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Cinematographic Elements in Mildred Pierce

        Mildred Pierce is the 1945 film directed by Michael Curtiz. Mildred Pierce follows the story of a selfless mother who attempts to cover up the murder of her husband, Monte Beragon, by her step daughter, Veda. Curtiz uses a variety of cinematographic elements to progress and expand upon the narrative. Such elements include, a variety of establishing shots, excessive use of shadows, and a number of different visual elements which demonstrate the passage of time.

Every scene that introduces a new setting has an establishing shot to show the location of the scene as well as giving the audience a sense of the mood of the following screen. The first shot of the film was a high-angle shot of the beach house at night.  This shot introduces the audience to Monte’s beach house has an ominous tone because of the darkness in the frame and the high-angle shot makes the scene more dramatic. The pier Mildred walks along can also be seen in the background of this shot, providing some slight foreshadowing to events later in the film. Another establishing shot is when Mildred is starting to tell her story, the camera pans over their neighborhood. In this shot the sun is shining and kids are playing in the street, which portrays a blissful mood which is how Mildred felt with Bert before he left her.

Mildred Pierce has a number of scenes that use shadows. These shadows are used to magnify the emotions in certain scenes and are also used as a symbolic features. The scene where Mildred is trying to frame Wally for Monte’s murder uses a lot of shadows, like when he is running around the house he has his giant shadow following him, and all of the items in the room are casting large shadows, so large that you pay more attention to them than the actual objects the shadows come from. They even have a shot where Wally is trying to get out through a door which is not actually in the frame, all the audience can see is the shadow of him trying to escape. These shadows are used to show the rising fear and panic felt by Wally as he learns he is being set-up for the murder of Monte Beragon. When he breaks out of the house the police put up a spotlight on him, illuminating him from the shadows, his demeanor does a complete 180 and he goes from a panicked mess to calm. He is so calm that he tells the officer “You got a stiff in there” even though his previous actions of breaking out of the house might make him an obvious suspect in the case. Another use of shadows is in one of the later scenes when Mildred goes to the beach house to confront Monte after he sold his share of her company. She walks in on two silhouettes kissing. When Mildred walks in the couple steps into the light and they are revealed to be Monte and his stepdaughter Veda. The shadows serve as symbolic element here as the relationship between Veda and Monte had been kept a secret until it was revealed as the couple stepped out of the shadows and into the light as Mildred learns of their affair.

The film’s plot is non-linear and spans over a multi-year time period, so Curtiz uses a number of setting elements to show the passage of time throughout the film. In the police station scene there are several shots of the clock. The first shot of the clock is a little after one and then when they do another shot of the clock the time is around two in the morning, showing that Mildred has been in the station for around an hour before she is called in for questioning. Another visual element that shows the passage of time is the sunrise in the inspector’s office at the end of the film. After Veda is arrested the inspector lifts up the blinds to reveal that it is now morning after Mildred tells her story, so they’ve been talking for several hours. The dawn in this scene not only indicates a passage of time but serves as a symbol for the new life Mildred might live now that she is free of Veda and Monte, who have been a hindrance on life.


4 responses to “Cinematographic Elements in Mildred Pierce

  1. ltimlin ⋅

    It ‘s interesting how you connected the establishing shot of Monte’s beach house with a foreshadowing of the shocking scene Mildred later walks in on at the house. Shadows dominate the scenes, suggesting a darkness that follows each character. Just as you said, the shadows are also used to show out-of-frame activity.

  2. kstedem ⋅

    I also saw how cinematography was played out in this film, involving the camera angles and different lighting. The idea that the director and other lighting operators are able to add a simple shadow and turn a scene into a symbol of what is to come is amazing.

  3. kperetz ⋅

    I didn’t think of the clocks in that way, although I noticed they were a reoccurring theme, and it definitely makes more sense the way you explained it. I also found your explanation of the dawn as a symbol of Mildred’s “new life” something I didn’t originally think of as well. The passage of time in Mildred Pierce was a very symbolic, especially because the last scene, where the whole dramatic day had finally come to an end, and a new day had begun like you said.

  4. rvandeering ⋅

    The use of the shadows is the film, was unique because it not only grabbed your attention, but the shadows set an eerie tone to who killed Monte. Especially, when Wally couldn’t find Mildred and freaked out, and he stumbled upon the body of Monte the way you described the objects and how the shadows were used to draw your attention to them. It was also interesting about the whole passage of time with the clocks you mentioned when Mildred is sitting in the police station waiting to talk to the inspector. Also, the sunrise in the inspector’s office you mentioned is also a good way to show passage of time because that means Mildred was there all night then getting questioned about the death of Monte.

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