confession. A flashback is a device by which a work presents material that occurred prior to the opening scene of the work. When the 1st flashback begins we begin to comprehend the story from Mildred’s point of view.
During this 1st flashback we learn that Veda the eldest daughter is spoiled and very materialistic. This is portrayed when Mildred receives the expansive dress in the mail for Veda. Bert is unemployed and upset that Mildred went out the way to by an expansive dress for unappreciative Veda. Bert than accuses Mildred of buying Veda’s love and admiration, and of channeling all her devotion to her children, especially to the demanding older daughter. Veda has been indulgently showered with gifts, nice clothes, and piano lesions, provided by Mildred’s sacrificial baking of pies and cakes. Bert feels neglected from his wife and has found consolation with another woman. Mildred’s love for Bert has become displaced and misguided to their daughter. They divorce and Mildred’s motive for everything remains firm: everything and anything for Veda.
Mildred acquires success after her youngest daughter Kay dies of phenomena. The death of Kay establishes an ambition for Mildred to please Veda with lavishness and wealth. Mildred establishes a chain of restaurants and immediately begins to acquire capital and wealth. The once traditional housewife becomes an innovative businesswoman. Monte Beragon an idle rich, overindulgent gigolo seduces Mildred and watches his investment. Like Veda, Monte is very callous, materialistic and extravagant. He pretends to love Mildred in order to obtain a part of her business.
Mildred is subordinate and foolish in respects to Veda and Monte. Veda declares to her Mildred that she can’t wait to get away from her and all her grease – implications of the social class. Veda and Monte is the protagonist in the story. Veda is the femme fatale and Monte is her counterpart in opposition to Mildred. This is a classic trait in film noir plot. Monte and Veda both thrust for social status and prestige. Furthermore, they both have power over Mildred. Veda is dominant over Mildred and has the power to control Mildred’s actions, which go against her own rationality. Everything Mildred does is because of Veda and because of this Monte is also dominant. He is dominant over Mildred because he knows her weaknesses and uses them to get what he wants. These characteristics have a deeper meaning and relates to Max Weber social stratification theory.
A class truly existed only when people become aware of their conflicting relation to other classes. As Veda grew older she became aware of her social class and became spoiled by her mother’s gifts. Therefore, she acquired a certain expectation and these expectations became prevalent when she meets Monte, who taught her how to be a profligate. However, her mother did not come from a rich family and did not value money like Veda. Mildred simply wanted money to please Veda, and went from a proletariat (working class) to a bourgeoisie (capitalists’ owner). This transition contradicts with the philosophy of the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Nevertheless, the bourgeoisie is usually dominant and powerful. Mildred is not dominated in the movie over Veda or Monte. Perhaps, this was done intentionally to represent social status. Whereas, Veda’s social status is more important to her character than power. Furthermore, Mildred was not a common bourgeois because she still participated in some of the labor. Monte on the other hand was a bourgeoisie because he never really participated in labor and lived off his family name and real estate. However, his averse to labor and excessive spending led to his downfall. Monte had sold all his rich real estate property, which led to bankruptcy. He exploited Mildred for money and accepted to marry Mildred for a third of her business.
The social status between the characters relates to Max Weber’s social stratification theory. Weber stated that society is stratified on the bases of economic, status and power. Weber also implicated that people can rank high on one or two of these dimensions of stratification and low on the other (or others). The concept of “class” refers to any group of people found in the same class (economic) situation. Status is different from class, whereas, status is a component of life and is determined by a specific positive or negative, social estimation of honor and prestige.
This relates to the characters in Mildred Pierce because it defines the main characters and their goals. Monte Beragon had established class because he was wealthy and well off. However, his extreme extravagance led to his downfall. Nevertheless, he was apart of a social class. Veda, on the other hand, had establishing class from her Mildred’s success. Veda and Mildred had gone from low-middle class to upper-middle class with the success of Mildred’s business. Veda and Monte shared a negative social status and fake prestige. Veda hated her mother because she worked to obtain her wealth, and hated her environment because it was made up of mostly working class people with very low social status from Veda’s perspective. An example, of this is when Veda first discovered that her mother was waiting tables prior to opening the chain of restaurants. Veda stated, “My mother – a waitress.” On the contrary, Mildred had a positive social status and a good estimation of honor. Her only crime if she was guilty of one – was of loving her daughter too much. Moreover, Veda and Monte’s social status consisted of a mask. They both pretended to be things that they were not. An example, of this is when Mildred told Veda to leave, and then later found Veda singing in a cheap club. This showed the audience that Veda really did not have any positive status or honor, and was not who she pretended to be. Furthermore, Monte masks were revealed when he begins borrowing money from Mildred, assimilating an affair with his own stepdaughter, and selling his third of the business behind Mildred’s back. These illusions amidst reality were also portrayed symbolically through the implications of the ocean and mirror portrayed in the movie.
The ocean symbolically reflects Mildred’s transformation and relationship with Monte Beragon. Furthermore, the ocean is initially seen as the credits roll. This opening image is important because it serves as a motif for the story. A motif is a simple element that serves as a basis for expanded narrative; or, less strictly, a conventional situation, device, interest, or incident. The ocean represents the motif because it is seen in times of transition of the movie. It is initially seen in the beginning as the oceanfront waves crash to the shore in the moonlight, ripping over and washing away each screen of cast and credits. This symbolically represents the changes that Mildred Pierce will become faced with and represents the death of Kay, and the deceit between her husband, Monte Beragon, and her daughter – Veda. The ocean is also represented in the beginning of the movie, after Mildred discovers the affair between Monte and Veda. She is distressed and tensed and is tempted to commit suicide by jumping into the dark ocean. The ocean also reflects the renovation of Mildred Pierce and the destined financial freedom she deserves. The ocean washes away the old and restores the new. Moreover, it is represented at the beach house scene when Mildred and Monte dive into the ocean. This scene is important because it not only represents the beginning of the transformation, but also the beginning of her relationship with the dissolute, licentious, immoral squander – Monte Beragon.
Monte Beragon seduces Mildred in the beach house scene. He describes Mildred as, “very beautiful like that…you take my breath away. 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 schoolboy’s.” He confesses admiration for Mildred, yet does not truly mean it. Monte like Veda is incapable of loving some else because they are self-centered, selfish and greedy. Furthermore, Monte’s words go against what the camera illustrates. The camera pans over to the record player, and then further to the wall mirror, where the reflected image shows them kissing. Two images of Mildred are presented and the audience realizes that the initial shot was not real; rather, it was a reflection in the mirror on the closet door. This mirror is symbolically significant because it distinguishes reality from illusion. It distinguishes Monte’s true character and motives. The notion of reality and illusion is emphasized again at the end of the beach house scene. Monte wants us to believe that he is passionate and dignified. However, like the mirror, the music on the record player playing as they kiss represents false emotions. The frame of this shot is shown with the record player on one side, and the mirror reflecting their embrace on the other. The sound in the air that Monte referred to as his beating heart was literally the sound of the record player skipping along rhythmically like heartbeats.
The beach house scene represents a thematic message to the audience. What is illusion and reality? Furthermore, the theme concludes on the certainty that one cannot buy love and most understand the difference between honest love and dishonest love. Therefore, the love of money separates lovers and families. It takes on a distinction of it own – when people make money the reason for everything. The aspect of dominance and subordinate relates to love and social class. The bourgeoisie (property owners) love to aspire and sustain wealth. However, in this movie the genuine reality of the bourgeoisie (property owners) losing everything they acquire by letting their guard down to love. True love (maternal or conjugal) should never be jealous, boastful or selfish. Mildred lost everything she had worked for. The one living thing she loved had turned on her repeatedly, and used her continually until the illusion in the midst of the reality revealed itself.
Ritzer, George. Classical Sociological Theory 4th Edition. University of Maryland. Mc. Graw Hill. Boston. 2004.
Turim, Maureen. Flashbacks in Film: Memory and History. Routeledge, 1989.