Criterion Review: MILDRED PIERCE (1945)

Director Michael Curtiz had a hell of a career, including The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), Dodge City (1939), The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), The Sea Hawk (1940), Casablanca (1942), and Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). Just after this stonking 5 year run, he teamed up with another renowned talent, actress Joan Crawford (What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?). Mildred Pierce secured her the best actress Oscar and gave Curtiz a jewel in the crown that was his career.

Crawford plays Mildred, a woman drawn into a police investigation after the murder of her second husband Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott), her name being the last word to leave his lips. Matters become more complicated when she lures old friend, Wally Fay (Jack Carson), to the murder scene to frame him for the crime as police believe her first husband Bert Pierce (Bruce Bennett) to be guilty. The reasons for her duplicity are recanted through flashbacks, showing her ascension from humble waitress to successful business owner, devotion to her children and their well-being, and her complicated relationships with men.

An adaptation of James Cain’s (The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity) novel, Mildred Pierce is an enthralling murder mystery around which is woven a melodramatic tale of motherly love and ambition. Labelled as something of a film noir, this is more of a wrapper around a melodramatic tale of how Mildred, after being left by her husband, raised two children alone. Despite Mildred’s business success and devotion as a mother, she endures resentment from her spoiled and unappreciative oldest daughter, Veda (Ann Blyth).

This makes the film a tragedy of sorts, exploring how love can lead someone to ruin, a moody, often bleak piece that suits the noir aspects well. It’s not a classic “whodunnit” per se, more an examination of this woman’s past, her relationships and decisions that led up to this fateful shooting. Director Michael Curtiz and cinematographer Ernest Haller (Gone with the Wind)showcase California at times like prime Hollywood, others as a bleak and brooding locale, infusing the film with intrigue and hints of tragedy.

Joan Crawford shows her talents, it’s a captivating and expressive performance. Mildred is a strong woman, she makes mistakes, but she works through them and soldiers on, crafting immense empathy for her. Blyth is close to her level with a magnificently bitchy, scheming character, fueled by resentment that she is not afforded the proper place within society she feels she deserves, a rumination on class and social structure is a key theme in the film. It’s a wonderful cinematic pairing of talent and characters. Supporting talent, including Jack Carson and Zachary Scott, are equally on point. A great rapport helped by the sharp dialogue that highlights how Mildred Pierce is a film that puts its characters first and foremost.


This release of Mildred Pierce is the result of a new 4K digital restoration, sourced “primarily from the 35mm original nitrate camera negative” while “some sequences, including the entire last reel of the film, were seamed from a 35mm nitrate fine-grain master held by the Museum of Modern Art in New York”. The resulting transfer shows consistently deep blacks, impressive detail, with a light natural grain being intact. It’s very impressive considering the age and sourcing of the film. Special features as usual with Criterion are plentiful, and include:

  • New conversation with critics Molly Haskell and Robert Polito: Interview with the pair new for this release, where they discuss the film’s adaptation from the original novel, its enduring appeal, and Joan Crawford’s work. It’s effusive praise rather than insightful critique, but an engaging watch nonetheless.
  • Excerpt from a 1970 episode of The David Frost Show: footage of Joan Crawford’s appearance on the show where she discusses her role in Mildred Pierce and relationship with the film’s director.
  • Joan Craw­ford: The Ultimate Movie Star: A documentary from 2002 running around 90 minutes. Narrated by Anjelica Huston, and including interviews with the star’s biographer Bob Thomas, actors Diane Baker, Betsy Palmer, Cliff Robertson and Anna Lee, columnist Liz Smith, and playwright/Crawford historian Charles Busch, and others. A polished affair that will please fans of the lead.
  • Q&A with actor Ann Blyth from 2006: Filmed after a screening of the film back in 2006, it offers a few anecdotes about the film and shines a little attention on the star of the film not named Crawford.
  • Segment from a 1969 episode of the Today show featuring Mildred Pierce novelist James M. Cain: The writer discusses his career path to and from Hollywood, as well as his views on the place and impact of violence within the arts in this country. A nice look at a more personal side of Cain rather than specifically pertaining to Mildred Pierce.
  • Criterion Booklet: Inner liner which details the restoration of the film for this release as well as an essay by film critic Imogen Sara Smith that is as enjoyable and enlightening to read as usual.


Mildred Pierce is an enthralling piece of filmmaking, a moving melodrama immersed with a noir murder mystery. A classic given new life by a stunning Criterion release, backed up by a host of extras that offer much insight to the extraordinary career of Joan Crawford.

Mildred Pierce is available via Criterion on 21st February

Get it at Amazon:
Mildred Pierce – [Blu-ray]

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