Mildred Pierce (1945) (Blu-ray Review)27 Feb, 2017 By: Mike Clark
$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray
Stars Joan Crawford, Jack Carson, Zachary Scott, Ann Blyth, Eve Arden.
Combined critical/commercial success and then staying power has made 1945’s Mildred Pierce the most impressive of Joan Crawford’s career comebacks and screen image alterations, launching her at the time on a string of melodramas for Warner Bros. and other studios that grew campier as they progressed and the actress’s looks hardened into a mass of eyebrows and hairline kamikazes.
Yet as an even niftier mix of “woman’s picture” and film noir than some (myself included) have given it credit for being, there really isn’t much that’s all-out risible in Crawford’s Oscar vehicle beyond Eve Arden’s intentionally funny laugh lines and our glee in seeing Crawford’s Mildred mix it up in violently high-pitched fashion with snotty daughter Veda (Ann Blyth). Though the latter emotions are fully earned and indisputably central to the story, you can see why — in another of Criterion’s reliably illuminating extras — they drive a predominantly gay San Francisco audience into delirium at 2002 Castro Theater screening with Blyth in attendance.
Adapted by Oscar-nominated Ranald MacDougall from James M. Cain’s first-rate novel but with a plot-propelling opening murder added to the mix, Mildred marked the first foray into noir by premier Warner director Michael Curtiz, whose remarkably prolific career will be chronicled in book form later this year in what promises to be definitive (and overdue) fashion by ace film historian Alan K. Rode. There aren’t many movies that heave us into the action any faster, and here it’s with a beach house homicide that quickly proceeds to a possibly foiled suicide off a nearby dock — and then into a police precinct grilling that motivates a Kane-like flashback devoted to the central character’s upward mobility. In this case, the title protagonist is a woman who rapidly develops a lot of professional prowess in terms of pleasing restaurant customers as the waitress she’ll not always be — when, that is, she’s not preoccupied with a lot of at-home baking of cakes. Mildred, not surprisingly, is this mom and eventual business success, and oh, does status-craving Veda ever hate those cakes.
Blyth, Arden and winner Crawford all got Oscar nominations, but the male characters are sharply delineated as well. Bruce Bennett is husband No. 1 — downtrodden by life and dull to Mildred yet with flashes of integrity. Zachary Scott is husband No. 2 — filling the sexual bill (for a while) but mostly siphoning her money so that he can remain on the polo circuit that his family’s depleted old-money can no longer bankroll. The sometimes forgotten man here is Jack Carson’s slippery Wally character — repeatedly hitting on Mildred with ambiguous sincerity but also a savvy business partner who makes her Southern California eatery chain possible; as ever, Carson remains one of film history’s underrated performers, though there was never an instance when a movie didn’t improve from his walking through a door. For better or worse, Crawford had a way of dominating her vehicles the later they progressed into the ’50s, but here she’s part of a splendid ensemble that’s gotten more impressive over the years.
Beyond a lot of 4K digital polish that makes a movie released shortly after World War II ended leap off the screen, the extras here are keenly balanced in terms of the Cain source material, Curtiz prowess, Oscar night lore (when Crawford, perhaps fearful of losing, apparently faked an illness to take her award from a sickbed) and Crawford’s extraordinarily durable career until its howler half-a-decade on the road to swansong Trog. The accompanying essay by Imogen Sara Smith (a writer I really like) explores the movie’s themes, which are far more grounded in the Depression and its fallout than the barely mentioned war. Cain specifically gets his own showcase with a 1969 “Today” show interview by Hugh Downs when his antenna was still well-tuned to the world in which he lived (aside from his opining — cordially — that he couldn’t envision protesting ’60s youth ever getting too interested in the environment). Critics Molly Haskell and Robert Polito straddle both content and form (and Joan) in a simpatico half-hour schmooze, and they concede that the picture never quite cements its woman’s picture/noir mix — which can a) make Mildred possibly easy to underrate; while b) also making it compellingly watchable. I was happy to hear Haskell say that she’s also very fond of Todd Haynes’s 5½-hour Mildred for HBO in 2011, which is closer to the novel. The two films are complementary and don’t have to compete, though, yes, Kate Winslet is more believable in the kitchen wearing (if memory serves) a lot of residue flour. As for the Blyth interview at the Castro (conducted by welcome familiar face Eddie Muller), her sense of humor is about a hundred-fold over what I would have expected — just as there’s nothing in her Veda performance to suggest that in a decade or so, she’d be handling the soprano leads in woebegone MGM remakes of Rose Marie and The Student Prince.
A juicy capper here is the inclusion of documentarian Peter Fitzgerald’s super-comprehensive Joan Crawford: The Ultimate Star from 2002 — originally produced for Turner and accurately titled due to the longevity of its subject’s career and the amount of fan-curtsying labors she put into it. Crawford is given her deservedly respectful due with heavy clip augmentation, but so are the wire hangers — with daughter un-dearest Christina Crawford even speculating on the origins of her adoptive mom’s hangers phobia. There are also first-hand memories (from, respectively, Ben Cooper, Betsy Palmer and Anna Lee) of the on-the-set battles between Joan and Mercedes McCambridge (Johnny Guitar), Lucy Marlow (Queen Bee) and, current FX miniseries famously, Bette Davis (What Ever Happened to Baby Jane). There’s also a long excerpt from a 1970 David Frost interview when TV work is all that awaited her — an amazing mix of calculation, frankness, superstar splendor and what feels like genuine vulnerability that pretty well sums up Crawford’s complexity and the complexity of any fan’s reaction (and I’m a huge one).