Michael Curtiz, the acclaimed journeyman director of films such as Casablanca, The Adventures of Robin Hood and Yankee Doodle Dandy, finally finds one of his films as a part of The Criterion Collection with Mildred Pierce. An ambitious mix of film noir and melodrama, this acclaimed 1945 film marked a career comeback for Joan Crawford, who would go on to win a Best Actress Academy Award. Based on the hardboiled James M. Cain novel, the film is now heralded as a classic for its handling of Crawford’s character, the strong casting choices, blend of domestic drama with murder mystery and many other elements. Now everyone can dive into this Criterion Blu-ray release and revisit this story of maternal sacrifice.
The film opens with a murder and a suicide attempt. Mildred Pierce (Crawford) has left the scene of a crime and nearly jumps off a pier, before being stopped by a passing police officer. A series of events eventually lead her to a police interrogation room, where she recounts the story of her life as a troubled wife and mother. First we learn of Mildred’s unhappy marriage to Bert Pierce (Bruce Bennett). Mildred has two children with Bert, the bratty Veda (Ann Blyth) and tomboy Kay (Jo Anne Marlowe).
Separation is inevitable and once it happens, Mildred is forced to take a job as a waitress to keep her Southern Californian home and her children living a fairly privileged life. This doesn’t stop real estate agent Wally (Jack Carson) from hitting on Mildred, but also supporting her in his own way. It all leads to a proposition for playboy Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott). The idea is for Mildred to buy a piece of property from him in an attempt to start a business, but romantic feelings manage to get in the way.
There are some key differences in the Cain novel, as the film inserts the murder mystery angle and simplifies the plot and characters. The Emmy Award-winning HBO miniseries with Kate Winslet and Guy Pierce has more in common with the novel, but this film is by no means a subpar effort. This film may not play up the effect of the Depression era in which the novel takes place, but it still serves as an interesting and somewhat authentic depiction of the American middle class. Being a story told from a female perspective also helps this noir stand out.
Rather than seeing a hardboiled crime story with the familiar male lead (either a detective or an unknowing regular Joe caught up in something unexpected), this film has Mildred in the lead and brings in the psychological turmoil that comes from being both a maternal figure and one struggling to prove they can be independent. It also works in an interesting idea of making the femme fatal character the lead’s own daughter. All of the roles actually fit into a type, sometimes reversed from what’s expected (Beragon being the key example); that said, it also feels natural.
Sure, my perspective on seeing a film like this comes from a time where Mildred Pierce feels far less novel, but knowing enough film history, let alone seeing the work done by Curtiz and his team for this film, still allows the ambition to stand out. Characters have the kind of old fashioned energy that was a treat to see unfold during this era. The mix of sets and certain locations allow for interesting observations regarding the time and place. Dialogue feels snappy or even overdone in a complimentary way. The score by Max Steiner and the expressionist style of Curtiz’s direction find a film set in SoCal achieving a bleak tone reminiscent of something like Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity.
All of this is to say that Mildred Pierce is an engaging drama full of noir-ish qualities that go against the grain, as well as melodramatic aspects that function well, given the quality of the material. The cast is great all around and the film evokes a time and place that further helps the level of effectiveness found in the overall project. For a feature film that both challenged certain filmmaking understandings and solidified a comeback for Crawford, Mildred Pierce holds up as one to be remembered.
Encoding: MPEG-4 AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1
Clarity/Detail: Mildred Pierce arrives on Blu-ray with a new digital transfer created in 4K resolution primarily from the 35mm original nitrate camera negative. Some sequences were scanned from other prints held in different museums. As a result, we get a wonderful clear and very stable image seen throughout. Hints of dirt, debris, etc. have been removed, while preserving the aesthetic one would expect for a film like this.
Depth: For an older film such as this, you get a good amount of dimensionality thanks to the film’s use of character placement. Given the settings Mildred appears in, the depth of field is constantly called into question and handled with aplomb.
Black Levels: Black levels are solid throughout. For this black & white film, the grays and whites feel nice and balance, but the range of blacks really work to this noir’s advantage.
Color Reproduction: N/A
Flesh Tones: I could maybe knock this area for a level of softness that appears, but given the film’s age, I hardly find it to be much of a flaw that every inch of the actors is not completely clear here.
Noise/Artifacts: This disc has been meticulously cleaned.
Audio Format(s): English LPCM 1.0
Dynamics: Given the capabilities of filmmakers from this time, there is no reason to come down on how sound has been mastered for this film. It’s a terrific audio track regardless, because you have a great Max Steiner score to work with, along with a fine handling of all the dialogue.
Low Frequency Extension: Hardly a factor.
Surround Sound Presentation: You get what the film is capable of and the balance is fine, even if we’re relying on the front and center channels.
Dialogue Reproduction: Everyone is heard loud and clear.
Make no mistake, there are some great features present on his disc, including a feature-length documentary about Joan Crawford, but I still with there was a bit more focus on the actual making of Mildred Pierce to some degree. Plenty of great archival interviews though.
- Molly Haskell and Robert Polito (HD, 24:00) – A solid conversation between two film critics/historians who discuss what works about the films, the original novel, the filmmakers and actors involved, the time and setting of the film and more.
- Joahn Crawford: The Ultimate Movie Star (SD, 88:00) – A 2002 documentary covering the life and career of Crawford.
- David Frost and Joan Crawford (SD, 16:00) – An interview with Crawford that originally took place in 1970 on The David Frost Show.
- Anny Blyth (SD, 24:00) – A Q&A with Oscar-nominated co-star Ann Blyth recorded in 2006, following a screening of the film at the Castro Theater in San Francisco.
- James M. Cain (HD, 11:00) – An archival interview from 1969 with Hugh Downs from the Today show.
- Trailer (HD, 3:00)
- Plus: An Essay by Critic Imogen Sarah Smith – This is the leaflet that accompanies all Criterion releases. It’s quite well-done and informative, as usual.
Mildred Pierce is another great release from the Criterion Collection. The film looks and sounds better than ever and also reminds audiences of just how well-deserved its acclaim really is. The mix of film noir and melodrama, as previously mentioned, works well for both Curtiz and Crawford, who is excellent in the lead role. Additionally, there are plenty of extras to dig into, providing more insight on those involved. With a great video restoration, this is likely the definitive edition of the film and worthwhile for those wanting to add to their collection of noir, Criterion or just great films in general.