In his poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, T.S. Eliot writes: “There will be time, there will be time,/To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;/There will be time to murder and create.” Although this poem was published over thirty years earlier, Eliot easily could have been referring to the characters in Michael Curtiz’s 1948 film noir, Mildred Pierce.
With the exception of Kay, it is difficult to find a character who does not lead a secret life; or, as Eliot might put it, wear multiple faces. Bert Pierce’s affair leads to the dissolution of his marriage to Mildred. Mildred’s second husband, Monty Beragon, not only carries on a secret relationship with Mildred’s daughter, Veda, but also sells his share in her restaurant, thus forcing her into a tenuous financial position. Perhaps the most deceptive (and destructive) character in the film, Veda, is consistently able to convince her mother that she is a loving daughter, when, in reality, she is an ungrateful and greedy brat. Finally, there is Mildred. Although undoubtedly the most admirable character in the film, she too conceals certain aspects of her life; she hides her job as a waitress, for example, fearing that it will embarass Veda. In a film where so many characters rely on illusions to subsist, Curtiz’s visual technique in the beachouse sequence with Mildred and Monty is highly effective.
The first scene of this sequence shows Mildred entering a room with Monty close behind; he stops in the doorway, while she approaches the closet to look for a bathing suit . Initially, the viewer is not struck by anything unordinary about this camera shot. As Mildred moves closer to the camera, however, something unexpected happens: she enters the frame from screen left, when just moments before, she was moving downward from right to left on the screen. Furthermore, two images of Mildred are presented and the audience realizes that the initial shot was not real; rather, it was a reflection in a mirror on the closet door. At this point, the director’s intent is not clear. As the sequence progresses, however, one realizes that Curtiz is posing a crucial question in terms of the film’s mise-en-scene: how does one distinguish reality from illusion?
The second scene in the sequence begins with a slow dissolve from the previous shot--a close-up of a bathing suit--to a shot of Monty preparing drinks. Before continuing with this scene, it is important to note that Mildred Pierce is told almost entirely in flashback, beginning with Monty’s murder, and ending with the revelation of the murderer’s identity. The body of the film, then, serves to detail the events that eventually lead to this murder, as they are being related by Mildred to a police officer. In other words, one could argue that the flashback sequences, such as the one in question, are being presented according to how Mildred remembers them. In this scene, then, the director’s choice of high-key lighting is appropriate. For Mildred, as well as the audience, her time with Monty at the beachouse seems to be a happy moment in her life; consequently, there is no need for stark contrasts between light and dark, like so many painful scenes in the film. Instead, the filmmaker relies on the screenwriter’s use of double meanings to evoke the dilemma of reality versus illusion.
One example is when Mildred, staring out at the ocean, remarks: “You have a wonderful view.” Monty, looking directly at her, replies: “Well, I wouldn’t say that...I hope the suit fits better than the robe.” Monty understands that she is referring to the ocean, but he deliberately twists her comment into one focusing on her appearance. Although the audience has no concrete reason to believe otherwise, the character’s playfulness throughout this sequence forces the audience to question just how honest these people are really being with each other. Regardless, the scene ends on a positive note with a long shot of Mildred and Monty diving into the ocean.
The illusion that all is well does not last long, however, as Curtiz begins the sequence’s final scene with another image in a mirror. By showing Monty putting on a record while Mildred’s reflection sits on the floor brushing her hair, the director is once again playing with the audiences’ notions of reality and illusion. In spite of this dichotomy, one wants to believe that all of Monty’s passionate and caring remarks are true, and that what appears to be the beginning of great relationship between these two characters is real. Curtiz shatters this fanatsy with a subtle, but revealing, camera movement at the end of the sequence. As Monty and Mildred embrace, the music which has been coming off-screen from the record player ends. The camera then pans slowly toward the record player and the mirror, coming to a rest when both are framed in the picture. At the beginning of the movement, the audience glimpses Mildred clutch Monty and quietly say: “The record...Monty, the record.”
What is so remarkable about this series is that just prior to the embrace Monty explains: “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 school boy’s.” To which Mildred replies: “I thought it was mine.” By framing the final shot with the record player on one side, and the mirror reflecting their embrace on the other, the viewer realizes (long before Mildred does unfortunately) that this sound is not actually coming from inside of either of them; rather, it is the sound of the record player skipping along rhythmically. Later, Mildred acknowledges that her feelings for Monty were false. When Ida asks her if she loves him, Mildred explains: “I thought I did, once.”
Mildred Pierce is not only a film about double identities--it is one about mistaken identities. Like Mildred, trying to convince herself over and over again that Veda truly loves and respects her, the audience is continually forced to decipher the truth among a world of illusions. The entire beachhouse sequence is one such illusion. For Mildred’s sake, one wants to believe that this fantasy is genuine. The director denies his audience this priviledge, however, by using his camera to expose what is real, and what is illusion.