If you aren’t familiar with Criterion, they are the masters of restoring old film and transferring it to high-definition Blu-ray. The picture hasn’t looked this good since Warner Brothers finished assembling the master cut of the movie.
If you aren’t familiar with Mildred Pierce, it is a Michael Curtiz-directed masterpiece that shows the seamy underside of suburban domestic life in post-war Los Angeles. Joan Crawford won the Best Actress Oscar for her role as the titular lead. It was an impressive achievement considering she had just been dropped by her former studio MGM and labeled “box office poison.”
The story opens with a murder. A series of flashbacks during her interview with a police detective has Mildred telling her life story in an attempt to explain why a murder happened in her house and why she did it. Only, the crafty police have ideas of their own, suspecting a cover-up.
And so unfolds a story about a divorced single mom making lemonade out of lemons. Desperate to raise her daughters, Veda and Kaye, and give them a better life than she had, Mildred bakes pies and cakes for anyone who will buy one and starts waiting tables. Successful enough to start her own restaurant, she soon is rolling in cash.
Unfortunately, money and an affair with a notorious playboy begins entangling Mildred in a web of lies and deceit. Mix in Veda’s limitless greed and vanity, and all of Mildred’s motherly sacrifices will never be enough to prevent murder.
Part mother-daughter melodrama and part film-noir murder mystery, Mildred Pierce was a monster hit based off of James M. Cain’s novel. Crawford is incredibly compelling, turning in one of her strongest performances. Yet, without the talents of the supporting cast, her efforts would have been wasted.
Eve Arden plays Mildred’s best friend and restaurant manager with snarky, scene-stealing aplomb. Jack Carson is an affably sleazy business partner and horn dog who pursues Mildred at every turn. Zachary Scott plays her patronizing lover that is at once charming, slimy and debonair. And finally, there is Ann Blyth who plays the viperous Veda with such bitterness and calculating greed that you can’t help but despise her.
It is Blyth who gets such wonderful lines throughout the film. My favorite exchange is early in the film. Mildred goes to kiss a still young Veda good night, and Veda stops her. “I love you, too, Mother, but let’s not be sticky about it.”
The acclaimed movie composer Max Steiner wrote the score, which contributed a noirish feel.
Rounding out the noir sensibilities was Oscar-winning cinematographer/photographer Ernest Haller, whose famed expressionistic style intensified many a drama and mystery. Some of Haller’s most famous credits include (the not-so noirish) Gone with the Wind, The Roaring Twenties, Rebel without a Cause, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, and even the second pilot episode of Star Trek!
This new Criterion edition includes bonus features of old interviews with Crawford, Blyth and Cain. It also has the original trailer, a full-length documentary about Crawford, discussions with critics and more.
Nathaniel Cerf has seen Mildred Pierce an embarrassing number of times. You can reach him at Nathaniel.Cerf@aent.com.