Of all the classic noir writers, perhaps none has been as tarnished by the brush of genre as James M. Cain. That’s because Cain — born in Baltimore in 1892, a protégé of H.L. Mencken and, briefly, managing editor of The New Yorker — was not a great hard-boiled novelist but a great novelist period, whose vision of 1930s Southern California is as acute and resonant as anything ever written about that time and place.
…“I make no conscious effort to be tough, or hard-boiled, or grim,” Cain once noted of his own writing, “or any of the things I am usually called. I merely try to write as the character would write, and I never forget that the average man, from the fields, the streets, the bars, the offices, and even the gutters of his country, has acquired a vividness of speech that goes beyond anything I could invent, and that if I stick to this heritage, this logos of the American countryside, I shall attain a maximum of effectiveness with very little effort.”
The original “Mildred Pierce” is one of my wife’s favorite movies. If she’s ever feeling blue, that’s a go-to flick of cherce. I have to admit, it’s so stylish-looking and so juicy and melodramatic that it is hard to resist. Now, there is a new HBO mini-series based on James M. Cain’s novel. In the New Yorker, Hilton Als, breaks it all down:
By the late thirties, when Cain began to think about writing “Mildred Pierce,” his fourth novel—his third, the underappreciated “Serenade” (1937), was another first-person account of male alienation—life was dictating a new reality. (A five-part miniseries adapted from the book, and directed by Todd Haynes, will première on HBO on March 27th.) Cain had recently befriended a woman named Kate Cummings, who did perhaps more than anyone else to urge him toward a more sympathetic and complex view of women’s need for both conventionality and freedom. Cummings, the single mother of the actress Constance Cummings, had sacrificed her own prospects as a singer to get her daughter the training and the exposure she needed to become a star. What Cain saw of Kate’s life—and the nearly selfless love with which she made Constance’s career happen—may have jump-started his imagination. After creating two antiheroines, probably inspired by Hemingway’s view of woman-as-death, Cain paid homage to his friend’s indomitable spirit. He set out to explore what one of his characters would call “the great American institution that never gets mentioned on the Fourth of July, a grass widow with two small children to support.” As he was writing, employing the third person and creating a female protagonist for the first time, Cummings stood over him, prodding him to revise whenever she felt that his perceptions of a working mother did not ring true. When “Mildred Pierce” was finally published, in 1941, Cain’s alternately stilted and full-bodied portrait of a striving woman was well received, but few reviewers noted the fact that the novel was also a study of a woman who, time after time, subjugates her own needs to those of her child.
I’m curious to see the HBO show but it’s not likely to replace the original in my heart.
No, you don’t have to be a Gay man to love Mildred Pierce. This film noir is one of my wife’s favorites–a Lifetime movie as high pop art. Based on the novel by James M. Cain, good, old-fashioned Hollywood melodrama–featuring the most ungrateful daughter in screen history–has rarely looked this sharp: