Mildred Gets An Upgrade
In 2017 The Criterion Collection released Michael Curtiz’s seminal 1945 classic “Mildred Pierce” for the first time, making the film’s blu-ray debut. That disc was a knockout, and I reviewed it when it came out. This month, Criterion has revisited the title issuing the film as a 4K Ultra High Definition blu-ray disc. As I already talked about the film once and have nothing new to say, I’ll be using some material from my original review here.
In all the annals of Hollywood, I don’t think there’s a more celebrated unsung director than Michael Curtiz. Curtiz was a respected director in Europe when Warner Brothers invited him to Hollywood in 1926. Curtiz spent most of his career at Warners, directing numerous films for the studio and leading them into the ranks of a major player in Hollywood. Curtiz directed many of the studio's biggest pictures, and his filmography has some of the most beloved films of all time on it.
A short list of Curtiz’s work includes: “Angels with Dirty Faces,” “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “White Christmas,” “King Creole,” and what some consider the best film of all time, “Casablanca.” “Mildred Pierce” belongs on that list, Curtiz directed Joan Crawford in her first starring role for Warner Brothers, having left MGM. Crawford’s performance in the title role would win her the Academy Award for Best Actress.
“Mildred Pierce” is based upon a novel by James M. Cain, who had a number of his works adapted for the screen--several in the Noir vein, as “Pierce” is. Cain’s other notable film Noir works include Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity,” and “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” Some have questioned if “Mildred Pierce” is a true Film Noir, it has a couple of genres living inside its skin. Yes, it’s noir, but there are also touches of melodrama and of the independent woman pictures from the time.
The biggest difference between the Curtiz film and the novel is that the film is more of a thriller than the book’s psychological tone. The murder plot was added only to the film. No, that’s not a spoiler, the murder happens in the very first scene of the film. The story of Mildred Pierce is of a single mother determined to raise a better life for herself and her children. Before her first husband leaves her, Mildred makes extra money baking pies and cakes for people in the neighborhood.
Emboldened by the popularity of her desserts, and after taking a job waitressing where she learns and ins and outs of the restaurant world, Mildred opens up a restaurant of her own, which takes off and soon becomes a very successful chain. Much of what drives Mildred is keeping up her materialistic daughter, Veda, played with delicious bile and venom by Ann Blyth. “Mildred Pierce” is one of the great films from the classic Hollywood era. Packed with wonderful actors from the time including the great Eve Arden and Jack Carson.
When Criterion began releasing movies in the 4K UHD format, they made it clear that in addition to new titles, they’d also reissue some titles in the format. All of these are combo editions, as is often the case is most 4K UHD blu-ray titles. The movie will be on its own 4K UHD disc—to insure the highest bitrate possible—while a regular blu-ray will have the movie and most, if not all, of the extra features.
The blu-ray included with the combo edition of “Mildred Pierce” is the same one they released in 2017. There are no new bonus features included, and the packages for both items are nearly identical. As for how “Mildred Pierce” looks in 4K let’s get into that. This is not a new transfer but instead, is the 2017 4K restoration presented in 4K High Dynamic Range (HDR) over the 2017’s 2K disc.
We’re starting very strong as that was a great restoration of the film. The restoration was sourced largely from the original 35mm nitrate camera negative. However, the entire last reel of the film was harvested from a 35mm nitrate fine grain master, and a few other portions of the film--due to damage on the negative--were taken from a 35mm fine grain master printed on safety stock.
The differences going from the 2K blu-ray to the 4K HDR disc are not night and day. They’re more subtle but noticeable. There’s more fine detail that comes out and the image has more of an overall presence, especially in the darker scenes. This is now, without a doubt, the best the film has ever looked on home video, and possibly the best it’s ever looked period.
The audio is the same as the 2017 disc. Sourced from a print created in 2002 from the original soundtrack negative. The bonus features are also identical to that disc. This includes: A conversation with film critics Molly Haskell and Robert Polito recorded earlier this year is included. Additionally, there is a 1970 appearance of Joan Crawford on “The David Frost Show,” the 2002 documentary “Joan Crawford: The Ultimate Movie Star,” a Q&A with Ann Blyth conducted by historian Eddie Muller, an excerpt from a 1969 episode of “The Today Show” with novelist Cain, plus an essay by critic Imogen Sara Smith.
“Mildred Pierce” was reportedly Crawford’s favorite role, it’s one of her best moments on screen, and it’s a hell of a film. Criterion has taken their already fantastic release and added a cherry on top by presenting the film in 4K HDR. But the question remains should you upgrade? To be honest, if you love this movie and you need to see it as clearly as possible, and you have a 4K setup, absolutely. But, if you’re perfectly content with the 2017 blu-ray, you’ll be fine sticking with it.
That was already, as I’ve said, a very strong presentation to start with, but the new 4K combo edition lets you see just how very impressive that restoration was. I’m very happy to see this reissued in 4K HDR. I’ll take as much classic Hollywood as I can get in the format. See you next week.