Based on the novel by James M. Cain, Mildred Pierce is the type of bleak, melodramatic film that its star Joan Crawford excelled in–tough as nails–a woman who could take care of herself, but is alluring enough to always have a man around (this is the 1940’s after all, she couldn’t be too independent). The catch? Playing the title role here, Crawford isn’t the femme fatale, but rather, her mother. As the film begins, Monty Baragon (Zachary Scott) has been shot by an unseen assailant. His last word was simply, “Mildred.”
Brought down to City Hall for questioning, Mildred is informed by police that they believe her first husband, Bert Pierce (Bruce Bennett) murdered her second one. Convinced of Bert’s innocence, Mildred begins to tell her life story. The mother/ daughter relationship becomes the prime focus as the newly divorced Mildred struggles to provide for her two daughters, particularly the precociously devious Veda (Ann Blyth). Mildred secretly gets a job working as a waitress. With determination and hard work, she eventually owns a chain of restaurants. Through it all, three men are part of her life–her ex-husband Bert, her new beautiful Monty Baragon and Wally Fay (Jack Carson) her business associate and friend who hopes for a more romantic relationship. While her business is thriving and Mildred dutifully provides everything for her kids, Veda remains petulant and unimpressed. Veda rails against her mother working in low class establishments no matter how hard she works or how much money she earns.
In the context of the time, Mildred Pierce should be viewed as a heroic figure. A precursor to the ‘women’s pictures’ of the 1950’s, Mildred confronted a problem head-on and did what she needed to do to support her children. It’s important to remember that Mildred Pierce was released in 1945. World War II had just ended and women–really a select few–had barely begun to seek out their independence. Looking at it in 2023, Mildred’s fate is doubly sad. Not only does she lose her businesses and her daughter, but the larger message seems to be that she shouldn’t have had such lofty ambitions in the first place. After she has lost everything, her husband Bert us waiting for her. If she had only stayed with him in the first place, none of this would have happened…
Context and morality aside, Mildred Pierce is an excellent film, not just because of Joan Crawford memorable performance (for which she earned an Oscar for Best Actress) and Ann Blyth ‘s bile spewing turn as Veda, but the crisp direction of Michael Curtiz. A studio director since 1926 and a master of pacing, the restaurant scene after Mildred gets a job is brilliant. Not only does it establish the fast pace of Pierce’s stint as waitress, but also the urgency of her goals. He often begins scenes with close-ups, pulling back his camera to reveal the establishing shot–a technique that still feels unique today. An interesting side note, Curtiz had balked at casting “has been” Joan Crawford in lead role who had developed a reputation for being difficult but was pleasantly surprised when she turned in one of the best performances of her film career.
Presented in the 1.37:1 aspect ratio, Mildred Pierce is faithfully rendered in 4K. Fully restored in 4K and released by Criterion on Blu-ray in 2017, the differences in native 4K may appear minimal. The added HDR results in a noticeable improvement in darker scenes. Blacks and grays appear more pronounced throughout. As with the Blu-ray, the image looks wonderfully sharp throughout. There are no image flaws. If you purchased the 2017 Blu-ray (also included here), an upgrade is probably not required. However, the 4K upgrade is highly recommended to those who haven’t purchased Mildred Pierce, or like me, watch films in 4K whenever possible. As usual, Criterion has delivered an excellent transfer.
The sound mix is the same LPCM Mono soundtrack available on the previous Blu-ray. It works well for this dialogue heavy film. Vocals are clean and clear throughout. The legendary Max Steiner’s score comes through with effective resonance. Effects are modest, but clear and accurate. For a film that’s almost eighty-years old, there’s really nothing to complain about here.
English SDH subtitles are included.
The following extras are available on the included Blu-ray copy of the film:
- Joan Crawford: The Ultimate Movie Star (HD, 127:06) From 2002, this documentary narrated by Anjelica Huston provides a rather thorough overview of Crawford’s life and career. It includes comments from biographer Bob Thomas, daughter Christina Crawford, columnist Liz Smith, playwright/historian Charles Busch, historian Karen Swensen, director Vincent Sherman, key MGM hairstylist Sydney Guilaroff, actor/husband Douglas Fairbanks Jr., director/friend Herbert Kenwith, interior designer Carleton Varney, friend Peter Rogers and actors Diane Baker, Betsy Palmer, Anna Lee, Cliff Robertson, Anita Page, Virginia Grey, Dickie Moore, Ben Cooper, Margaret O’Brien and Judy Geeson. Well worth a look.
- Molly Haskell and Robert Polito (HD, 22:59) In this piece filmed exclusively for Criterion in 2016, critics Molly Haskell and Robert Polito discuss the James M. Cain novel that inspired the film, the films noise characteristics, Joan Crawford’s approach to her character, Michael Curtiz’s direction and more.
- David Frost and Joan Crawford (HD, 15:02) In this excerpt from a 1970 episode of The David Frost Show, Joan Crawford discusses the filming of Mildred Pierce and recalls working with Michael Curtiz.
- Q&A with Actress Ann Blyth (HD, 23:56) Filmed in 2006 at the Castro Theater after a screening of Mildred Pierce, the proceedings are moderated by film noir expert Eddie Mueller. Then 78, Ms. Blyth looks very well.
- James M. Cain (HD, 10:07) Interviewed by Hugh Downs on November 26, 1969 for the Today Show, author James M.Cain discusses the role of violence in literature and culture, the correlation between television and violence and his decision to leave Hollywood and return to his home state of Maryland.
- Trailer (HD, 2:19)
- Leaflet: An illustrated leaflet featuring critic Imogen Sara Smith’s essay “A Woman’s Work.”