Todd Haynes years before he adapted James M. Cain’s novel Mildred Pierce speaks on the DVD of The Reckless Moment about 1945’s Mildred Pierce as one of the few films which merged the noir with the “women picture”. That sums with the film up pretty well it’s a balancing act throughout between high melodrama but due to script changes and Michael Curtiz’s direction it also works perfectly as a noir. It’s also shockingly the first Michael Curtiz film in the Criterion Collection since the laserdisc days.
Mildred Pierce‘s structure is told in flashback which of course was a noir convention. Mildred (Joan Crawford) is facing interrogation after her second husband Monte Beragon (Zachary Scott) is found dead in her beach house. You soon delve deep into her story which unlike many a film noir the story is about female empowerment and also the unrequited love of a mother for her daughter.
Mildred is a woman who starts at the bottom (waitress) but climbs the social ladder even though her daughter has complete disdain for her no matter how much she tries. The original ending of the novel and the brilliant Todd Haynes mini-series lacks the murder but ends up being more twisted and soul-destroying. The original novel did have the daughter always as somewhat of a femme fatale.
Joan Crawford may now be better known for camp value since the biopic Mommie Dearest however like many of the great film stars was an extraordinary actress. Curtiz never wanted Crawford but the more logical choice Barbara Stanwyck but WB went against Curtiz’ wishes. She did a screen test and Curtiz was eventually won over and the rest was history and Crawford got a much deserved oscar. She also was an actress who was as masculine as she was feminine no wonder she became a gay icon.
Despite is being an undeniable classic it’s an interesting case of changing the source material for the screen. It’s ironic Cain was best known for his hardboiled fiction like Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice was the source. However the novel of Mildred Pierce was very much about class during the depression years instead of being a murder story. The noir element of murder were added to the film to make it work more of a crime picture and it was sold more of a noir than a melodrama.
Mildred Pierce remains one of the perfect examples of film noir despite it’s strangely un-hardboiled origins. Crawford was rarely this great again despite an extraordinary career. Curtiz was already one of the great directors but due to his workman like style he is rarely considered an auteur. He is best known for directing Casablanca but made many other great films and in all genres.
Given that’s its Criterion it has an impressive package firstly it looks gorgeous in a new 4K transfer. The big new feature is a discussion between Molly Haskell and Robert Polito who discusses its place in noir, melodrama and also the different versions. The rest of the features are mostly archival including a feature-length doc on Crawford and interviews with James M. Cain and Crawford. Noir expert Eddie Muller does a Q&A with Ann Flyth who plays Mildred’s daughter and is shockingly still alive. It’s rounded off by the trailer and essay by critic Imogen Sara Smith