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Daily Dose of Darkness #8: Seeing You for the First Time (Scene from Mildred Pierce)

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Ciao.

 

-- How do you feel the noir influence operates in this scene from Mildred Pierce?

The background music has a dramatic tone that describes well the increasing tension between the characters.

 

-- How does Curtiz arrange these two actresses to heighten the tension of the scene? Pay attention to how they move and how they are framed in the scene, especially the use of close-ups.

The actresses start to move from the right (normal) to the left (drama) of the scene and every time the tension rises the camera alternately close-up to the actresses with a spot of light over their faces (top left to right direction). At the end of the scene the background music dramatically rises, covering all the sound.

 

-- In what ways can this scene from Mildred Pierce be considered as an important contribution to the film noir style?

This scene shows two female characters, one acting as the bad, the other like the good. 

 

Roberto

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The Noir Assault on Mom and Apple Pie...

 

In fact, in Mildred Pierce, pie (and later fried chicken) was a featured player. Hmm-m-m, home cooking, is there a message here? Yep. As a previous post astutely observes, one of the less talked-about elements of film noir, is the perverse way the genre portrayed the family, and in particular, wives and mothers. Not only was Mildred Pierce one of the few films noir to have female protagonists, but it featured a new kind of family unit: a cheating father, and a toxic mother/daughter tag team who pushed all the action (and each other).

 

As most of us must have noticed, women in Noir World were either "bad"(fascinatingly dangerous) and thus, controlled by plenty of threats and verbal and/or physical abuse or they were "good" (colorless, boring), and therefore, ignored and marginalized.  

 

Some bad girls eventually mended their ways and became "good," but in Mildred Pierce, we see a good, long suffering mom and homemaker finally wake up and smell the napalm (sorry, wrong movie)...the rat. Not only does Mildred become a career woman, but she stands up to her vile and ungrateful daughter, finally slapping her (yes, it was a real wallop) and even threatening to kill her. ("Mother!!!!) Meanwhile, Veda The Loathsome is everything a gangster should be: greedy, vicious, and utterly without conscience, demeaning Mom and even stealing her supposedly rich slacker boyfriend--superbly played with oily charm by Zachery Scott (Ditto in the great "Flamingo Road" with Joan Crawford). In all, this is the post-WWII fantasy of idyllic home life going down the drain with last night's pot luck. 

 

For an expert's commentary on this key issue, check out the Featured Essay, "No Place For a Woman: The Family Unit in Film Noir," found in Film Noir Studies section on the Canvas website. It is fascinating and well worth the time of anyone who wants to better understand film noir...all of us, right? 

 

 

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Q: How does Curtiz arrange these two actresses to heighten the tension of the scene? Pay attention to how they move and how they are framed in the scene, especially the use of close-ups.

 
A: The scene begins with Mildred standing while Veda sits on a couch. This shot establishes what should be the symbolism of this relationship. The physicality of the mother standing above her daughter is symbolic of being above her in age, wisdom, experience and authority. However, the scene quickly shifts as Mildred makes her way behind the couch. Veda is suddenly in the center of the frame, symbolic of how things have been all along: all about Veda. Veda has been the center of her mom's life and focus and of course is the center of her own world. As Veda rises from the couch and makes her way to the forefront of the frame, Mildred in the background, she suddenly has the upper hand in the scene as she reveals her plan to dupe her beau with a fake pregnancy and take the money and run. The use of closeups is useful as Mildred and Veda exchange some pretty heated and personal words. Having the closeups on both allows the viewer to feel a sense of intensity while simultaneously getting closer to the emotions Mildred feels and getting closer to the heart of what Veda's true intentions and feelings towards her mother are. 

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This scene from Mildred Pierce begins with a long take of 54 seconds.  The overall action is leading toward a rupture in Veda’s relationship with Mildred, resulting in Veda’s departure.  There are two exits from the room where this confrontation takes place:  the door to the house and the winding staircase that leads upstairs.  In the first part of the long take, Veda and Mildred are separated by the door in the center of the picture.  The venetian blinds on the window behind Mildred add what might be considered a little touch of noir.  When Mildred moves behind the couch, Veda turns and forms a sort of diagonal constellation with Mildred, the door still prominent on the right side of the picture.  As the long take continues, Veda moves around to join Mildred behind the couch, and the winding staircase, with its mix of vertical and diagonal lines forms the backdrop behind the two women.  The close-up on Mildred that begins at 0.55 shows the diagonal shadow of the venetian blinds on the wall behind her.  In the next medium shot of Veda and Mildred that begins at 1:00, we see the winding staircase between them, much as the door appeared between them in the opening of the long take.  The close-up of Veda that begins at 1:17 features the staircase behind her and the diagonal pattern on the lampshade.  The same elements are repeated in the next few shots as the conversation turns more heated.  This culminates in the physical confrontation on the staircase, the torn up check, and the slap Veda delivers to her mother’s cheek.  The scene ends with Veda using the winding staircase to escape the room.  To me, these are the visual  elements that point to the influence of the noir style on Curtiz’s female melodrama in addition to the “cynical and twisted” story elements identified by Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton.

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-- How does Curtiz arrange these two actresses to heighten the tension of the scene? Pay attention to how they move and how they are framed in the scene, especially the use of close-ups

 

Clearly the the actresses are arranged in a manner of who has the power. At first Crawford does whith her questioning of Blyth, whith Crawford above and behind Blyth. Then the staging starts tow sway as Blyth spins around on the couch to answer. Blyth then risies and they are on a equal playing field as Blyth explains that she may not be pregnant. This leads to the confrontation, and as the power is shifted Blyth is above Crawford on the staircase. Blyth then slaps Crawford. Crawford takes back the power by telling Blyth to get out of her house. Then the close up of Crawford, I expected remorse, and for Crawford to start crying, however Crawford holds her ground and is solem.

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This scene from Mildred Pierce is rich in film noir influence. Veda lies, languid, lazy, catlike as she revels in the fact that she has taken money from her poor, naïve ex-husband's family in a sordid way. Most girls would shy away from the reputation that she just created for herself, but not Veda. It is all about the money and prestige that money can buy. It is not reputation that concerns her. It is sheer greed.

She "lies" on the couch and as Mildred, with perfect posture and bearing, speaks of the poor boy, Veda mocks her, moving like an animal kneeling on the couch baiting her mother.

Veda gets up and approaches her mother, still mocking her.

Mildred grabs her by the shoulders when she realized Veda has lied in such a horrifying way, but Veda turns her back to her.

They have a "face to face" confrontation, full frontal verbal assault. Veda shows her hatred and condescension of her mother and what she has had to endure to make the money Veda so desperately wants, but it is not enough.

The close up on Mildred, then, shows absolute shock as she says, "I am seeing you for the 1st time - cheap and horrible."

Veda, stands defiant and heads up the stairs and stands above Mildred, but Mildred does not back down, and grabs her purse and tears up the check as Veda slaps her. Mildred falls but stands right back up, and with the her shadow on the wall behind her tells Veda to "Get out before I kill you."

Amazing scene.

The movement of the two of them remind me of the parrying of swordsmen and their back and forth body movements. Mildred has finally recognized Veda for who she really is, and although she has been told time and again, she has not opened her eyes until now. Veda does not hold back.

She is beautiful, wears beautiful clothes but like the characters in most film noir movies, she is rotten to the core. Mildred is tainted, too, because of her misplaced love for her ungrateful daughter. She has been willing to do things to get ahead that go against her code - her divorce so she could get the restaurant, consorting with men she doesn't really care for. She is not above the things Veda does; her reasons are not as purely selfish as Veda's, but they are still bad and in the end, they all pay a price for it.

I am not totally sure, but is that a Gardenia corsage Veda is wearing. It looks like it. Gardenias are a symbol of "secret love." I am assuming this is the case because there are no accidents in direction and decisions. I kept noticing the giant flower corsages and thought they must mean something. (He sent Mildred a orchid, by the way, that symbolizes wealth and luxury.)

What a great device! Mildred is looking at Veda finally for the first time and Veda is flaunting her relationship right in front of her eyes, but Mildred is still completely unaware! Right in plain sight, but Mildred is still blind to it.

 

This movie is an important contribution because is shows that the film noir style is applied to other types of film rather than just the gritty detective movies, although there is a mystery and detectives in this one, as well. It just signals that film noir influence has changed the way popular movies would be made after that time. The camera angles, the style, the symbolism could be used in other genres. In Mildred Pierce, the main character is a woman, who is not so cynical as she is driven and sociopathic in her need to please her child. The daughter is definitely the femme fatale like in film noir films.  She is beautiful, stylish and immoral in all ways. She will do anything, hurt anyone to get her way. The second husband, is a rich playboy with no scruples whatsoever, even having an unhealthy relationship with an underage girl who he had no real interest in. However, unlike some film noir movies there are some good characters, who are not so tainted - the ex-husband Burt, her friend Ida. Not all of them are bad and in the end, Burt and Mildred are brought together in the face of tragedy of one of their daughters. Not exactly a happy ending, but hopeful just the same.

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This film, with all of it's noir characterizations, certainly makes a strong case for noir being a style or movement as opposed to a genre. This is clearly a female melodrama but with a noir undertone.

 

This verbal battle between mother and daughter is all about control, and where these two actresses are positioned tells the story. At first, we have Joan Crawford's Mildred dominating the exchange with her standing over Ann Blyth's Veda on the couch. Once Veda reveals her true feelings and dark intentions, the two stand side by side, equal at that moment. Next, we see Veda on the stairwell, one stair above her mother. Once Veda slaps her mother is where we see a complete shift in power. Mildred can do nothing.

 

This is still a melodrama with it's wild piano swings and dramatic delivery, but there's certainly noir elements here. The clever use of a spiral staircase symbolizing the twisted motives of Veda. We see this both in the foreground and then used as part of the action at the end. Having watched this film a couple times already, I can say there's plenty more German expressionist angles and shots similar to that staircase.The exposition and harsh tone by a normally kind daughter character is certainly noir, but through the lens of a daughter is startling and shocking - especially I'm sure in 1945.

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1. How would you compare the opening of to the opening ofMinistry of Fear?


 


In the clock symbolizes the mother's workday with a cuckoo reminder of the noonday mealtime for her child. In MOF, Lang opens with not just a clock but a heavy wall clock with an ominous pendulum striking a note of fear to supplement the film title. In M, time moves quickly and much happens in the first 5 minutes whereas in MOF, time is the enemy and a man alone in a dark room staring at a clock is most of the opening. 


 


2. Describe in your own words how Fritz Lang uses the clock in this scene as a major element to set mood and atmosphere.


 


The clock inside the room moves 1 minute from 5:55 to 5:56 and it took so long that we feel the s-l-o-w-n-e-s-s of the time crawling for the man awaiting his freedom. When the doctor enters the room, it is almost 6:00 and the doc regrets not having had the clock re-sprung to keep accurate time. Thus, the clock representing time is inaccurate, frustrating, and antagonistic.


 


3. In what ways can this opening scene from Ministry of Fear be considered as an important contribution to the film noir style?


 


The opening forces viewers to focus on time in the most negative ways: heavy, slow, unfair in the inmate having had to stay too log in the asylum. yet, upon his departure, we see the heavy, dark overview of the camera showing us the spiky, ominous shadows that resemble clutching fingers on the gate. Are the shadows of darkness clutching the exiting character? Will he be trapped in time?

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1. How do you feel the noir influence operates in this scene from Mildred Pierce?


 


Noir operates by establishing the villain immediately as the daughter who callously lies about being pregnant and is unconcerned at her mother discovering the true reason underlying her avariciousness. We are influenced to pity the unsuspecting, loving mother who is so willing to throw all her support behind her child while at the same time, we marvel at how the main character has been holding her blinders so tightly that she refused to see the real Veda.


 


2. How does Curtiz arrange these two actresses to heighten the tension of the scene? Pay attention to how they move and how they are framed in the scene, especially the use of close-ups. 


 


The scene unfolds with Mildred standing and Veda partly reclining. During the exposition, their positions become equivalent, as each stands but Mildred gets the first close-up so that we are expected to understand her more as a victim, as the protagonist being betrayed by a loved one upon whom she has lavished a lifetime of love and devotion.


 


Veda's brutality both in her vicious speech and in her powerful slap after Mildred rips the bribery check have the effect of being gut-punched, as seen by Veda's height over Mildred on the stairs. Mildred's heart is "pierced" by Veda's admission.


 


3. In what ways can this scene from Mildred Pierce be considered as an important contribution to the film noir style?


 


The shifting POV, the contrast of Veda's large white shoulder flower against a background of her dark dress, the depth of the betrayal, and the ambiguity of their future paths once "kill you" is said by the protagonist to the antagonist are all aspects of noir style.

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How do you feel the noir influence operates in this scene from Mildred Pierce?

 

This scene is oozing with the noir influence, covering just about every topic that could be a serious taboo at that time: a possible pregnancy outside of marriage, blackmail, defiance of a parent--

 

-- How does Curtiz arrange these two actresses to heighten the tension of the scene? Pay attention to how they move and how they are framed in the scene, especially the use of close-ups. 

 

Curtiz arranges our views of the two in a way that is calculated to allow us to see their facial reactions to their respective statements (especially when Veda gives her reasons for doing what she did); but other parts of the scene are aided by our being able to see their physical movements accenting their words, from Veda's playful, almost child-like movements throughout the scene (on the sofa, fidgeting with her hands) as she recounts what she did, to Mildred grabbing her arm to ask her if she is going to have a baby. As they move towards the stairs, we can anticipate the logical progression of the heated exchange to something dramatic happening, and it does, after Mildred tears up that check. From a technical standpoint, it is convenient for the scene to end at the stairs, where Veda can leave (upstairs and out of the shot), leaving us with the close-up of Mildred, leaving us to wonder who's right and whose wrong, here?

 

-- In what ways can this scene from Mildred Pierce be considered as an important contribution to the film noir style?

 

Again, there are many dark elements present in this scene; the subject matter of the conversation was very delicate for its time, and perhaps upsetting to many, but certainly not foreign to many families, who just may have preferred to have this sort of thing left out of a movie. But film noir style takes us to the boundary with those subjects about which we might feel uneasy and I have to think that this sort of a scene must have provoked many a conversation about morality, among those who saw it.

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This is one of my favorite films in the noir style.  The framing of this dialog as it slowly goes in closer and closer gets just more intimate and more extreme as it goes along.  It's brilliant.  Honestly I bet this movie was very edgy in its time.  It's a very dark plot.  You don't often see 2 women playing this role in old school noir but its that same dark and gritty dialog you get from all the noir movies.

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Ha! The access to this message board can be really exclusive sometimes ;)

 

But I can finally share some thoughts on this memorable scene from Mildred Pierce:

 

This scene is really emotional. We start with Veda lying on the sofa, smiling and Mildred "still standing", a worried mother. She thinks Veda is pregnant and really worries about her future. And Veda? She is more considered with the look on her boyfriend's face then her own situation. What's more the whole thing seems to be really funny to her. She sees Mildred is worried and she laughs ever more. Veda mocks Mildred can't wait to start knitting "little garments" - things she wouldn't even bother to do. The situation is getting more and more tense. We feel the disdain Veda has for the whole situation, the mother and the boy she's just got money from. She feels great. And you know why? Because she knows she fooled everyone and she's not even pregnant, but she got what she wanted - the money. But that's not enough, she wants her mother to suffer, so she suggests she lied to everyone. Mildred is shocked. She realises what kind of beast she raised. Veda will do everything for money, even blackmail. She is very proud of herself and literally feeds on other's emotions, their pain, despair. Mildred cannot understand how did this happen, she thought she gave the girl everything - she worked very hard to make ends meet, she made a success and what's more she tried to run a regular household and do everything mothers usually do for her children. And that wasn't enough! Veda feels more and more powerful and starts to attack Mildred, like a little wild animal. She tells her mother "the truth" - that she'll get the money no matter what and she'll do it only for one reason - to get away from Mildred who is too poor, "motherish" and simply "a common frump whose father lived over a grocery store and whose mother took in washing". She shouted that right into her mother's face - she may as well grab a giant knife and stab her right between the eyes! And when she was shouting all those horrible words, Mildred just snapped. She grabbed her daughter, took away the cheque and simply torn it. Veda slapped her. Mildred fell in disbelief... She stared at Veda for a moment and then she stood up, still looking at Veda, but very coldly and simply told her "get out before I kill you"... Her eyes told everything - pain, sorrow, humiliation. At this very moment Veda broke Mildred's heart.

The moment when Veda had advantage and was charging at Mildred, she was showing contempt: lying on the sofa and having her feet on the table, kneeling on the same sofa while mocking her knitting. Telling her mother to "grow up" while showing such immaturity herself was the ultimate impudence. No matter what Veda says Mildred stands firmly. She's been through so much you cannot easily brake her. And when finally Veda slaps her, Mildred falls for the first time. But Veda preponderates only for a second - the real heroin stands up and shows who is really the boss. We may deliberate whether throwing her daughter out was a parental defeat or not, but I think at this very moment she had no choice. Veda crossed the last line and Mildred did what she had to. And all that "brave and bold" Veda could do is to run upstairs. 
The truth is Veda always wanted to be like her mother. She imitates her - look at her dress, at her hairdo! Veda wanted to be noticed so badly she was provoking mother all the time - simply checking how far can she go, how much Mildred will forgive her. A really unhappy girl, blaming everyone and everything for not living a perfect life like her friends (no father, no normal family, financial problems, when the father left). Many kids from broken homes feel that way. She is not a femme fatale although she really wants to be one. Veda acts like a spoilt brat and cuts off her nose to spite her face, just to make Mildred suffer. 
The truth is they are both very unhappy and lonely, mother and daughter. They cannot cope with the whole situation emotionally. Mildred had to learn how to be strong, had to deny all her feelings and weaknesses. She is a truly tragic heroin, one of the classic noir female protagonists. The world is ruthless, but at least she fought, she fought very hard for her dignity and happiness. Like many women in real life. It's a really bitter movie, but so true. That's why many women identified themselves with Mildred Pierce back then and that is why the film was so succesful. And Joan Crawford is brilliant...

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Noir is felt from the onset of the scene, both women, dressed in black standing opposite each other. The daughter with her blossomed flower at her shoulder tells us that she is not a little girl. It is a showdown of the power struggle between a hardworking mother and her arrogant and entitled daughter. Not the typical All-American family. At first, as Veda is seated and then kneeling below her mother, the daughter is haughty and manipulative, playfully so. But when tension escalates, Veda assumes the dominant position on the stairs, setting up for the ultimate show of power between women, the slap. It is dark, it is passionate and it is warped. The close-ups add to the cat and mouse play between the two women, the fear of one woman and the arrogance of the other.

 

Mildred Pierce fits nicely into the film noir genre. It is the iniquitous delight that has found its way into the life of the female ego. Girl gone bad. How contemporary.

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Veda definitely takes on the traits of a femme fatale common to film noir: ruthless, cunning, menacing, dangerous. However this packaging is somewhat more disturbing as instead of asserting power over a man to bring him to his doom, it is a daughter asserting power over her mother. Veda is quick to belittle, insult and domineer over her mother and seems to have no qualms about doing so. It's a disturbing scene as almost always you see a parent asserting their will on their children, for good or bad. Mildred is practically helpless as she sees the depths to which her daughter is willing to go to further her own agenda. It's unsettling and we feel as powerless as Mildred does to stop her. The close-ups of Veda's sneering and Mildred's anguish as the realization of what her daughter has become helps to enhance the audience's response to this conflict. Having seen the film, even as a small child Veda was very selfish and entitled and it's no surprise she turns out to be the woman she does in this scene: doing whatever it takes to get what she wants, in this case money to escape her childhood home.

 

The movement of the two actresses reinforces the power struggle between the two, After opening with Veda lying on the couch and her mother hovering over her in the background, Mildred is forced to follow Veda around the room as she tried to catch up to her daughter's actions. They both wear similar stark black dresses, showing you that while they look alike, they most certainly do not act alike. The scene ends with Mildred continuing to follow Veda up the stairs where she now physically towers over her mother as opposed to before where they were on equal footing, but Veda's verbal assault makes Mildred feel small. Finally, in an effort to seize her power back, Mildred rips up the check, only to receive a slap and being pushed further down to the floor. Finally, Mildred re-asserts her own strength and Veda is no longer looming over her mother. She sends her daughter fleeing up the stairs, crying at the loss of her power, and this time doesn't follow her.

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HBO Mini Series vs Film vs the Novel

 

After watching the mini series I too was puzzled by how different the series was from the Joan Crawford film so I decided to read the novel and see how close each version was to the original story line. I realize that adaptations may grab only interesting and salient aspects of a story that translate visually, allow for character development and move the story along. The book was actually closer to the HBO series. Veda is actually a bit younger in the book but still has "issues." I think that Mildred Pierce was adapted to bring out everything Joan Crawford could offer and at the same time build up the steaminess and love interests that are nowhere near as intense as in the film. James M. Cain is a good read. Check out Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice.

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A marvellous movie and Todd Haynes 5-parts tv-series is recommended! The dramatic dialogue is heightened by the music score announcing the vile implications that soon enough lay bare. The mise-en-scene positionial changes of the actresses tells the reversal of power. The mother is on the losing side even though she executes the last available weapon, forcing her daugther out of home. The "undressed scene" in Todd Haynes adaption is also extremely powerful, sending the same message of inverting powers and the daugther's cynical rise above the adressed pettiness of her mother´s life. It´s brilliant inventive melodrama. A breakup from the family home, not as "revolution", for example to a different lifestyle, but as an "evolution", climbing on her own mother´s shoulder to a higher level. Despising the world beneath. The noir elements are, I think, the music, the angles and closeups showing an "evil" cunning woman, the twisted cut down of morals to the bare cynical bone - the corruption of money.

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In this film clip of Mildred Pierce, a definite film noir style is executed as what starts out as a mother daughter encounter quickly turns dark, gritty and realistic, a true film noir style. The camera concentrates on the two characters, concentrating on the person that is on the receiving end of the hateful words, capturing an abhorant, disbelieving reaction on Mildred's part. Ann Blyth spew of hate at Joan is also caught in a close up. Though never viewing this film, this film clip alone demonstrates a spoiled, ungrateful brat of a daughter. The distinctive mise-en-scene is beautifully architected (in this stand alone clip) to show the malvolent attitude of Ann Blyth's character and curiosity on the part of the viewer  as to Mildred's part of enabling such behavior.

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The movement and framing of mother and daughter heightens the tension of the scene, akin to the tension of two lionesses in the jungle.  

 

The scene opens with a close-up of Veda lounging on her back, kissing her check - savoring her recent conquest.   Her mother stands at a nearby chair, surveying the plain so to speak.   Veda speaks while never looking at her mother - the attitude that her mother is of no consequence.   As her mother moves behind the chair and closer to Veda, Veda turns around, leaning up against the chair and eying her mother - like a cat stealthily in the grass waiting for the right moment to pounce on her prey!   

 

Veda then walks to the table, turning her back as her mother attempts to reach Veda with her words. 

The two are, in a sense, growling at one another.  The characters then change position - they stand close and face one another, posturing for what is to come next.   Veda gets a close-up as she readies to strike with her words: "Are you sure you want to know?"  After she wounds her mother, Veda departs up the stairs, but her mother follows.  Veda slaps her mother and her mother finally strikes back!  She tells Veda:  "Leave before I kill you!"   In surprise and defeat, Veda leaves this patch of jungle.   

 

The Flower and its lighting attracted my attention.  

The flower seems to represent Veda.  Unto itself, it is pure white.  But when Veda contemplates whether to answer the question of why she wants money so badly, the flower is then shot half in light and half shadow - her inner conflict?   When she decides to answer:  "To get away from you!"  the close-up shows the shadow slowly creeping more and more up the flower.    Veda delivers her final blow: to get away from everything that "makes me think of ... you!"  and the flower is suddenly ALL cast in shadow ... in the darkness of noir.    

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Daughter, relaxed, reclining versus Mother, intense standing.

 

The varied positions the power of facial stone faces up close, show how "far" apart these characters are in terms of morals, while they stand face to face.

 

The most telling moment I'd when the daughter says to her mother "Oh, grow up."

 

Once again, the noir questions begin to hum: why can't money solve problems? And, why does this girl who " has everything money can buy" need to get away from the mother? It seems the daughter is seeking "class" the issue of "gentrified" versus "new money" and once again we are asking questions about workers versus nouveau rich; the danger of money without moral character.

 

The answers are not neat, they are at that uncomfortable point, where what happens behind closed doors in people's homes, is unknown, always the viewer as peeping Tom.

 

 

Also, within their psyche/private thoughts, reveals how little we understand of individuals and this example of mother/daughter dueling shows how we do not pay attention, listen, and learn, but rather pretend we know each other well.

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Oh, man! I hadn't seen Mildred Pierce in years and I'd forgotten just how utterly, utterly awful Veda is.

 

The main thing that I note in this scene is that Veda is almost always given the dominant left side of the frame, allowing her to be in power over her mother for the scene. She also has dialogue that is much more like what an older person would say ("Oh, grow up!"), while her mother's dialogue is much more like that of a betrayed child.

 

Veda's corruption, greed, and sociopathic behavior squarely positions her as the kind of noir woman who always falls hard and drags others down with her. The way that she refers to the house (with two stories!) as a "shack" really reflects her ridiculous notion of how she should be living.

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How does Curtiz arrange these two actresses to heighten the tension of the scene? Pay attention to how they move and how they are framed in the scene, especially the use of close-ups. 

 

As the tension in this scene increases, the close-ups become tighter. For example, when Veda explains to her mother that the reason she wants the money is so she can get away, the camera is tight on Veda making it very uncomfortable for the audience because they want to get away from the bratty and cruel ridicule she is giving her mother. Another example is when Veda slaps her mother for ripping the check ,and as Mildred stands up on the stairs the camera follows her up and tightens up rising the tension between Veda and Mildred in this scene. Such a phenomenal film!

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Well, I finally did it: I watched Mildred Pierce (1945) again after years and and years of not seeing it, at least all the way through.  It is an example of the excellent visual story telling that Hollywood did in its heyday, something I think has been lost to most directors today.  But since this class is about film noir, I have to insist that although Mildred Pierce is a fine, classic Hollywood melodrama, it is not film noir.  It uses film noir visuals (scenes that are more darkness and dark shadows and less light, strange and askew angles, the shot looking up the center of the spiral staircase, for instance), but those are not unique to noir and precede it in many motion pictures of the 1920s and 1930s.  
     So why do so many people believe it is noir and why do I not?  Because it is constructed as a noir sandwich so to speak.  It has a layer of noir style, which eventually segues to the standard Hollywood editing and mise-en-scene of the time.  The opening scene is definitely shot in a film noir style (but is it noir, since that wasn’t even a defined term then?  Isn’t it really just an application of German Expressionism as means of communicating an unspoken mood or feeling to the audience?), but as soon as the character, Mildred Pierce, while at the police station, starts her flashback–of which most of the motion picture is comprised–all of the dark shadows and askew camera angles disappear.  The flashback, which makes up most of the film, is shot using classic Hollywood style using invisible cuts, even lighting, eye-level camera angles.   Of course, when Mildred Pierce is back at the police station and that picture-perfect world is disintegrated by the reality of the murder, the dark, threatening angles, the fedoras of the police and all reappear. But we have to see this contrasting style as a narrative device for the visual language of the film.  
     We have to remember that all film with synchronized sound has two texts: the sound text of music, words and sound effects, and the visual text, which really is the main text of any good motion picture.  Michael Curtiz, skilled director that he was, understood this and was using two different visual dialects, so to speak, to communicate two different moods or points of view about the actions discussed by the verbal text in the film.
     So, most of the film, which recounts Mildred’s experiences with her eldest daughter, Veda, and others, are shot in the classic Hollywood style: even lighting, eye-level camera angles, invisible cuts between shots.  The opening scene and the police station scenes useGerman Expressionistic visuals, adapted to an American style, to show a difference in mood or tone in what is happening in those particular scenes.  Murder is an ugly thing, hatred is an ugly thing, false accusations are ugly things; they are shown in Expressionistic style.  A heroic mother’s struggles, her love, her hard work, her desire to provide for her children against all odds are shown in the normal visual language of Hollywood at that time.  
     But then, we also have to ask whether or not there is another reason for this change in visual style.  I believe there is.  We have to remember that the opening scene, done in an expressionistic style (remember, there is no defined “noir” style or aesthetic in 1945), is witnessed by an objective camera in the third person. In a sense, the camera in the opening scene, as well as the scenes at the police station, are done with this third-person, objective camera, what some would call a witness narrator.  But at the police station when Mildred tells her story in flashback, we have to remember that the camera use is different.  
     Why?  Because the camera, so to speak is the toolm for Mildred’s narration it sees what she wants it to see, since she is telling the story.  So her memory of her relationship with her daughter, her husband, her lover, etc., is told in rosy terms, even though we have hints that all is not right in Mildred-land.  for instance, the husband warns Mildred about spoiling his daughters, about giving them expectations that are too high.  He complains about her working, as does Veda.  Mildred is out having a fling with a playboy loser instead of being home for her sick daughter.  Even Veda admonishes her about caring too much about money.  In other words, since Mildred is telling the story in flashback, she is the director, so to speak of her recollection.  She puts herself in a positive light, and makes herself look heroic, self-sacrificing, ostensibly forthe good of her children.  
     But was she?  Perhaps, or could it be that, in reality, she is sacrificing her traditional role as mother and wife for wealth and social position, but wee have to remember that this is the 1940s, the Production Code is in full swing, and that the idea of an independent woman who can make it on her own was threatening to the social norms of the day.  I don’t think that Mildred Pierce was meant to encourage women to break away from those norms, just the opposite.  It is saying, “look, women, at what will happen, if you try to be your own person and compete with men.”  
     This message was particularly current in 1945 because during the war, many women had become independent and self-sufficient, challenging exactly those social norms.   As the men were returning home from the war, many did expect to–and did–replace the women who had taken their place in the factories and elsewhere.  Women were to return to their “regular” roles as mothers and housewives, or whatever.  So Mildred Pierce’s flashbacks positively showing a hard-working woman being her own person and taking on a man’s world–which is her point of view–have to be contrasted with the real world of the camera as third-person objective witness, that sees the world she has created by her ambition as dark, damaged, dangerous and skewed.
     To reinforce this point, look at the ending.  Mildred and her husband, after the tragedy of seeing their only living child arrested by the police, their lives in ruin, appear to reunite at the end, standing in front of glorious sunrise, which we suppose to symbolize rebirth, forgiveness, renewal.  But how does this take place?  Because Mildred goes back, we assume, to her husband.  Her only redemption, it seems, is in returning to her husband and all that this act would symbolize in 1945.  It appears that Mildred Pierce, then, is an anti-feminist film.  But is that surprising in 1945?
     So reality is shown by the expressionistic camera as objective witness, and the world that Mildred created is not pretty.  The biased, and therefore unreliable narrative is represented by the flashbacks filmed in classic Hollywood, Griffith-type style because that is how Mildred wishes to remember it.
     Which brings me back to whether Mildred Pierce is a film noir.  I have to insist that it is not.  It uses Expressionistic style to contrast with classic Hollywood style in order to contrast two different story lines: what really happened and how Mildred wishes to remember it.  And that is brilliant filmmaking.

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How does Curtiz arrange these two actresses to heighten the tension of the scene? Pay attention to how they move and how they are framed in the scene, especially the use of close-ups. 

 

As the tension in this scene increases, the close-ups become tighter. For example, when Veda explains to her mother that the reason she wants the money is so she can get away, the camera is tight on Veda making it very uncomfortable for the audience because they want to get away from the bratty and cruel ridicule she is giving her mother. Another example is when Veda slaps her mother for ripping the check ,and as Mildred stands up on the stairs the camera follows her up and tightens up rising the tension between Veda and Mildred in this scene. Such a phenomenal film!

You have to remember that Veda, while she is an awful human being, was made that way.  Her desire for money is a value she obviously learned from her mother.  In any case, Veda's story is largely told in flashback by Mildred, so it is not objective.  Why would Veda want to get away?  Why would Veda be such a snob?  Who taught her these things?

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