The Importance of Lighting in Mildred Pierce

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Mildred Pierce is a 1945 movie that revolves around a selfless mother who does all she can to cover up the death of her husband, Monte Beragon. The film is well known for illustrating essential camera and lighting techniques that helped define the ‘black cinema’ style. There are a variety of cinematographic elements that have been used in the movie (UFilm Analysis).  The features include excessive use of shadow, a variety of establishing slots and several visual elements which helps demonstrate the passage of time. Michael Curtiz, the movie director, uses all these optical features to intrigue the audience and efficiently deliver a suspenseful crime drama.

The movie uses establishing shot in every scene that introduces a new setting, this way, the director gives the audience the mood of the following screen. The first shot in Mildred Pierce was a high angle shot of the beach house which was taken at night. The high angle shot plus the ominous tone make the scene more dramatic hence introducing the audience to Monte’s beach house in the best way possible. The high angle shot has also been used during the Pier Mildred walks where it is taken in the form of a background shot. The background of this shot help creates a foreshadowing of events that occur later in the film. Lastly, the establishing shot is used when Mildred starts to tell her story, where the camera pans her neighborhood (Bellmore). In the establishing shot, the kids are playing, and the sun is shining which indicates a pleasant mood, just like Mildred felt when she was with Bert.

Mise-en-scene which is a French word meaning ‘put in the scene’ has been widely used in Mildred Pierce. Mise-en-scene has four elements which include lighting, costume, and performance. As the movie begins, it shows a house at the sea which the audience later realizes it is a crime scene. From the setting, the audience can know the murder occurs in the upper class and the type of the film is a ‘fight between family. Regarding lighting, several types of lighting have been used in the film. Firstly, the side lighting used during the police station scene. The lighting caused Mildred face to be covered with a softer shadow. In the same scene, the light points to Veda and becomes soft lighting (Yolandaelppf). The lighting helps make the two mild and beautiful. At the scene where Mildred locked Wally with Monte’s body, the lighting used is backlighting which helps create a feeling of suspense and mystery.

Mildred Pierce has used the shadow technique in several scenes. The shadows are usually used as a symbolic feature or to magnify the emotions in a view. The first instance the method is used is when Mildred tries to frame Wally for Monte’s murder. It is well captured when Wally is running around the house, and his giant shadow is following him (UFilm Analysis). The shadows are usually gigantic that they shift the audience attention from the real object to the shadow itself. At times, the object is hidden from the camera and all the audience can see is the shadow. For instance, when Wally is trying to run through the door, the only thing audience can see is a shadow of him trying to run away. The shadows help show Wally’s panic and the rising fear once he realizes he is being set up for murder.

Another use of shadow is when Mildred goes to the beach house and confronts Monte for selling his shares of her company. At the time in the house, two silhouettes are usually kissing, and once Mildred steps into the light, they are revealed to be Monte and Mildred’s daughter Veda. The shadow is used to represent secrecy in this scene just as the relationship between Monte and Veda was a secret (UFilm Analysis). Once the couple stepped out of the shadow, Mildred learned the truth. Regarding editing, the film’s editor, David Weisbart used the Moviola editing machine to edit the movie. The device was invented in 1924 by an American immigrant called Iwan Serrurier. Moviola is an upright machine that allowed the editor to stop the film in a frame and run the movie backward or forward. Thus, creating an illuminating scenes that catches and maintains the attention of viewers

The plot of the movie is non-linear, and it spans over a multi-year period. For that reason, Curtiz, the director uses several setting elements to indicate the passage of time throughout the movie. For instance, in the police station scene, there were several shots of the clock. The first is taken few minutes after one while the second one is taken at two in the morning, this help interpret that Mildred was questioned after being in the police station for an hour. Another visual element that shows the passage of time is the sunrise. Notably, this is portrayed in the scene where Veda is arrested. The inspector lifts up the curtain and reveals it is now morning (UFilm Analysis). In addition to serving as a visual element, the dawn also symbolizes a new life for Mildred once Monte and Veda are gone.

Above all, it is apparent that the message of Mildred Pierce is somehow muddy. However, its cinematography, storyline, and acting make everything worthwhile. The reason why the movie stands out as a great film noir is that one does not need to go far into the movie to start enjoying it. It is incredible in the amount of drama the film show in two hours. Moreover, the opening flashback sequence and the surprising resolution suits the opening and ending scene of the film.                                

Works Cited

Bellmore, Kate. "Getting the Low Down: Low Key Angles in the Opening of Mildred Pierce." Reel Club, 17 Apr. 2011, Accessed 30 Apr. 2018.

UFilm Analysis. "Cinematographic Elements in Mildred Pierce." UFilm Analysis Blog, 29 Aug. 2013, Accessed 30 Apr. 2018.

Yolandaelppf. "Mise-en-scene: Mildred Pierce (1945)." Film, 27 Feb. 2017, Accessed 30 Apr. 2018.

August 01, 2023




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