A mother’s love leads to murder.
Joan Crawford was in a tough place. In 1938 she’d been part of the infamous list of stars who were “Box Office Poison.” It was a (mostly) a power play where those on the list had been able to justify large guaranteed salaries, and those salaries were starting to get too big to justify in comparison to their continued box office receipts. Whether the original accusation was appropriate, the list had the effect of lowering the profiles of pretty much every person on the list. Joan Crawford was on that list, and her fortunes were variable for the next few years (and adopting a daughter while she was single didn’t help). But then she moved to Warner Bros in 1943 for a three picture deal. The first film was the throwaway Hollywood Canteen, but then she wanted to play the lead in Mildred Pierce. Director Michael Curtiz didn’t want her, but Crawford persevered. The result is a film that revived her career, gave her the only Oscar win she’d ever have, and produced a cracklingly weird noir film. Recognizing its greatness, Criterion has provided a strong Blu-ray release.
Set during the Great Depression, Mildred Pierce is the tale of a woman fallen on hard times. Her husband is gone and she still has two girls to tend to. So she takes a job as a waitress and moves her way up in the world. But that doesn’t stop her oldest daughter (Eve Arden, Grease) from wanting more. Mildred does her best to provide, but with some dark consequences.
Mildred Pierce is a film with many parents. The most obvious is James M. Cain, who wrote the novel that provides the source material. Though Cain had worked on several screenplays, and had a few of his novels adapted (with the titles changed), 1944 was his breakout year. Both Double Indemnity came out in that year, with Mildred Pierce in 1945, and The Postman Always Rings Twice in 1946. But Cain was already known for writing “roman noir,” dark crime tales that butted up against cultural mores at the time.
The novel Mildred Pierce represents something of a departure for Cain. It’s his least violent and most psychologically rich novel, tracing a woman’s rise to self-sufficiency in a time when few (men or women) could claim it. But, it being a Cain novel, he couldn’t stay away from the darkness. One of the threads in the novel finds Mildred’s second husband having an affair with Mildred’s eldest, his step-daughter. Incest was a no-no in 1944, so that whole subplot, which really drives much of the relationship between Mildred and her daughter, had to be excised in favor of a flashback-laden murder mystery.
That flashback structure points to another of the film’s parents, studio stalwart Michael Curtiz, who famously gave us some wonderful flashbacks in Casablanca. Curtiz orchestrates the plot perfectly, keeping the flashback structure from being either overwhelming or too clever. The film’s black-and-white cinematography is also a plus. As part of the canonical set of “noir” pictures, Mildred Pierce’s dark lighting helped develop the language of film noir.
Then, of course, there’s Joan Crawford. Crawford had already weathered the switch from silent star to talkie staple, making MGM a pile of money in the process. The switch to Warner Bros came at a delicate moment in her career. Though she’d been a box office powerhouse, the “box office poison” accusations came just as she was hitting her mid-30s. The studio system was totally willing to turn to younger, cheaper stars. The upshot is that Crawford goes all out with Mildred Pierce. And by all-out I don’t mean the kind of over-the-top acting she would do in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, but more that she commits to the performance completely. She’s the center of the film, and she has to make the two sides of Mildred believable. On the one hand we have to believe that she’s the kind of confident woman who can rise through the ranks of business, and on the other one who is seemingly willing to do anything at the behest of her unhinged daughter. It’s no surprise she won the Oscar for the performance.
The rest of the cast is pretty solid too. Ann Blyth is perfect as Mildred’s overbearing daughter. Eve Arden is great as Mildred’s former boss. Jack Carson is great as Mildred’s former husband’s friend, Wally. Zachary Scott is also great as Monte, the man Mildred marries to climb socially, and the man she’s accused of murdering.
Criterion have done a great job bringing the film to Blu-ray. The 1.37:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer is sourced from a gorgeous looking 4K restoration. Detail is strong throughout, with plenty of well-rendered grain. Black levels are deep and consistent, and contrast stays strong. No significant noise or artifacts show up either. The LPCM 1.0 mono soundtrack isn’t quite as spectacular, but it handles the film’s score and dialogue well. There’s no directionality, but fidelity is fine. There’s a bit of hiss in a few places, but overall this is a decent track for the film’s age.
Criterion kicks off their extras with a new conversation between critics Molly Haskell and Robert Polito, who discuss everything from the film’s origins to the characteristics of film noir. We also get a 2002 documentary on Crawford. Crawford reappears on an excerpt from The David Frost Show, where she discusses her involvement in the film. James M. Cain shows up in an archival interview from 1969 that’s more of a snapshot of Cain’s life than specifically about Mildred Pierce (which isn’t to knock it at all). Ann Blythe is included in an archival Q&A from a 2006 screening of the film. She has strong memories of the production and its impact. The usual Criterion booklet features an essay by Imogen Sara Smith that highlights the film’s role as a “woman’s picture.”
Mildred Pierce is an interesting entry into the noir canon, as it blends the familiar noir murder mystery with elements of the woman-centric melodrama. Joan Crawford gives a career-defining performance, and the film’s Blu-ray release lives up to the historical hype.