Mildred Pierce

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Synopsis

Melodrama casts noirish shadows in this portrait of maternal sacrifice from Hollywood master Michael Curtiz. Joan Crawford’s iconic performance as Mildred, a single mother hell-bent on freeing her children from the stigma of economic hardship, solidified Crawford’s career comeback and gave the actor her only Oscar. But as Mildred pulls herself up by her bootstraps, first as an unflappable waitress and eventually as the well-heeled owner of a successful restaurant chain, the ingratitude of her materialistic firstborn (a diabolical Ann Blyth) becomes a venomous serpent’s tooth, setting in motion an endless cycle of desperate overtures and heartless recriminations. Recasting James M. Cain’s rich psychological novel as a murder mystery, this bitter cocktail of blind parental love and all-American ambition is both unremittingly hard-boiled and sumptuously emotional.

Picture 9/10

The Criterion Collection upgrades their previous Blu-ray edition for Michael Curtiz's Mildred Pierce to 4K UHD, presenting the film in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1 on a dual-layer, BD-66 disc. The 2160p/24hz ultra high-definition presentation (with HDR10) is sourced from the same 4K restoration as the previous Blu-ray edition, which was taken primarily from the 35mm original nitrate camera negative, with other sequences (including the last reel) taken from a 35mm nitrate fine-grain and a 35mm safety fine-grain. Criterion also includes a standard dual-layer Blu-ray disc that houses a 1080p presentation of the film alongside all of the release's special features. Based on the file timestamps, it is the same disc used for the 2017 Blu-ray edition.

Considering how wonderful the previous Blu-ray edition looked, I wasn't expecting a big boost outside of cleaner grain and a slight increase in detail. Still, this new presentation does manage to pack a few little surprises. As with the previous Blu-ray, the base presentation here looks incredibly sharp and clean, with much of the damage removed. Most of the film comes from the negative, with smaller sections coming from later-generation sources, but I was happy to see the shifts in quality weren't all that drastic. Occasionally, the grain might get a little coarser or the shadows a bit thicker, but nothing sticks out outside those instances. Overall, the image is razor sharp and offers an impressive level of detail, to the point where you can make out individual hairs in that fur jacket Joan Crawford wears.

The 4K upgrade does clean the grain up, even if I didn't think the old Blu-ray's handling of it was all that bad. The real improvement comes in how HDR is employed, even if it is a subtle use with the levels set incredibly low; the MaxCLL set at 152 and a MaxFALL at 29(!). This keeps things primarily at what I guess one could call SDR levels, but the nuances sell it. Black levels are richer and cleaner, and the grays blend in a far smoother fashion. Some darker shots that maybe look a little grayish in the Blu-ray's presentation look far richer here with better shadow delineation, and the brighter scenes have a lovely vibrancy to them without the whites blooming.

What I loved, though, and what just sold me on this presentation, was how this aids in highlights, reflective surfaces, and general lighting. The opening sequence by the pier is most impressive, with the lone lamps illuminating what they can while the light bounces off the water. It pops, as do other similar instances, including light reflecting off jewelry. It's a very subtle detail, but it gives the film something closer to a "silver screen" look.

Ultimately, it may not be a massive upgrade, but the subtle boosts the format offers hit this one home.

Audio 6/10

The lossless PCM 1.0 monaural soundtrack sounds to be the same one included on the previous Blu-ray. Dialogue is clear, and the film's music can show off a surprising range level. Still, some of the film's louder moments can sound a bit harsh. Mild background noise can pop up, but the restoration has cleaned up heavier damage and it doesn't sound like excessive filtering has been applied.

Extras 8/10

All features are found on the second Blu-ray disc that also holds the 1080p presentation of the film. Since the disc replicates the one found in the 2017 release, all features have been ported over. The material starts again with a discussion between film scholars Molly Haskell and Robert Polito. The two discuss the genre-blending of the film, mixing a crime noir with a “woman’s picture” (aka "melodrama"), and compare it to the source novel in the process (and Todd Haynes’ HBO miniseries), which lacks the central murder story. Expanding on the book, they also cover its author, James M. Cain, and his other works before examining how the film twists certain noir conventions. It runs 23 minutes but is pretty brisk, and the discussion proves to be very involving, compensating a little for the lack of an audio commentary.

Criterion also includes the 87-minute TCM documentary Joan Crawford: The Ultimate Movie Star. Made up of interviews conducted with various film scholars and those who have worked with or knew her over the years—including her daughter, Christina Crawford—the documentary covers her career from early silent work to Trog, focusing on some of her more significant roles along the way. I’m surprised at some things it does leave out (it only touches briefly on the feud between her and Bette Davis), and it might focus more on her personal life rather than her work, but it’s a decent documentary, and I’m more than happy at its inclusion.

A rather excellent addition is a 15-minute excerpt from a 1970 interview between David Frost and Joan Crawford. Though she talks about several subjects—including relationships and her one big regret—the interview focuses quite a bit on Mildred Pierce. Crawford recalls how director Michael Curtiz let his initial disdain for her be well known. It’s a short excerpt, but it’s still a great addition.

Criterion then includes an interview with actor Ann Blyth filmed in front of an audience following a 2006 screening of Mildred Pierce in San Francisco, which Eddie Muller hosts. Blyth is quite fun and warm here (in other words, nothing like her character from the film) as she discusses first getting the role and working with Crawford (who she first met at her screen test) before sharing her thoughts on her character. Quite entertaining in the end.

Closing off the interviews is a 1969 interview between Hugh Downs and author James M. Cain on Today. It’s only 10 minutes, but Cain quickly shares his thoughts on several subjects, from the role of television in influencing violence in America (he thinks there is no link) and the then-latest trend of journalists writing novels, like Capote and his book In Cold Blood. He also talks about his writing, how he researches, and his surprise at how even the latest generations are still discovering his work. Though he doesn’t speak specifically about any of his career (not even Mildred Pierce), it’s a fascinating discussion, and I wish it were a bit longer.

The disc then closes with a theatrical trailer for the film. The included insert more-or-less replicates the Blu-rays (details around the master are a bit different) and still nicely rounds out the features with a  scholarly essay by Imogen Sara Smith (who sadly doesn't appear in an interview on disc). Though I’m a bit surprised at the lack of a commentary or any features on Curtiz (ignoring Criterion’s Laserdisc releases, this was the filmmaker's first appearance in the collection), they’re a nice set of features.

Closing

There is no new supplementary material, but the 4K upgrade delivers a notably sharper image thanks to the high dynamic range.

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Directed by: Michael Curtiz
Year: 1945
Time: 111 min.
 
Series: The Criterion Collection
Edition #: 860
Licensor: Warner Bros. Home Entertainment
Release Date: March 07 2023
MSRP: $49.95
 
4K UHD Blu-ray/Blu-ray
2 Discs | BD-50/UHD-100
1.37:1 ratio
English 1.0 PCM Mono
Regions A/None
HDR: HDR10
 
 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 on Crawford’s life and career   Q&A with actor Ann Blyth from 2006, conducted by film historian Eddie Muller   Segment from a 1969 episode of the Today show featuring novelist James M. Cain   Trailer   An essay by critic Imogen Sara Smith