The 1945 film "Mildred Pierce" is the epitome of film noir, complete with the femme fatale, theme of betrayal and hopelessness and use of flashbacks. While the 1954 "On the Waterfront" also uses the theme of betrayal and hopelessness, it breaks from the film noir genre, and rather than using flashbacks, it is told in present time and the use of the femme fatale is replaced by an unscrupulous union leader.
Both movies possess the theme of family dynamics. In "Mildred Pierce" there is the element of a mother-daughter relationship as well as a forbidden affair between Mildred's second husband and her spoiled daughter from her first marriage, Veda. Sexual tension and melodrama runs throughout the movie: between Mildred and her first husband Bert; between Bert and Maggie Biederhof; between Mildred and second husband, Monte Beragon; between Mildred and her business partner and long-time friend, Wally Fay; and between Veda and Monte. In 'On the Waterfront," the family dynamics is between the two brothers, Terry and Charley Malloy, however, the family dynamics also extends to the loyalty between the dock workers. As far as sexual relationships, there is only one and that is between Terry and Edie, the sister of a slain dock worker.
Both movies possess the element of betrayal and hopelessness. Terry adores and looks up to his older brother Charley, who works for the crooked union boss, Johnny Friendly. Terry trusts Charley in all decisions, believing that Charley has his best interests at heart and/or that Charley is smarter and knows what is best in given situations. Mildred so adores and worships her oldest daughter Veda that it destroys her relationship with her first husband and ultimately her second.
As in all film noir, betrayal, along with hopelessness, is a major theme, and "Mildred Pierce" depicts this in classic form. The film begins with ocean waves crashing in the moonlight upon the shore as the credits are washed away with each wave to a typical film noir dramatic music score. It then cuts to a beach house with a car parked in front with the headlights on, no driver is seen. Then there is the sound of gun shots, and the audience sees a mirror shattered behind the body of a man falling to the floor, gun thrown by his body, as he utters "Mildred," then dies (Mildred pp). Although the murderer is never seen, given the dying man's last word, the audience assumes that it is Mildred who has killed him. And so the stage is set for a classic "who-done-it" complete with a cast of characters that each, the audience learns, possess a reason for murder and betrayal.
While "Mildred Pierce" begins in the shadowy night to melodramatic music, "On the Waterfront" opens to a daytime shot of an ocean liner docked at the New York waterfront with a drum beat musical score. Johnny Friendly, the mob-connected union boss, and his entourage of goons walk the gangplank from the union office, a mere shack. Following behind the group is Terry, and from his walk and mannerisms it is clear that he is not only uneducated, but a little slow-witted as well. This scene establishes Terry's personality and his job as a "go-fer" for Friendly. In the next scene, at night, Terry yells from his the window of his tenement building, "Joey, Joey Doyle. Hey, I got one your birds ... I recognize him by the band ... he flew into my coop ... you want him?" And tells him to meet him on the roof (Waterfront pp). When Terry looks up, there are two men on the rooftop. Terry then lets go of the pigeon and walks down the street to meet his brother Charley. Then in disbelief, Terry hears a scream and sees Joey's body falling from the rooftop to the street below. Although he knew he was setting Joey up for a confrontation with Friendly's goons, he is shocked, and says, "I though they was gonna talk to him ... I figured the worst they was gonna do was lean on him" (Waterfront pp). From the talk of men around him, it is understood that Joey was planning to testify for investigators of the Crime Commission against the hoods that controlled the docks. Unlike "Mildred Pierce," it is clear who is responsible for this murder, and it is clear that Terry is very uncomfortable with the role that he unwittingly played in Joey's death.
In "Mildred Pierce" the audience learns about the characters and their lives through a series of flashbacks as Mildred unfolds the story of her life to police and the audience. In "On the Waterfront" every scene is in present time and the audience pieces together the characters and their motives from conversations and intent. As Father Barry, the local priest, performs the last rites over Joey's body, Pop Doyle and sister Edie stand by with others, including a neighbor who remarks, "Same thing happened to my Andy five years ago ... he was the only longshoreman that had the guts to talk ... everybody knows that" (Waterfront pp). From this opening scene it is clear that the local union has been taken over by the mob and everyone, if they know what's good for them, dances to their tune.
There are no heroes in "Mildred Pierce." Everyone seems to have ulterior motives. Although Mildred is not a truly evil person, her obsession with Veda overshadows reason and compassion, causing her to be tunnel-visioned concerning the choices she makes. Moreover, there are no true villains either. Even Veda, the femme fatal of the movie, isn't truly evil, she is the way she is because Mildred has always allowed her to be self-indulgent. She is a spoiled brat who has never been told 'no' and as she grows older, her demands grow greater in scope, until her temper-tantrums and egocentric nature become her downfall. Veda is not a criminal at heart, nor is Mildred a saint, no matter the sacrifices she endured during her life to fulfill her dreams for Veda. The lives of all the characters intertwine in typical soap opera fashion.
In "On the Waterfront" there are definite heroes and villains. It is good against evil. The obvious heroes in the beginning are Father Barry and Edie, both determined to finger the killer of Joey and put an end to the crime ridden waterfront union. The obvious villain is Johnny Friendly. Charley's loyalty is to Friendly. Terry however, becomes a reluctant hero just as he was a reluctant accessory to murder.
Terry feels he has no power to do anything about anything, he merely takes orders from Friendly. It is the only life he has ever known, however, now he is slowly beginning to question his lifestyle, especially in the wake of Joey's death and particularly from his encounters and conversations with Edie and Father Barry. He begins to gain a sense of right and wrong. He also begins to question his brother's role in his life and his brother's loyalty to Friendly. Years earlier, Charley had convinced Terry to take a fall in a boxing match, resulting in the abrupt end to Terry's career. In perhaps the most memorable scene in the movie, Terry cries "I could'a had class ... I could'a been a contender ... I could'a been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am ... Let's face it, it was you Charley" (Waterfront pp). This is the turning point of the movie, because instead of taking Terry to Friendly, Charley lets him go, resulting in his own death at the hands of Friendly's goons.
In "Mildred Pierce," there is no real turning point, no hero who saves the day. Mildred has one moment in the beginning of the movie, where she is standing on the ocean's pier, obviously distressed and gives the audience the impression that she is contemplating suicide by jumping into the water but is stopped when a policeman approaches and questions her motives. Otherwise, it is only at the end of the movie, when she is left with no more choices regarding Veda, that she seems to go through a change and walks into the morning light with Bert. However, Mildred's change is not really a choice or revelation, but merely a consequence of actions.
Both films are shot in black and white, "Mildred" because of the era of film, and "Waterfront" for creative purposes. The camera shots are used to add mystery in "Mildred," for example by avoiding the face of the murderer and the occupant of the car. However, in "Waterfront," the camera is used to capture real life in real time. While "Mildred" is shot on studio sets, "Waterfront" is shot directly on the New York streets and waterfront, adding a gritty realism to the movie. Moreover, the use of color in "Waterfront" would have distracted from capturing the harsh reality of the waterfront life.
"On the Waterfront" is a definite tale of morality verses…