From it's opening titles (waves washing up on the beach and seemingly wiping away each credit) through the next minute of the film where we see Zachary Scott violently shot to death, MILDRED PIERCE kicks off in a truly old school style. I miss the way that especially Warner Brothers films from this period tended to have really classy and titles like this, and they were sometimes followed by a big suspenseful setup (I'm thinking of the opening chase and subsequent shooting of the guy in CASABLANCA for example). MILDRED PIERCE feels much more film noir in the way it starts though. The shot of Zachary Scott getting plugged is sort of a point-of-view angle and the way his executioner tosses the handgun onto his body as they exit is a nice touch. Next we see Joan Crawford - she walks teary-eyed to the railing of a pier and we can tell from the look on her face that she is mulling over the idea of hurling herself into the choppy surf below (the scene depicted on the new Criterion Blu-ray cover, designed by Sean Phillips) . She's stopped short, but the look on her face as she ponders it all is one that shows a vulnerability and emotion that feels different than what I sometimes think of as "typical Joan". I feel like Crawford often has a scowl on her face during a good portion of her movies - either that or she occasionally shows a smile when she is in the "happy part" of a relationship that will soon sour. Rarer though is a look of true sadness and heartbreak. Who knows just what Joan was channelling at that moment, but it's been said that the making of the film was certainly less than the greatest experience for her. Rumor has it that Bette Davis had been Warner's first pick to play the role and supposedly director Michael Curtiz was hoping to use Barbara Stanwyck in her stead, but he was overruled by the studio and Joan was chosen. Apparently, Curtiz was more than a little bit of a jerk to Crawford and insisted she screen test for the part. Even after that he was said to have been highly critical of her throughout the production of the film. Could Joan have been wounded by Curtiz's badgering and was that what she called upon to pull out her Academy Award winning performance? It's tough to say, but whatever alchemy was at play during the making of the movie, it worked in Joan's favor and she managed to pull off one of her greatest turns in her whole career. She's not only vulnerable, but also angry and driven to get what she believes she deserves. It's a multi-faceted portrayal and it's easy to see why Crawford was lauded for it. There's a lot to like in MILDRED PIERCE all told. Journeyman cinematographer Ernest Haller (who shot GONE WITH THE WIND and REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE among many others) lights the film in a stylish noir way that would come to be seen as the look that Warner Brothers would often go for in this kind of picture. Joan Crawford's face is often displayed in half shadow, but Haller still made a great effort to show off her features and her eyes. Other performances stand out beyond Joan's here. Jack Carson is quite good too and that always catches me off guard as I find him to be a lightweight goofball for the most part. This is certainly due in no small part to all the comic relief roles he was handed over the years. He's certainly adequate in that capacity, but in MILDRED PIERCE, he's more believable as a lady's man who has a thing for Mildred. He's also a sucker and Mildred plays him that way. The film is peppered with snappy dialogue, but it's not so non-stop that it calls too much attention to itself. It's just sharp enough to be classy. Everybody has some well-written jargon to spew. Even the cop working the night desk has a sarcastic edge that makes the whole world feel more noirish and more on dangerous. A lot of that likely comes from the fact that the original novel that MILDRED PIERCE is based on was penned by the legendary James M. Cain (DOUBLE INDEMNITY, THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE). Cain was nothing if not a master craftsman of fatalistic tales of love and murder and MILDRED PIERCE slots in nicely with the movies that were made from his writing. It's kind of nice that Joan Crawford was cast instead of Barbara Stanwyck as we had already seen her immortalized in the cinematic version of a Cain text just one year prior. Despite MILDRED PIERCE being an undisputed classic, I don't know if it gets quite the credit it deserves for being among the great noirs of the 1940s. It could perhaps be written off as more soap opera than hard boiled, but make no mistake, it belongs in the conversation about the best movies of the genre.
If you're a Joan Crawford fan or a fan of this movie, I can't recommend enough that you have a listen to the You Must Remember This Podcast episode covering it (as well as the rest of the "Six Degrees of Joan Crawford" episodes that Karina Longworth did a while back):
It's a very well put-together series and is highly enlightening and educational with regard to Crawford and her career as well as her personal life.
Here's a little more insight into the movie - in this case from director Mick Garris for Trailers From Hell:
-New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray. (This transfer looks great and is a marked improvement in contrast over the old Warner DVD).
-New 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.
-Q&A with actor Ann Blyth from 2006, presented by Marc Huestis and conducted by film historian Eddie Muller at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco.
-Segment from a 1969 episode of the Today show featuring Mildred Pierce novelist James M. Cain.
-PLUS: An essay by critic Imogen Sara Smith
Buy MILDRED PIERCE on Blu-ray here: