The film noir to end films noir, Billy Wilder’s classic crime drama Double Indemnity made its way to The Electric in Birmingham for a one-off screening, where a packed cinema ensured a great atmosphere. Mike, as usual, hadn’t seen it, while José is very familiar with it, even having taught it before.
Mike didn’t entirely click with it, though he’s able to appreciate much of what makes it a classic. Perhaps the stylistic and thematic elements that identify film noir are so perfectly employed by Double Indemnity that it leads to an ironic, detached mode of viewing – the genre, though it has existed since its inception, is strongly connected to its classical era of the Forties and Fifties, and has been parodied and pastiched more than most, burdening the film with unfair baggage to audiences not in that frame of mind. José, on the other hand, relishes the chance to see it with a paying, enthusiastic audience, finding that he notices different details and appreciates the film differently outside of an academic setting.
Unquestionable is the strength of Barbara Stanwyck’s seductive performance as the femme fatale, her Phyllis Dietrichson the archetype of the dangerous woman who bewitches her doomed victim, in this case a chump played with distracting self-importance by Fred MacMurray. And every time Edward G. Robinson appears on screen he lights it up, capturing the audience, whether with the array of witty retorts and bon mots with which the script furnishes him, or dialogue as ostensibly dull as a recitation of an actuarial table for types of suicide.
With all of this in mind, Mike is sure that a second run at the film would help him appreciate it more. There’s no doubting its place in cinema history, and that it continues to pack out cinemas with eager filmgoers is testament to that.
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We’re joined by Birmingham blogger Laura Creaven (www.constantlycurious.co.uk) for a discussion of our fourth Michael Curtiz film, the film noir Mildred Pierce. We’re glad of her perspective, as this is a film all about women, their relationships and desires.
We discuss the film’s flashback structure – though it helped the film get made in the Hays Code era, would the film be even stronger with a simple chronological plot? Class is everywhere too, motivating the mother-daughter conflict that’s central to the film, and we consider America’s class system and social mobility, and whether you could tell this story in Britain.
We look closely at Curtiz’s use of shadows and mirrors to imply off-screen space and create meaningful, poetic images. And there’s a lot to discuss in the construction of the characters, both male and female – we think about how masculine and feminine characteristics are deployed in both, and how roles are reversed.
Mike and Laura talk about how they each had differing attitudes to the framing device of showing the climax first, Mike wanting to know how the film would tie its plot up and Laura not caring very much. It reminds Mike of discussing Carmen Maria Machado’s brilliant short story The Husband Stitch (free to read here: www.granta.com/the-husband-stitch) with previous podcast guest Celia, and finding a similar difference in the experience. Mildred Pierce is without question a film aimed at women, but as a film noir does the framing device work to capture their interest?
And indeed, how much is the film a noir? With shadows and murder and intrigue, it’s inseparable from it, but there’s a lightness to the image and combination with family drama that serves to adjust it. To José the film is unambiguously noir; to Mike and Laura, the noir elements invade an otherwise normal world in interesting ways.
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
The use of mirrors is also a key component of mise-en-scène in Mildred Pierce. The film begins with the shooting of Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott). There are several shots, some land on the mirror, he falls over. The mirror teases us with off-screen space but in this case angled so that we don’t see the perpetrator.
Mirrors are used for expressive purposes. Here at the beginning Mildred (Joan Crawford), having led Wally (Jack Carson) into the beach house is planning to leave him on his own so the police may find him and he can take the rap. The duplicitous action suggested by Mildred being doubled for us through the mirror.
Mirrors, of course, also appear simply as part of household or office decor, fulfilling no other function than to make a room seem ‘real’. See the office mirror here in the centre of the frame on one wall reflecting the painting kitty corner to it.
But usually mirrors are used to much more expressive and narrational ends in Mildred Pierce, like in this moment where the dress her mother’s bought her does not at all fit in with the kind of woman Veda (Ann Blythe) wants to become; and how both Mildred’s and Veda’s differing ideas of a pretty dress and the notions of femininity it might help project are contrasted with Kay (Jo Ann Marlow), happy in her overalls.
Curtiz makes use of any reflecting surface to mirror and creates a striking image with it as here below. Mildred, walked off her feet and needing a rest before she enters the cafe. She’s elegant in her hat and coat, potentially too elegant for the for the type of job the sign is advertising (though we know she’ll take it). The fact that the reflection is from below expresses something of how low she’s willing to go to work, no job is really beneath her. A striking image conveying lots of story information, densely condensed.
We get some of this also in the scene where Mildred goes swimming with Monte and goes to the wardrobe to find a bathing suit. We see her doubled with Monte off-screen but as she opens the wardrobe, eliminating him from the picture, she sees that she’s far from the only woman Monte’s brought there. As Mildred and her reflection open the wardrobe, Monte gets effaced by what the contents of the wardrobe reveal: all the ‘sisters, ‘ all to be scantily clad, he’s brought to the beach house before Mildred. The mirror here is used dramatically, as revelation.
Here below, the mirror is used as a kind of narrative punctuation. Monte and Mildred are embracing, the record ends, the camera pans to the record continuing to spin whilst the mirror shows us they’re too hot for each other to bother to change it. The embrace starts and ends the shot and at the end is framed next to and against the record player. It’s a brilliant piece of visual direction, made more so if one also remembers this is the mirror is not unlike the one behind Monte as he was shot at the beginning of the film. Thus the initiations of an uncontrolled passion are already linked with death from the beginning.
Whilst Momma’s been playing, baby’s been dying. In the next scene, the finality of Kay’s death is brought home by the mirror. Mildred, her husband Bert (Bruce Bennett) and Veda are mourning. And we see that there’s no hope as the doctor and nurse recede and disappear through the mirror.
Sometimes, mirrors are used to anchor context and create atmosphere. Here below, the main function seems to be to make us aware that Monte and Mildred are at a party — they’re surrounded by people whilst nonetheless allowing for a private conversation: one about money. They’re in public, the moment is private, but the private is always threatening, on the verge and in danger of becoming public.
But of course we mustn’t forget that this use of mirrors, potent, as it is constructed so as to appear incidental and that, although I’ve extracted still images above, it usually takes place in motion and as part of other elements of mise-en-scène. In the scene below, which is really about Monte and Mildred getting together and Bert granting Mildred her wishes, all encased in the break-up of a family. The mirror behind the bar first appears discretely and then gains in dramatic force helping to shows us how Bert and Monte are at odds, how the appearance of Bert onto the scene underlines the break-up of a family. The conflict is generated by who appears facing the mirror, the whooshing of the camera movement from the mirror following Mildred and onto Bert which begins around 45 second into the clip below and shows Bert appearing in the mirror onscreen whilst following her, past Monte and as she’s pictured between them onscreen. At 1.29, after he says, ‘I’m doing fine’, the scene cuts onto Bert and Monte exchanging challenging gazes through the mirror. The composition once again indicating that the ‘private’ word is being played out publicly, or at least within Monte’s sight (through the mirror).
I wanted to include the whole clip above rather than still images so you could see how important motion is to the potency of the pictures. They’re moving pictures. And in relation to other elements of mise-en-scène. Thus in the clip above I’ve made the cut after the swish pan to the left, which brings us out of the flash-back, and also underline the inverse rhyming of the camera movement from the last scene in the bar to the first shot at the police station.
It’s extraordinary work by Curtiz, and only a tiny example of his astonishingly imaginative mise-en-scene for this film.