James M. Cain: Mildred Pierce (book/mini series)

James M. Cain

”Nobody has quite pulled it off the way Cain does, not Hemmingway, and not even Raymond Chandler.” — Tom Wolfe

I first read James M. Cain because of my love for the film Double Indemnity (1944). I read the short, page-turner, noir classic in high school but never read anything by Cain again until last year when I picked up The Postman Always Rings twice (1934) and was immediately knocked out by it’s stripped down, raw prose and fatalistic characters. Talk about keeping things lean. Cain boils everything down to the bare essentials. I have never read a book so devoid of description and yet so amazingly vivid. He often ends chapters with a simple line that is delivered like a blow to the gut. The original 1946 film with John Garfield and Lana Turner is quite good but it is positively tame compared to Cain’s primal novel. The Bob Rafelson remake from 1981 (which I have never seen) has often been criticized for having all the violent nature but none of the tragedy or pathos.

I was eager to find another Cain book so I quickly put Mildred Pierce (1941) on hold at the library. What a terrific book. The efficiency in prose is still present but Cain expands himself somewhat; he is in less of a hurry to paint the scene and his fondness for the female form and voice is obvious throughout. I was very taken with middle-aged Mildred and her struggle to provide for her daughters while simultaneously embracing her own ambitions.  The story takes place in 1930’s Glendale California. Class consciousness permeates every chapter. Mildred’s first born Veda is the mouth piece for this theme. Her embarrassment and drive to get out of Glendale is but one factor in Mildred’s ambition to become successful. The dominant and most powerful element of Cain’s story, however, is Mildred’s unwavering love and devotion to Veda. Mildred deals with men, work and other aspects of her life with great fortitude but she is unable to come out from under her primal motherly instincts even as Veda wounds her at every turn. Veda throws occasional scraps of love/gratitude and like Mildred we are foolishly hopeful that the relationship will mend. Mildred’s euphoria and pain increase in scope and magnitude as the story goes on. It’s tough, sharply written melodrama.

The widely seen and praised film from 1945 starring Joan Crawford (who won the academy award) is very good but deviates wildly from the book (which was, at that time, too adult to adapt properly). However, the recent HBO mini-series from 2011 starring Kate Winslet is excellent in every way; capturing all of the important story elements and even elevating them at times. Director Todd Haynes does not take one wrong step and conquers the very difficult task of adapting a classic book. The cast is uniformly terrific. Every single character (including the minor ones) look and sound just right. The original film softened/eliminated much of Veda’s dark side. In Haynes’ adaption, Veda (Evan Rachael Wood) emerges as the terrifying creature Cain created.

Evan Rachael Wood and Kate Winslet as Veda and Mildred Pierce

The film is beautifully lensed by veteran DP Edward Lachman and the entire production is full of handsome details. It’s long. If you have read the book and are a fan I don’t think this will be an issue. There is a joy in watching everything fall into place.

I would definitely recommend reading Cain before seeing Cain. He has become one of my favorite authors. The big three (Postman, Double, Mildred) are what he will always be remembered for. I read a number of his other books written after Mildred Pierce and was mostly disappointed. Serenade (1937 ) which was written between Postman and Mildred is excellent.  He consistently worked until his death in 1977 but never recaptured the success that he enjoyed in the 30s and 40s.

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