Tuesday, May 30, 2017


Warner Bros., 111m

In the grand tradition of film noirs that begin with the end, the phenomenal MILDRED PIERCE is among the very best, and that company includes such dependable noir favorites as DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), MURDER MY SWEET (1944), BODY AND SOUL (1947), D.O.A. (1950) and SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950). Director Michael Curtiz deftly blends the noir form with the woman's picture and the social problem film for a touchstone drama that granted Joan Crawford her lone Academy Award (Best Actress in a Leading Role). The film was a success both commercially and critically, and launched Crawford into phase two of her fascinating career in front of the camera.

Our introduction to a dispirited Mildred Pierce (Crawford) occurs at a beach house, where a man's dying word is "Mildred." Soon Mildred finds herself in an echo chamber of a local police station, where she is confronted by Chief Inspector Peterson (Moroni Olsen), who is apologetic for troubling her. He feels confident they have the man in custody who murdered Mildred's husband! When she learns the identity of the suspect, Mildred goes back four years to explain what really happened. It all began in Glendale, California, where the Pierce family struggled with conflicting ideas about how money should be earned and spent.

From the earliest flashback sequence, the major friction between husband and wife concerns financial issues and extramarital activity. Bert Pierce (Bruce Bennett) is out of work, but that does not stop his wife Mildred from wanting to shower her daughters with a life of privileges normally reserved for upper class families. Distraught by what he interprets as unnecessary spending, Bert lectures his wife about the ill effects of giving too much to Veda (Ann Blyth) and Kay (Jo Ann Marlowe). Veda quickly proves herself the bigger potential problem of the two girls, and by a wide margin. Unhappy with his household, Bert prefers the company of Maggie Biederhof (Lee Patrick), his gin rummy partner and the woman Mildred views as a clear threat to the Pierce marriage. After Bert and his wife agree to disagree on all counts, he departs for the Biederhof residence without a word of goodbye to his daughters, and Mildred is left to raise them without him.

Though rightly classified a film noir in terms of structure, style, and especially tone, MILDRED PIERCE derives significant energy from the woman's picture. Much of the storyline revolves around Mildred's ability to cope with an endless succession of difficulties. After the tragic death of her youngest daughter, Mildred promises complete devotion to the never-ending wants of Veda. No sacrifice will be too great to ensure Veda has nothing but the best. Motivated primarily by Veda, Mildred opens her own restaurant, which makes the cash register ring sufficiently to inspire a chain of successful dining establishments named after our lead protagonist. Certainly emblematic of the woman's integration into the workforce that transpired during WWII, MILDRED PIERCE vindicates working class ideals are not gender specific, along with the popular notion that hard work gets one ahead in American society. The dark side of the capitalist system is its susceptibility to the greed of rapacious people like Veda who never are content with what they have.

The Warner Bros. marketing campaign positioned the title character as the spider woman who wrecks all fools who follow her. That suggestion hardly represents the material at hand; instead it is Mildred’s daughter who has ice in her veins. Veda Pierce is quite probably the most ungrateful little bitch in the history of cinema, and perhaps the most loathsome of all film noir femme fatales, even as a mere schoolgirl! When she learns her mother's marriage is in severe shutdown mode, the snooty teen cares only about the dress that has arrived for her. Though Mildred slaved in the kitchen to earn the funds required to purchase the gift, Veda is put off by the cheapness of the dress. Veda encourages her mother to marry only for money, and marches down a similar path herself when she blackmails the Forrester family with a fake pregnancy. After this incident, Mildred gives Veda the boot, only to later learn her daughter has become employed as a tawdry showgirl, howled at by local sailors. Veda even has the nerve to blame her most problematic misstep on her mother, whose only error was to love her daughter so much that she spoiled her far beyond repair. Rotten to the core, Veda serves as a warning to parents who do anything and everything for children who only mature into major disappointments. The more Mildred tries to do for her eldest daughter, the more Veda despises her mother. Veda hates the “grease," which is to say she is ashamed of her mother's willingness to earn an honest living through the grueling physical work the restaurant business requires. Bert probably was more right about Veda than he was aware, yet in the early stages of the narrative he seems a bit confused about the complexity of his eldest daughter. He comments that Veda plays piano at the 5-year-old level, yet she can play the Frédéric Chopin composition Waltz in E Flat Major (Grand valse brillante), an elegant piece and certainly far from a beginner's assignment. This misrepresentation of Veda fits the femme fatale image perfectly; the woman who is more complex than she at first would seem.

In the aristocrat Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott), who is allergic to all things associated with work, Veda finds her ideal role model. When asked what he does for a living, he freely discloses "I loaf." He not only refuses to work, he looks down on those who do, though not so much as to not accept money from Mildred. What he knows how to do best is accumulate massive debts, to the point his family has relinquished multiple properties due to tax liabilities. His other notable trait is lechery, a concept well-illustrated by his beach house overflowing with female swimwear, presumably left behind by his discarded lovers. Monte represents an aristocracy in steady decline, and Mildred makes her worst move when she marries him. Eventually his borrow/spend way of life brings financial hardship upon Mildred, who only wanted to help those closest to her. That only four of six gunshots penetrate Monte seems unjust. As he clumsily paws at Mildred, Wally Fay (Jack Carson) is another lecherous sort, but he is comparably harmless. He may want to get Mildred into bed (who wouldn't?), but he shows more genuine concern for Mildred's best interests than the worthless heir Monte ever could.

As the film's most wretched characters, Monte and Veda represent a socialist's worst nightmare about capitalism:  that the least deserving humans might live the most comfortable lives. Perhaps worse than that is the related problem that common people admire trash like Monte, even if merely out of envy. The screenplay engineered by Ranald MacDougall (based on the novel by James M. Cain) clearly is positioned on the side of the working class. The narrative persistently supports working class ideals, right up to the film's concluding scene, when a pair of laborers cares for a city building's flooring as Mildred returns to her old existence, a life before the wealth that systematically destroyed or threatened to destroy everyone close to her. With that, the heterosexual couple is reinstated, presumably stronger having learned incredibly tough lessons.

The establishing sequence at Monte's beach house abounds in the visual codification of film noir. Coverage borders on the surreal as moody lighting, oblique camera angles, a spiral staircase and shuttered doors entrap the seemingly condemned and utterly confused individual Wally Fay. After Curtiz settles into flashback mode, the visual flair is less elaborate, but cinematographer Ernest Haller always frames his famous female lead in a carefully flattering manner. Haller is not remembered as one of the great noir stylists, but he did oversee the camerawork in several subsequent noir films, including DECEPTION (1946), THE VERDICT (1946) and THE UNFAITHFUL (1947). He also handled the cinematography for WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? (1962), a superior psychological thriller with some serious film noir undertones.

With hindsight, it is difficult to believe the role of Mildred was turned down by both Bette Davis and Rosalind Russell. Nonetheless Crawford had to earn the role, and she did not disappoint. To watch MILDRED PIERCE today is to witness one of Hollywood's most accomplished actresses at the top of her game. Crawford's best lines of dialog confirm her character's tireless work ethic, i.e. "I was always in the kitchen. I felt as though I'd been born in a kitchen and lived there all my life, except for the few hours it took to get married." Another great line that confirms Mildred's unwavering fortitude is, "Having you in my family is a pretty dismal prospect." Not all of the film's best lines emanate from Crawford. As Mildred's right hand woman Ida Corwin, Eve Arden has a lot of fun with her dialog ("Leave something on me, I might catch cold."). The only thing that works against this stellar Warner production is Mildred's mousy-voiced maid Lottie (Butterfly McQueen), a mammie stereotype that induces cringes. Crawford would continue to portray characters who fell for questionable men in an array of films, i.e. POSSESSED (1947), SUDDEN FEAR (1952), FEMALE ON THE BEACH (1955), STRAIT-JACKET (1964), but these same women usually have considerable reserves from which to draw. Crawford would receive Best Actress nominations for POSSESSED and SUDDEN FEAR.

MILDRED PIERCE has been brought to the Criterion Collection by way of a new 4K digital restoration and uncompressed monaural soundtrack for this dual-layered Blu-ray release. The 1080P transfer leaves a good impression framed at the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1, but is not as sharp as some of the best-looking noir films available to date on Blu-ray, i.e. DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944), KEY LARGO (1948), IN A LONELY PLACE (1950). At times only Crawford looks to be in focus, even when other characters carry the same weight in the composition, but that very well could have something to do with the influence on the set of the famous actress, who always was determined to look her best.

Criterion Collection Blu-ray [1.37:1]

Warner Home Video DVD [1.34:1]

The first of the supplements contained within this Criterion Collection Blu-ray disc is a conversation with critics Molly Haskell and Robert Polito (22m 59s). Recorded in 2016, the two compare and contrast the film with the source novel, and also reference the five-part MILDRED PIERCE miniseries (HBO, 2011) directed by Todd Haynes (an adaptation I recommend without reservation). Polito draws a correlation between the opening of MILDRED PIERCE and that of CITIZEN KANE (1941), which makes obvious sense ("Mildred" substituted for "Rosebud."). He also points out Mildred's obsession with her daughter Veda runs much deeper in the novel, to the point of strong sexual suggestion between the two. The 1945 adaptation avoids such racy matters, and merely presents Mildred as a rejected sacrificial mother. Haskell contends the film plays upon WWII-era male paranoia about being replaced in the labor force, with all of the film's male characters presented as inadequate in some way.

Next up is the documentary feature JOAN CRAWFORD: THE ULTIMATE MOVIE STAR (2002, 87m 6s), directed by Peter Fitzgerald and narrated by Anjelica Huston. This reflection on Crawford's life originally aired on Turner Classic Movies, and was included as a supplement on the Warner Home Video DVD version of MILDRED PIERCE first released in 2003. The documentary does a good job of bringing balance to an unbalanced existence. Abused as a child, Crawford infamously would become noted as an abusive mother herself, as recalled by her adopted daughter Christina Crawford in the controversial memoir MOMMIE DEAREST (1978). By all accounts her dark side was not limited to motherhood; from the time Joan Crawford was contracted in 1925 as a dancer for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, her partygirl ways were off the charts. As a young woman of dynamic vibrancy, her wild nightlife was characterized by her excessive drinking and strong tendency to have affairs with her male co-stars (most notably Clark Gable). Such behavior frequently had a negative impact on her career, and she would struggle with alcohol most of her adult life. Also under review are Crawford's multiple marriages (to Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Franchot Tone, Phillip Terry, Alfred Steele), and her obsession with gardenias, exercise, cleanliness, and of course her own movie stardom. But to look beyond qualities that might be construed as negative is to see a woman who achieved more in a man's world than many ever imagined possible. She truly emerged from nothing to become one of the most popular, talented and highest-paid women in the world, and she did not have it easy. A self-promoter, she worked hard to transition from silent films to talkies, a bridge many stars of the silent era were unable to cross. She always maintained a close connection to everyone on the set; Crawford truly understood the value of each and every crew member. She studied dailies, always looking for ways to improve her craft. Crawford embraced publicity, and used it to her advantage whenever possible. The origins of the antagonism between Crawford and Bette Davis also gets some attention, and no doubt will be of interest to fans of the excellent eight-part FX television series FEUD:  BETTE AND JOAN, which aired earlier this year and starred Jessica Lange as Joan Crawford and Susan Sarandon as Bette Davis.

Signed as Lucille Fay LeSueur, the eventual Joan Crawford worked as an extra in silent films of the mid-1920s. She was a sensational dancer, and won many awards for her ability to perform the Charleston. Crawford provided a fresh new face for movie fans with THE TAXI DANCER (1927), then made great acting strides with THE UNKNOWN (1927), still a powerful film today as directed by Tod Browning. In OUR DANCING DAUGHTERS (1928), Crawford acted the most like her off-screen flapper persona and scored a hit with audiences. Another big success was GRAND HOTEL (1932), but while on loan to United Artists, Crawford experienced a box office flop when she starred in RAIN (1932). With the release of LOVE ON THE RUN (1936), it became apparent Crawford's popularity was waning. In 1938, the actress was branded "box office poison" by Harry Brandt in the INDEPENDENT FILM JOURNAL. Down but not out, Crawford would prove herself a thespian who possessed a tremendous skill set in THE WOMEN (1939).

After 18 years, Crawford's contract with MGM ended. Over at Warner Bros., Jack L. Warner recognized the potential for Crawford to become a helpful nemesis for Bette Davis, a feisty broad who was a constant headache for him. Crawford signed a three-movie contract with Warner in 1943. After an appearance in HOLLYWOOD CANTEEN (1944), Crawford would make her mark at Warner Bros. with MILDRED PIERCE, and follow up with a number of films that have held up well over the years, including HUMORESQUE (1946), FLAMINGO ROAD (1949) and THE DAMNED DON'T CRY (1950). Also covered is Crawford's foray into independent films such as the aforementioned SUDDEN FEAR, as well as different genres, i.e. JOHNNY GUITAR (1954) and WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?, her last unquestionably great film. Her final film would be TROG (1970), directed by Freddie Francis. After an unbecoming paparazzi photo of the mature actress surfaced in 1974, Crawford adopted a reclusive lifestyle until she died from a heart attack at her New York apartment in 1977.

Other than a theatrical trailer (2m 19s), the remaining supplemental material is unique to this Criterion Collection presentation. An excerpt (15m 2s) from an episode of THE DAVID FROST SHOW that originally aired January 8th, 1970 features Crawford as his guest. Looking back, she says Mildred was her favorite role, and that she really had to fight for the part since director Michael Curtiz hoped to cast Barbara Stanwyck in the lead. Curtiz hated Crawford's broad shoulders and was surprised to find out they were authentic when he ripped off her top! When asked about her favorite leading men, Crawford places Clark Gable at the top of the list. The actress admits she has one hangup:  her lack of a formal education.

In July 2006, film noir historian Eddie Muller interviewed Ann Blyth in front of an enthusiastic crowd at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco. The session (23m 56s) took place after a big screen presentation of MILDRED PIERCE, which according to Muller was responsible for about half of Warner's profits the year of its original theatrical run. After sharing her memories of working on the classic Curtiz production as the despicable Veda, Blyth is joined onstage by her daughter Eileen McNulty. Another brief but worthwhile extra is a segment (10m 7s) from the TODAY show that aired November 26th, 1969 in which Hugh Downs interviews MILDRED PIERCE author James M. Cain. The novelist places a great deal of importance on getting the details of his stories correct in the interest of credibility. In other words, a story that involves the restaurant business must be true to the realities of that enterprise.

The Blu-ray packaging includes an essay by critic Imogen Sara Smith.