The influence of Cornell Woolrich can never be overstated. Although the average joe may not be familiar with his name, they’ve probably seen a film based on his work. There are dozens of noirs based on Woolrich’s stories (most notably Hitchcock’s Rear Window) more so than any other crime novelist. I’ve read a handful of his stuff, including one of the meanest revenge novels I’ve ever come across: Rendezvous in Black. Anyway, today’s review is based on his novel I Married a Dead Man, which he wrote under his pseudonym William Irish. Starring Barbara Stanwyck and John Lund, No Man of Her Own is a flat mix of melodrama and noir that’s tedious at times, but whatever blemishes the film suffers from are redeemed by Stanwyck’s towering performance. Her character is an opportunistic jerk, but whatever.
Stanwyck stars as Helen Ferguson, a down on her luck pregnant woman who gets brushed off by her sleazy boyfriend. He gives her the kiss of with a one-way train ticket and a measly fin. On the train she meets the aggressively friendly couple Hugh and Patrice Harkness, who are also expecting. Patrice is one her way to meet her in-laws for the first time and she seems pretty optimistic that they’ll like her – even though they come from wealthy stock. While she washes up, she asks Helen to hold onto her wedding ring. Helen slips the ring on her finger, admiring the rock, when all of a sudden the train derails in a most violent fashion.
For the train crash scene, the filmmakers went balls out. It’s a gloriously chaotic few seconds of film. Special effects were obviously limited back in 1950, but director Mitchell Leisen and his crew managed to use what they had for maximum effect. They even do the room rotating trick to make it look like the train car Helen and Patrice were in is repeatedly flipping around. That effect looks great no matter what era it’s from.
When Helen comes to in a hospital bed, she discovers that everyone thinks she’s Mrs. Patrice Harkness, and that the real Patrice Harkness died in the crash along with her husband. She tries to explain to the hospital staff that they’ve made a mistake, but no one listens. Well, she doesn’t try too hard to explain. After all, the Harkness family has never met her before, so they have no clue what she looks like. And now that she has a baby, she’ll have to provide for him somehow. Why not be opportunistic and pose as the dead woman?
The family welcomes her with open arms – big, flappy, hospitable arms. The new Mrs. Harkness’ first night in the house is pretty great. She’s tight-lipped about the details of her life, and desperately grasps for clues about the real Patrice. Stanwyck’s so desperate in these scenes that ya can’t help but sympathize for her. Eventually she settles into the role and genuinely takes a liking to the family. Then she gets an accusatory anonymous telegram – the first sign that somebody knows she’s an imposter.
She reads the telegram while decorating the enormous Harkness Christmas tree. It’s so tall she needs a ladder to hang shit on it. She’s so shocked by what she reads that she drops a bunch of ornaments. I thought there’d be more Christmas up in this bitch, but ah well.
The telegrams are followed by the appearance of her old boyfriend and the father of her child, Stephen Morley (Lyle Bettger). He was asked to identify her body and seeing that it wasn’t Helen, he started putting two and two together. He’s a real scumbag, but so is Helen for stealing a dead woman’s identity. They deserve each other.
The film’s conclusion is preposterous and lets Helen off the hook without any punishment. Everything tidies up too nicely for my tastes. A happy ending? Gross. Director Mitchell Leisen came from a romantic comedy pedigree, so I can see how this film is infused with his affectionate sensibilities.
The amount of range Stanwyck displays in No Man of Her Own is staggering and makes all the sappiness tolerable. She goes from the hapless girlfriend thrown to the curb, to a devoted mother and daughter-in-law, to a would-be killer, and everything in between. With ease she’s able to effectively transition from wholesome to morally unpleasant. It’s an engaging role to watch.
While not a particularly great film, it’s definitely worth checking out for Stanwyck’s performance.