Thursday, May 25, 2006

"Mildred Pierce"

With the plan to run it as a series here on the blog, I've been making a list of the coolest women in crime fiction written by men. The first entry was never in question: James M. Cain's Mildred Pierce.

As it happens, my procrastination in writing that Mildred Pierce post has paid off: Laura Lippman has written an appreciation of the book that's far better than anything I could produce. Click here to read it.

It is nearly impossible to explain why Mildred Pierce is a great noir novel. Unlike Cain's first novel, The Postman Always Rings Twice, it has an uncool title. And even the publisher's comments will make the skeptic wonder what we enthusiasts are all excited about:

Mildred Pierce had gorgeous legs, a way with a skillet, and a bone-deep core of toughness. She used those attributes to survive a divorce and poverty and to claw her way out of the lower middle class. But Mildred also had two weaknesses: a yen for shiftless men, and an unreasoning devotion to a monstrous daughter.

Out of these elements, Cain creates a novel of acute social observation and devastating emotional violence, with a heroine whose ambitions and sufferings are never less than recognizable.

As Lippman puts it, "Mildred Pierce is the unicorn of crime fiction, a noir novel with no murder and very little crime."

Lippman, like many others, takes issue with how Hollywood distorted the story in bringing it to the big screen. This criticism is certainly justified, yet the film is well worth viewing.

Michael Curtiz, the director better known for Casablanca, pulls the camera back whenever possible, and we see much of the action unfold in a setting--as opposed to the contemporary practice by all too many movies where a close-up of the actors' heads follow one after another. Watch the movie and you'll see what I mean. Clint Eastwood, a fan of the movie Mildred Pierce, is perhaps the most famous (and accomplished) director who likes to shoot scenes this way.

Laura Lippman is a fine writer in her own right. Her latest novel, No Good Deeds, comes out in June. Her last novel, To the Power of Three, was her best to date: it surprised me that a writer whose work I already enjoyed so much could get even better.

--Marshal Zeringue