Edmund Wilson once called James M Cain (1892-1977) one of America's “poets of the tabloid murder”. After Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler Cain is the writer most often credited with defining the “hard-boiled”, the tough-talking, fast-moving urban stories of violence, sex and money that characterised so much popular film and fiction in America during the 1930s and 40s. Unlike Hammett and Chandler, however, Cain did not focus his fiction on the consoling figure of the detective bringing a semblance of order to all that urban chaos. His novels are told from the perspective of the confused, usually ignorant, all-too-corruptible central actors in his lurid dramas of betrayal and murder. His first two novels, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, were narrated by men destroyed by femmes fatales; both were made into enormously successful films, especially Billy Wilder's now-classic Double Indemnity, starring Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck in an improbable blonde wig.
In 1941, Cain published Mildred Pierce, his first novel to focus on a female protagonist; in 1945, it was duly made into a film, starring Joan Crawford in her only Oscar-winning performance, as an overprotective mother trying to cover up for her homicidal daughter. That version of Mildred Pierce is now a classic piece of stylish film noir; but its plot and tone diverge sharply from the novel, a more ostensibly “realistic” story about a divorced woman trying to raise her daughters in depression-era California. Now the film-maker Todd Haynes has returned to Cain's original text to bring us a mini-series of Mildred Pierce, with a cast including Kate Winslet in the title role, Evan Rachel Wood as the treacherous daughter and Guy Pearce. This new Mildred Pierce, produced for HBO with an apparently unlimited budget, may well be the most faithful adaptation of a book ever made: the dialogue is nearly verbatim, and the film moves painstakingly through a virtual transcription of Cain's novel. The attention to historical detail is astonishing, the performances outstanding, and the finished product is visually gorgeous, steeped in a golden sepia tone. But by the end some viewers may well be wondering what, exactly, about this story merited such reverential treatment: Cain's characterisation is uneven, to say the least, and the narrative is resolved only by means of contorted turns of the plot.