Director Michael Curtiz's classic adaptation of the James M. Cain novel, at last, gets the 4K UHD treatment from Criterion, and though the enhancements are subtle, this stellar presentation with HDR definitely merits an upgrade. A film noir-woman's picture hybrid about a single working mother who constantly kowtows to her monstrous daughter, Mildred Pierce features an Oscar-winning performance from Joan Crawford with plenty of style, substance, and riveting drama. Solid audio and all the supplements from the 2017 Blu-ray add to the appeal of this essential release. Must Own.
Nothing tugs at the heartstrings like maternal martyrdom, and Hollywood milked every last tear from the well-worn theme during its storied Golden Age. Though emotional 1930s melodramas like Stella Dallas, The Sin of Madelon Claudet, Madame X, and The Old Maid reaped huge profits by shamelessly exploiting mother-love, such maudlin mush began to lose its appeal at the dawn of World War II. Mildred Pierce, released in the fall of 1945, reinvented and spiced up the clichéd formula by injecting a delicious dose of sadomasochism into the mix. Instead of society dealing the mother a series of devastating blows, her spoiled, ungrateful daughter vindictively - and repeatedly - beats her down instead. The mother abhors the abuse but prefers to take it rather than cut her beloved offspring out of her life. How far will the daughter go? How much can the mother take?
No prior film had ever chronicled such a conflict, and though director Michael Curtiz's slick adaptation of the stinging novel by James M. Cain (Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice) remains very much a "woman's picture," little sentiment courses through its veins. On the contrary, this hard-boiled, often riveting study of a dysfunctional and debilitating relationship more acutely resembles film noir. Violence and deceit punctuate Cain's psychological tale, which shines a glaring spotlight on the growing insolence and disaffection of America's youth, a malaise that continues to plague society today.
The classic mother-love movies of yore focus on the secret sacrifices women willingly make to give their prized progeny a better life. The sensitive children in these four-handkerchief weepies rarely learn of their mother's noble deeds because she goes to Herculean lengths to conceal the truth. Mildred Pierce, however, thumbs its nose at such pathos as it paints an uncompromising portrait of a parasitic daughter who actively preys upon her mother without batting an eye. This daughter encourages sacrifices and relishes the spoils they generate, then derides her mother for making them, claiming she's inferior and shameful. Sadly, the attacks only goad the mother into making further sacrifices and giving her daughter more...and more...and more. And yet it's never enough.
Heartless and cruel, the petulant, velvet-toned Veda Pierce (Ann Blyth) cares nothing for the woman who works herself to the bone to support her, the woman who willingly feeds her insatiable greed just to see her smile. Mildred (Joan Crawford) - the poster child for maternal doormats - doesn't want gratitude, she wants love, and mistakenly believes indulging Veda to the nth degree is the best (and perhaps only) way to get it. Yet by doing so, Mildred unwittingly teaches Veda to overvalue material things and equate them with affection, thus creating a resentful, immoral monster who's never satisfied and always works angles or stomps on others to get what she wants. And as we all know, such behavior - especially under Hollywood's rigid production code - always leads to trouble in the end.
Mildred Pierce opens with a man getting repeatedly shot, then soon flashes back to chronicle the events leading up to the crime. In addition to the murder investigation and incisive depiction of Mildred and Veda's disturbing codependent relationship, the film also provides a detailed look at how a single woman can pull herself up by her bootstraps, support herself and her family, and eventually become an entrepreneur...with only minimal help from a man. Successful, independent businesswomen were a rarity in 1945 (at least on screen) and Mildred Pierce - the first feminist film of the post-World War II era - helped empower women to expand their horizons and pursue their dreams. Though flawed, Mildred is certainly a role model. She's got guts, smarts, and ambition to burn (she rises from inexperienced waitress to restaurant tycoon with dizzying alacrity), and her strength and determination in the face of adversity are admirable indeed.
It's ironic, though, that a picture about a self-sacrificing, permissive mother would resurrect the career of Crawford, whose abusive parenting style would be famously recounted by her bitter adopted daughter decades later in the tell-all memoir Mommie Dearest. After 18 fruitful years at MGM, Crawford no longer felt valued by the studio and signed with Warner Bros, yet two years passed before the venerable star could find a suitable property, shed her insecurities, and perform in front of the camera. She fought tooth-and-nail to play Mildred and though she initially battled with Curtiz, who viewed her as a superficial star instead of an actress, she soon earned his respect. She also at last earned the respect of her peers, who awarded her the Best Actress Oscar for a finely tuned performance that brims with confidence and conviction. Almost instantly, Mildred Pierce would become Crawford's signature role and only a couple of her subsequent portrayals would surpass her work here.
If Crawford is the picture's broken heart, Blyth is its stone cold soul. As the vile, vitriolic, and volatile Veda, who continually vilifies and vexes her mother (okay, I'll stop with the "v" words now), Blyth hits all the right notes. Though it would be easy to play Veda as a cartoon caricature in raving bitch mode, Blyth wisely resists the temptation. Sure, she lets loose when it's called for - the tirade when Veda calls her mother "a common frump" is especially memorable (see clip below) - but most of the time she exercises admirable restraint, even at times lacing her portrayal with hints of warmth. (Yes, warmth!) The result is a highly effective performance that holds up well almost 80 years later and justly nabbed Blyth a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination.
The priceless Eve Arden, as Mildred's wisecracking bosom pal Ida, also received an Oscar nod for her acerbic work, while Jack Carson as a smooth-talking real estate agent who's always trying to get Mildred in the sack and Zachary Scott as the oily, ill-fated playboy who dallies with both mother and daughter file spot-on portrayals as well. Without its strong supporting cast, Mildred Pierce would be far less entertaining, and Ranald MacDougall's zippy, Oscar-nominated screenplay that's packed with verbal zingers and clever repartee might not exude the same snap, crackle, and pop.
Mildred Pierce lost the Best Picture Oscar to The Lost Weekend, but over the years has had far more staying power than Billy Wilder's downbeat portrait of alcoholism. (The 2011 TV remake with Kate Winslet follows the novel more closely, but I strongly prefer the Crawford version despite its drastic narrative departures.) Though the melodrama might not be realistic, the underlying themes of greed, entitlement, and twisted family dynamics resonate all too strongly in our current day and age. Catfighting, shoulder pads, and murder aside, Mildred Pierce fiercely preaches about the pitfalls of parenting, youthful arrogance, and whether unconditional love and respect can be bought. It's a powerful tale, and Curtiz and company get it right.
Vital Disc Stats: The Ultra HD Blu-ray
Mildred Pierce arrives on 4K UHD packaged in a standard Criterion case along with Criterion's 2017 standard Blu-ray disc. The same 12-page, fold-out booklet contained in the 2017 release featuring an essay by film writer Imogen Sara Smith, color illustrations of Crawford and Blyth, cast and crew listings, and transfer notes is tucked inside the front cover. Video codec for the 4K UHD disc is 2160p/HEVC H.265 with HDR and audio is LPCM mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
Enhanced with HDR, this 2160p/HEVC H.265 transfer was struck from the same master as Criterion's 2017 Blu-ray, which according to the liner notes "was created in 4K resolution...primarily from the 35 mm original nitrate camera negative. Some sequences, including the entire last reel of the film, were scanned from a 35 mm nitrate fine-grain master held by the Museum of Modern Art in New York and a 35 mm safety fine-grain master." Though the differences between the two aren't substantial, they're significant enough to make this transfer well worth an upgrade. The 4K UHD transfer is a shade darker and immerses us more fully in the noir atmosphere and more faithfully honors Ernest Haller's Oscar-nominated cinematography. Blacks appear richer, shadows are more pronounced, contrast is more striking, and the grays exhibit more variance.
Details like wall textures, the gleaming exterior of a car, and plaid clothing patterns are definitely crisper, and sharper close-ups highlight glistening beads of sweat, teardrops, and heavily mascara-ed eyelashes just a little bit more. The picture retains its palpable film-like feel while often exuding the same lovely sheen that showcases the stylish costumes and ornate sets. The daytime exteriors on the Blu-ray came close to looking washed out, but this UHD upgrade dials back the brightness and provides a more balanced and realistic picture. Some of the rear projection shots look more artificial, but that's a small price to pay for the enhanced clarity and lushness.
The same print issues that plagued the Blu-ray like fluctuating grain and brightness levels and harsh whites are present here, but they're less intrusive, and an annoying thread that pops up for a spell in the lower left corner of the screen as Mildred tours Monty's family mansion is far less noticeable on the 4K disc. (In fact, I didn't notice it at all until I began comparing the Blu-ray disc to its 4K UHD counterpart.)
Some may feel the subtle enhancements don't merit an upgrade, but if you're a fan of Mildred Pierce, you'll definitely want to add this disc to your collection. Without question, this classic film noir has never looked better.
The exact same LPCM mono track from the 2017 Blu-ray accompanies the 4K UHD visuals. Here's what I wrote about the audio six years ago:
"According to the liner notes, "the monaural soundtrack was remastered from a 35 mm soundtrack print created in 2002...from the variable-area original soundtrack negative." The result is well-modulated, often vibrant sound filled with nuance and tonal depth. Superior fidelity and a pleasing dynamic range beautifully render Max Steiner's lush, melodramatic, and string-laden score, and all the delicious dialogue is clear and easy to comprehend. Ambient effects like the hustle-and-bustle of a busy restaurant, driving rain, and the gentle waves of the Pacific lapping against the Malibu sand supply essential atmosphere, and sonic accents like gunfire, facial slaps, footsteps against pavement, ticking clocks, and the rustling of newspaper pages are all crisp and distinct. Best of all, no age-related imperfections like hiss, pops, and crackles rear their ugly heads, and no distortion creeps into the mix. Audio plays an important role in Mildred Pierce, and this top-quality remastered track passes every test with flying colors."
All the extras from the 2017 Blu-ray are here and reside exclusively on the included Blu-ray disc.
Interview: Molly Haskell and Robert Polito (HD, 23 minutes) - This fascinating 2016 dialogue between the iconic feminist film critic and acclaimed writer examines Mildred Pierce from a variety of perspectives. Haskell says "the film has gotten better and better over time" and deftly combines elements of film noir with those of traditional women's pictures. Among other things, the two examine the sadomasochistic dynamic between Mildred and Veda, the film's unique structure, how the movie differs from the book, and the smart decision to turn the story into a crime picture. They also evaluate the work of novelist James M. Cain, director Michael Curtiz's style, and Crawford's acting, and even compare the film to the recent - and very different - Todd Haynes remake with Kate Winslet. This is a terrific piece that any Mildred Pierce fan will find absorbing and informative.
Documentary: "Joan Crawford: The Ultimate Movie Star" (HD, 87 minutes) - One of the best profiles of a Golden Age Hollywood star, this 2002 feature-length TCM documentary covers every facet of Crawford's career and delves into her personal demons as well. Dozens of clips spanning almost 50 years - from her first brief appearances in silent films in the mid-1920s to her final role in the B-grade monster movie Trog in 1970 - are included, along with incisive remarks from friends, co-stars, and her daughter Christina, author of the notorious tell-all memoir Mommie Dearest. We learn about Crawford's difficult, impoverished childhood; how the lack of a father figure impacted her life; her almost pathological need for approval and admiration; her struggles with alcoholism; her devotion to her fans; her four marriages; her intense professionalism; and her legendary feud with rival Bette Davis. Though the documentary doesn't dwell on her abusive behavior toward her children, it doesn't ignore it either, and the frank comments from her daughter and those who worked with and reported on her paint a vivid portrait of a complex, ceaselessly driven, confident yet insecure woman to whom stardom was everything. Crawford may not always get the credit she deserves, but she was a superb actress, too, and this riveting tribute first and foremost celebrates her talent and magnetism. If you're a Crawford fan, this is must-see TV, and if you're not, you'll become one after viewing this absorbing, well-made film.
Vintage TV Clip: Joan Crawford on The David Frost Show (HD, 15 minutes) - Originally broadcast on January 8, 1970, this rare TV interview finds a regal Crawford holding court with David Frost and discussing a multitude of topics ranging from her favorite recipe (pork chops) and favorite role (Mildred Pierce) to her favorite leading men (Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy) and what makes a happy marriage. Dripping in diamonds and donning a hideous pink gown, Crawford seems alternately nervous and affected as she recalls how she got the part in Mildred Pierce, proclaims receiving an Oscar is "one of the most emotional things that can ever happen to a human being," and expresses her insecurity over her lack of education. She even gets bleeped when asked what makes Gable so masculine: "He had balls," she proudly replies.
Q&A with Ann Blyth (HD, 24 minutes) - Crawford's co-star appeared at a 2006 screening of Mildred Pierce at San Francisco's Castro Theater and chatted with film noir expert Eddie Muller after the picture's conclusion. Looking glamorous and a bit overwhelmed by all the attention, the then 78-year-old Blyth shares her memories of how she was cast in the film (beating out a slew of other young actresses, including Shirley Temple!), the Oscars ceremony (and how a dress had to be specially designed for her to hide a back brace), and her relationship with Crawford. She also praises director Michael Curtiz and fellow actors Eve Arden and Butterfly McQueen in this rare and interesting piece.
Vintage TV Clip: James M. Cain on Today (HD, 10 minutes) - The renowned author of Mildred Pierce, as well as Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, only mentions the book in passing, commenting instead on America's violent society and the problems of contemporary youth in this lively 1969 interview with host Hugh Downs.
Theatrical Trailer (HD, 2 minutes) - The original preview for Mildred Pierce hypes Crawford's "daringly different portrayal," tries to pass off her character as a femme fatale, and gives away too many plot details.
Though the enhancements are subtle, Criterion's 4K UHD HDR presentation of Mildred Pierce bests its 2017 Blu-ray counterpart and merits an upgrade, especially if you're a long-time devotee of this classic tale of mother-love, greed, and murder. Michael Curtiz's hypnotic direction, Joan Crawford's Oscar-winning performance, and top-notch supporting work from Ann Blyth, Eve Arden, Jack Carson, and Zachary Scott all combine to create one of the most entertaining and enduring films of the 1940s. Solid audio and all the Blu-ray extras add to the appeal of this essential release. Must Own.