This week I have a pair of new blu-rays from The Criterion Collection to talk about. One stars one of the true giants of Classic Hollywood, Joan Crawford. The other is an early film directed by the man who would become The Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. From 1945 “Mildred Pierce,” directed by the great Warner Brothers workhorse Michael Curtiz, and 1927’s “The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog” by Hitchcock.
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 “Peirce” 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 a noir, but there’s also touches of melodrama and of the independent woman pictures from the time.
The biggest differences between the Curtiz film and the novel (which was recently adapted again as a miniseries for HBO with Kate Winslet in the part of Mildred), is that the film is more of a thriller over the book’s psychological tone. The murder plot added only for 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 her 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.
Criterion’s blu-ray of “Mildred Pierce” looks absolutely incredible. An impressive 4K scan created largely from the original 35mm nitrate camera negative. 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 monaural soundtrack is excellent too, sourced from a print created in 2002 from the original soundtrack negative.
Criterion has given the disc their usual excellent selection of bonus material. 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. A true classic that should be in everyone’s collection. Highest recommendation for a fantastic effort from Criterion!
1927’s “The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog” was the third ever film directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock himself would later go on to call it “The first true Hitchcock film.” The silent thriller stars era matinee idol Ivor Novello as a mysterious young man who takes up lodging at a boarding house in the fog bound city, doing so when a serial killer known as “The Avenger” is plaguing the city by targeting blonde women.
Our young man, who is mostly thought of as odd by the family who owns the boarding house, starts to fall for the young lady of the house–who is already sort of dating a police officer in town. The officer doesn’t care too much for this, and combined with a few other suspicions, they begin to fear The Avenger lives among them.
This film has a trope that Hitchcock would visit many times over his career, that of “The Wrong Man.” I haven’t seen much of Hitchcock’s silent work, most of it survives, but his second film “The Mountain Eagle” is lost to the ages. Watching “The Lodger” you see much of style and themes that lets you see why Hitchcock thought of it as his true debut film. This is very much the beta version of the Hitchcock movie–right down to the Hitchcock blonde.
Criterion’s blu-ray of “The Lodger” features a 2K restoration with a new score by composer Neil Brand. This 2K restoration based off a 2012 restoration of the film, and other Hitchcock silents done by the British Film Institute. A second Hitchcock silent also starring Novello is included as well from a 2K restoration, “Downhill.” That too has a new score by Brand. Both films look wonderful, considering how precious little of silent film has survived, it’s nice to have these on blu-ray.
Also included are an interview with film scholar William Rothman, a video essay by historian Steven Jacobs, audio clips from Hitchcock’s famous interviews with Francois Truffaut, and from interviews with director Peter Bogdanovich, an interview with Brand on composing for silent film, and a radio adaptation of the story from 1940 directed by Hitchcock–the inaugural broadcast of the long running CBS radio series “Suspense.” Essays on both films by Philip Kemp are included as well.
Both of these are wonderful additions to have on blu-ray. Criterion has done another stunning job bringing these films out with loads of goodies to go with them. I can’t recommend both enough. Must haves for your home library, and for the Hitchcock and Crawford devotees among us. See you next week.