Getting the Low Down: Low Key Angles in the Opening of MILDRED PIERCE
17 April 2011
Mildred Pierce, a quintessential example of 1940s American film noir, demonstrates the key lighting and camera techniques that almost entirely define the style known as “black cinema.” These techniques are not just a striking aesthetic frill in Mildred Pierce, nor are they in any noir; the dramatic, contrasting shading and jagged angles is how film noir communicates with its audience. Specifically, director Michael Curtiz’s camera angles in Mildred Pierce mesmerize and intrigue the audience, as well as efficiently convey the suspenseful crime drama.
A particularly rich moment in Mildred Pierce concerning camera angles comes during the opening sequence, when Mildred (Joan Crawford) lures Wally (Jack Carson) to the beach house in hopes of pinning Monty’s (Zachary Scott) murder on him. Although several camera techniques (angles, movement, duration, etc) are used in this relatively short, commanding opening sequence, one of the richest are the low angles used to capture Wally. Traditionally, low angles communicate a power struggle. Low angles mean the camera is lower than whatever it is shooting; the camera shots up at an actor, place, things, etc, giving the person or object captured power. Conversely, high angles shot down, which suggests anything a high angle shot is capturing is in a weak position; what’s captured is being looked down upon.
Wally, at this point in the film, does not know of Monty’s murder and Mildred’s subsequent desperation to frame him for it. Traditionally, since Wally is so unaware of the sordid circumstance Mildred is attempting to pin on him, Wally should be captured in high angle shots. He is clearly in a weak position because he is oblivious to the danger he is in. Yet, although several camera angles are used in the opening sequence, Wally is often captured in low angles shots.
There are a few clever reasons Curtiz goes nontraditional and uses low angle shots on Wally in this opening sequence, the first being his consideration of the audience as spectators. In using low angles, Curtiz puts the audience in the weak position, as we are looking up at the action attentively trying to figure out what is happening. The audience is immediately thrown into a mystery we know nothing about; everyone and everything is suspect. Therefore, in one way, the low angles looking up at Wally are not used to capture his power; instead, low angles are used to display the weak, uninformed position of the audience.
Another likely reason Curtiz uses low angle on Wally in this opening sequence is to cinematically support and reinforce Wally’s characterization. As the audience gathers from this opening sequence, and learns in greater detail as the film continues, Wally is an overconfident man, to say the least. He is so full of himself that the phrase “he walked around with his nose in the air” would be entirely fitting. These low angles reflect his high and mighty mentality; the camera captures Wally with the better-than-thou, pompous guise he projects; Wally walks around as though he should be looked up to, so Curtiz literally has the audience looking up at him through these low angle shots. The audience looks up at Wally not because he has power in the scene, but because, even when his situation turns perilous and the police stop him from escaping the beach house, Wally still maintains his arrogance. The low angles in the beginning of the film help the audience appropriately characterize Wally as a supercilious man whose own pride is his greatest danger.
One final thing to notice about these opening low angle shots on Wally is the amount of head room they create, particularly when used in long shots (that is, the shots capture the character’s full body from a low angle). Since the camera is so often looking up at Wally, there is a lot of empty space above his head in the shots; the space goes all the way to the ceiling. Figuratively, considering this space, the phrase “it went over his head” also seems to apply to Wally. As noted, there is so much danger and mystery in the beach house, and Wally, partly because of his egotistical attitude, is clueless to it all. The camera captures Wally from a low angle with a lot of space over his head because there is so much information just passing over him.
Overall, on the surface these low angle shots seem to contradict the conventional uses of high and low angles; however, on closer investigation, the low angles on Wally in the beginning off the film are clever and highly meaningful to the audience and narrative. Furthermore, this significant use of camera angles continues throughout Mildred Pierce, which is, in part, why this film was in 1945, and still continues as an achievement in American cinema.