What exactly is Mildred Pierce? Is it a drama? A film noir? A proto-feminist declaration? You could argue that the Hollywood watermark is all of the above. Directed by Micaael Curtiz and starring the indomitable Joan Crawford, Mildred Pierce is freshly out on Blu-ray and DVD this week from the Criterion Collection.
The film opens in typical noir style: dramatic lighting and murder. Crawford's Mildred is on the precipice of a dock in California, about to throw herself off when she's interrupted by a strolling police officer. We then go back to the beginning to see how she got there. Mildred's got a cheating, out-of-work husband whom she clearly does not need. Self sufficient, she's already baking and selling pies and cakes out of her kitchen to support her children's piano and ballet lessons.
Tragedy strikes when her youngest daughter, Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe) dies from pneumonia. This event makes Mildred dote on her remaining daughter Veda (the terrific Ann Blyth) far more than she should. Veda's narcissism and extremely rich tastes will eventually cause her own downfall, and as Mildred Pierce is Hays Code film, any amoral conduct must be sufficiently punished.
Mildred graduates from home cooking to opening a restaurant --- and then an entire chain of them --- with the help of her long-time friend Wally Fay (Jack Carson) and at first, the scion of an old money family, Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott). In order to keep pleasing and placating Veda, Mildred marries Monte, whom Veda worships, because she sees him as blue-blooded and coming from "good stock," unlike her mother.
Of course, this odd arrangement cannot last, and it all comes spiraling down around them in grand noir fashion. The downfall of the American Dream reaches the tragic end which we saw at the beginning of the film. Mildred walks off into the dawn with her first husband Bert, pass cleaning women scrubbing floors.
The ending is even more downbeat when you consider the feminist implications of Mildred Pierce --- the protagonist has struggled to raise and provide for her children and escape all the suffocations brought on by her gender roles and the men in her life --- only to walk away with the man who hurt her first, and without her children. Yes, she's self-sufficient and wealthy, but Mildred Pierce seems to imply that there's a heavy cost to that independence. When the film was released in 1945 with men returning to the workforce after WWII, this denouement seemed tailor-made to stoke and then quell their fears.
I'm happy to report that the film looks excellent on the Blu-ray, thanks to the new 4K digital restoration. It sounds equally as wonderful, and this edition is a fitting tribute to such an important film. There are a host of extras, including an excellent documentary narrated by Anjelica Huston, which makes this release of Mildred Pierce a must-buy.
- New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
- New conversation with critics Molly Haskell and Robert Polito
- Excerpt from a 1970 episode of The David Frost Show featuring actor Joan Crawford
- Joan Crawford: The Ultimate Movie Star, a 2002 feature-length documentary
- Q&A with actor Ann Blyth from 2006, presented by Marc Huestis and conducted by film historian Eddie Muller at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco
- Segment from a 1969 episode of the Today show featuring Mildred Pierce novelist James M. Cain
- PLUS: An essay by critic Imogen Sara Smith
- New cover by Sean Phillips
Check out the trailer for Mildred Pierce below. You can also learn more about Criterion's release here.