Rob Spillman: Eye of the Outsider
James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce, set in Southern California at the time when the roaring ’20s was turning into the low, depressed growl of the ’30s, captures an era that feels remarkably similar to our own. Our economy is in trouble, people, many of them women who must support their children, are scrabbling for work, often like Mildred, working two jobs at once, while some are telling them that their place is in the home. Pierce is a spurned wife, married before she was 17, now a single mother of two who is forced to reckon with the reality of a depressed economy and the needs of her two daughters, as well as her own striving to keep up her upper-middle class appearances. She swallows her pride and enters the labor force as a waitress in a hash house. It is a testament to Mildred’s grit, hard work, and willingness to sacrifice that she achieves something resembling the American dream. But Cain’s heart is noir, and you wouldn’t have much of a story if this were about a happy family, right?
Cain turns Mildred’s dream of happiness, solvency, romance, and most importantly, the love and respect of her daughters, each representing a side of Mildred—sweet and loving Ray and the driven, class-conscious Veda—into a nightmare. Mildred will stop at nothing to make Veda happy, especially after Ray is hospitalized with a fever (while Mildred is off with a new lover) and later dies. Veda counters by stopping at nothing to destroy her mother.
Because of his earlier novels Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, Cain is historically stuck with the label of “crime novelist.” My copy of Mildred Pierce is published under the “Vintage Crime” label. Yet as Robert Polito writes of James M. Cain in his introduction to the Everyman Library edition:
“He is often celebrated as the axial figure in the history of the crime novel, marking the shift from the detective, as in Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, to the criminal, as in Jim Thompson, David Goodis, and Patricia Highsmith. Yet that transformation was already implicit in the literary fiction of the 1920s and 1930s that cultivated violence and gangsters—F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925), Ernest Hemingway’s ‘The Killers’ (1927), and William Faulkner’s Sanctuary (1931).”
Mildred Pierce, the novel, has been overshadowed by the Michael Curtiz (who had previously directed Casablanca and Angels with Dirty Faces) movie starring Joan Crawford, which came out only four years after the book, turning what is a story of class and power into a crime drama with an early introduction of a gun. The current HBO mini-series is in many ways a corrective, faithfully adhering to Cain’s plot.
Cain himself grew up on the East Coast, worked as a high school English teacher, then as a journalist before moving to Hollywood at age 40 where he started writing novels along with screenplays. The Los Angeles of Mildred Pierce is as closely observed as that of John Fante and Joan Didion. His is the eye of the outsider, the alien. Mildred Pierce isn’t some Steinbeckian morality tale. It’s more of a West Coast echo of The Great Gatsby, with similar strivings of class and the desire for reinvention, but transplanted from Long Island to Los Angeles, and with a dark, less romantic heart.
Despite his hard-boiled reputation, Cain was a sharp chronicler of class and alienation, inspiring Albert Camus to write The Stranger. My hope is that the HBO mini-series will inspire readers to rediscover this singular, timeless American voice.