The Criterion Collection’s unexpected partnership with Warner Bros. means that we finally get some great Black & White films that even Warner Archive hasn’t gotten to. One of these titles was Mildred Pierce, which had somehow never been released on Blu-Ray until Criterion did so on February 21, 2017. It’s shocking since Joan Crawford is still one of the few Golden Age of Hollywood stars still with a place in the public mind, as you can tell by FX’s Feud, and this was the film that won her the only competitive Oscar in her career. Warner Bros. also missed the boat on a hi-def release back in 2011, when Todd Haynes’ brilliant adaptation of the James M. Cain novel aired on HBO.
Now that we finally have Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce (1945) on Blu-ray, we can appreciate this curious mix of “women’s picture” and film noir in all its glory.
Mildred Pierce really is a “women’s picture” wrapped in a film noir frame. Like many of the classic noir titles, it’s told through flashback, beginning with the murder of Mildred’s second husband Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott). We see Mildred mysteriously frame the handsy Wally Fay (Jack Carson) for the murder before she is finally taken to the police for questioning.
At headquarters, we learn the story of Mildred’s life – through her perspective of course. After divorcing Bert Pierce (Bruce Bennett), she decides to became a waitress to raise money to be the best parent possible for her daughters, Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe) and Veda (Ann Blyth). Then, she hatches a plan to create her own business with the help of down-on-his-luck playboy Monte. But is Mildred doing all this for herself or to make Veda happy? It’s a question a parent has to ask him or herself every day. Should you put the happiness of your child ahead of your own? Thankfully, many parents don’t have to deal with a child as vile or evil as Veda pushing them.
In light of Haynes’ famous adaptation, it might be easy to dismiss the 1945 film as one hampered by the standards of Golden Age Hollywood or a condensed version of a long novel. That’s a disservice to the incredible craftsmanship that went into the making of it and the result. Crawford’s performance is one of the greatest Oscar-winning performances from any era. For Crawford, so much of her performance is in her eyes and seeing what’s behind them. How she reacts to the shocking things that happen to her is the lynchpin of the performance. We genuinely believe that she is Mildred Pierce, almost forgetting the actress behind the makeup. At the same time, we truly can’t think of anyone else who could play this character.
Ann Blyth’s performance as Veda is remarkable as well. The scene where she slaps Crawford in the face is magic. Anne Revere was good in National Velvet, but Blyth was robbed of the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. (As much I like Eve Arden, I’m not sure why she was nominated for this movie. She might have taken some votes from Blyth, leaving Revere with the Oscar.)
I still can’t get used to seeing Warner Bros. titles as part of the Criterion Collection, even though they started working together back in 2013 with Badlands. The release looks wonderful, using a new 4K digital restoration. There’s still a few scenes that look soft and with a little damage, but overall it looks good. And now on to the supplements:
- Molly Haskell and Robert Polito – I always enjoy listening to Molly Haskell’s comments on Golden Age movies and should probably seek out some of her work. Here, she’s joined by Robert Polito to analyze the film, its connection to the James M. Cain novel and comparing it to Haynes’ version. While a commentary would have been nice, this 25-minute piece does the trick, explaining why the film is still important today.
- Joan Crawford: The Ultimate Movie Star – This 90-minute film was made in 2002 for the original Warner Bros. DVD of Mildred Pierce. It’s more of an overall look at Crawford’s career and narrated by Anjelica Huston. Seeing as it was the only extra included on Warner Bros.’ original DVD, it’s a nice inclusion.
- David Frost and Joan Crawford – This is a 16-minute excerpt from Crawford’s 1970 interview with Frost. It would have been great to see the whole interview, but Criterion cut it down to just a portion where she talks about Mildred Pierce and working with Curtiz.
- Ann Blyth – This is a 2006 Q&A session from a San Francisco screening of the film, with noir historian Eddie Muller and Blyth going over her career. It runs about 25 minutes.
- James M. Cain – Here’s something only Criterion would dig up – a 1969 Today Show interview with Cain. This is not specifically about Mildred Pierce, but focuses more on his view of American literature and violence. It runs just over 10 minutes.
- “A Woman’s Work” – Critic Imogen Sara Smith provides another look at the film in the included leaflet. The leaflet and package includes new artwork from Sean Phillips, the same artist behind the beautiful artwork for the Criterion releases of Sweet Smell of Success, 12 Angry Men and On The Waterfront.
Mildred Pierce is a landmark movie, as important in Curtiz’s career as Casablanca, Yankee Doodle Dandy, 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, White Christmas and Front Page Woman (I’m joking about that last one, but I love it!). Criterion’s release was worth the wait, although a commentary and content about Cain and Curtiz would have been welcome. It’s a must-have though for fans of noir and Joan Crawford.