James M. Cain
Published: Jan 25, 2011
It’s a slippery slope. Suggest that everyone read the same book at the same time and, before you know it, you’ve got a book club. And then you have agita that has nothing to do with books — who’s going to bring the snacks, what wine to serve, and why the hell Jane X keeps coming when she never reads the damn books.
Or, worse, the book club could be a rousing success, and there goes the first Monday of the month for the rest of your life.
But HBO’s launches its five-part "Mildred Pierce" on March 27th, starring Kate Winslet and directed by Todd Haynes. It looks very compelling. But I’d be serving you poorly if I just alerted you to to mark that date. There’s something you might do…today. Go back to the originals — the James M. Cain novel and the film that won her first Oscar for Joan Crawford — and experience the real greatness of this story.
James Cain is no longer a name to conjure with. Sad. He was the master of a chilly, sexy fiction that raised the hair on the back of the neck of the censors. Of the ’30s and ’40s crime novelists, no one — not Raymond Chandler, not Dashiell Hammett — could jam as much nastiness into so few pages. Two books made him immortal. His first novel, published in 1934, was "The Postman Always Rings Twice," 128 very efficient pages filled with sex, violence and some unforgettably nasty people [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. To download the Kindle edition, click here.] And, two years later, "Double Indemnity," 115 very efficient pages filled with sex, violence and some unforgettably nasty people. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. To download the Kindle edition, click here.]
"Mildred Pierce", published in 1941, is a very different kind of book. Though hardly padded, it’s twice as long as Cain’s first novels. There’s a murder, but its real violence is verbal and psychological. And, because it begins in 1931 and ends in 1940, you’t can ignore a fact that overhangs everything in the novel: the Great Depression. [To buy the book of "Mildred Pierce" from Amazon, click here. To download the Kindle edition, click here.]
Finally, there’s the 1945 film, directed by Michael Curtiz. William Faulkner had a hand in the screenplay, and if you recall his work on Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, you know how gifted he is in crafting sexy dialogue, rich in double-entendres. And Crawford…. well, just look at the trailer. [To buy the $7.99 DVD from Amazon, click here.]
Very different, don’t you think, from the HBO version.
What’s the Cain story about?
A man tends to his lawn, showers, gets dressed, tells his wife that he’s going for a walk. She knows better — he’s going to see his mistress “and then unbutton that red dress she’s always wearing without any brassieres under it.” But it’s not the mistress that annoys his wife most. It’s the way he’s without work and not exactly looking for any.
Now the author steps in, and I, for one, marvel at how Cain is both concise and vivid: “They spoke quickly, as though they were saying things that scalded their mouths, and had to cooled with spit."
Because the characters don’t just plt and scheme in the dark, I see “Mildred Pierce” as Cain’s best novel. Here the shapely, sexy woman is a wife and mother who wants to stay married. She throws her husband out as a statement of self-respect. It’s a costly gesture. As a friend says, “You’ve joined the biggest army on earth. You’re the great American institution that never gets mentioned on Fourth of July — a grass widow with two small children to support. The dirty bastards.”
Mildred’s assets are few. She can bake. And she’s got a bod for sin. “Her brassiere ballooned a little, with an extremely seductive burden.” Although she’s got great gams, she feels she’s slightly bow-legged, so she takes short steps when she walks. To great effect — “her bottom twitched in a wholly provocative way.”
It’s not long before two realities collide. She has no trouble finding a lover (and discovering that she enjoys sex) — but it’s impossible to get a job. For one thing, she is without qualifications. For another, she fears that her eldest daughter, the beautiful and haughty Veda, will scorn her if she wears a waitress’s uniform or becomes a clerk in a store.
But a waitress she becomes. And money flows in. Veda is, as expected, horrified. She says Mildred has “degraded” the family. Mildred’s response: She spanks Veda silly. To no point. Veda crawls to a couch, laughs and whispers: “A waitress.”
It is then that Mildred realizes that she fears her daughter’s judgment, “her snobbery, her contempt, her unbreakable spirit.” She resolves to open a restaurant, to be a waitress no more. And she thanks her daughter for prodding her to aim higher: “We’ll have something. And it’ll all be on account of you. Every good thing that happens is on account of you, if Mother only had the good sense to know it.”
On the eve of the opening of Mildred’s restaurant, she spends the weekend with a society swell and becomes his lover. Back home, her younger daughter has spiked a fever and is in the hospital. The death scene is terrible. Even worse is Mildred’s reaction: Thank God it wasn’t Veda.
Death and birth collide: As she buries her child, Mildred opens her restaurant. It’s a great success. But we have half a book to go, and this half is a slow-mo train wreck — the story of Veda’s evil ways, her schemes to escape her mother and Mildred’s shameless effort to win her love.
You think your kids have foul, disrespectful mouths? Listen to Veda: “With this money I can get away from you. From you and your chickens and your pies and your kitchens and everything that smells of grease. I can get away from this shack with its cheap furniture. And this town and its dollar days, and its women that wear uniforms and its men that wear overalls.”
Through it all, Mildred is Mother Courage. Her will and her work ethic dazzle. But can Veda be redeemed?
Most parents have, at one time or another, a child whose ingratitude is sharper than a serpent’s tooth. Well, here’s the worst case — read/watch it and weep for Mildred, then count your blessings.
And then, when the HBO series starts, be the Cain expert.