No Man of Her Own
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A woman is torn between a comfortable lie and the painful truth in this classic Film Noir. Screen legend Barbara Stanwyck assumes another woman’s identity after surviving a train accident in this haunting drama based on a Cornell Woolrich (under the pseudonym, William Irish) novel, I Married a Dead Man. Eventually her past catches up to her when her crooked ex-lover (Lyle Bettger) arrives in town, demanding money to keep her true identity a secret. Beautifully photographed by legendary cinematography by Daniel L. Fapp (The Big Clock). Directed by Mitchell Leisen (Midnight).
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NO MAN OF HER OWN is based on the novel I Married a Dead Man (The Best Mysteries of All Time) by Cornell Woolrich, and it's one of several great films based on his wonderful stories. Other Woolrich movie adaptations are Rear Window (Universal Legacy Series), The Window [Remaster], Phantom Lady [VHS], and The Bride Wore Black. This film is one of my favorites, and it's much better than the 1996 remake, MRS. WINTERBOURNE, which tried to turn this dark thriller into a comedy. Take my advice and stick with the original. Highly recommended.
As the film opens, Stanwyck is pregnant. "Baby Daddy" Lyle Bettger throws her out into the street with a one-way ticket out of town. On the train, Barbara meets newlywed Phyllis Thaxter who is is also pregnant and going to see her wealthy in-laws for the first time. At Thaxter's encouragement, Stanwyck tries on Thaxter's wedding ring saying "I think this is supposed to be bad luck" and, lo and behold, the train derails in a spectacular crash. Thaxter and her husband are killed in the crash. Stanwyck is knocked unconscious and the rescuer party assumes that Stanwyck is Thaxter because of Thaxter's ring that Stanwyck is still wearing. Times being what they are, Stanwyck decides to leave well enough alone. Then, Bettger shows up again with extortion on his mind. It's a good melodrama and I can't wait to see it again.
As the film begins, the pregnant Stanwyck character is thrown over by scumbag boyfriend Bettger, and given a trainride out of town. On the train she meets a sympathetic couple, also about to have a child, and the woman lets her try on her wedding ring while they are in the ladies' room. You know what's going to happen now don't you? Well, if you can't guess I won't spoil it. In any case, Stanwyck is soon mistakenly adopted into a new family with her new baby, but it's a rich family, and somehow slimy Bettger finds out... Stanwyck is just marvellous in a role that calls for a lot of bewilderment and uncertainty, and only a gradual show of the kind of strength that the actress demonstrated time and again; Lund is excellent as the sympathetic brother-in-law who wants to be more, and Bettger, wow, what a great creep. There's a bit of great location work at a train station which combines strikingly well with the Paramount sets used for the rest of it, and a lovely Olde New England stuffiness is beautifully communicated to contrast with the more modern and "liberated" Stanwyck character.
The Olive DVD is pretty solid looking except for a bad patch about ten minutes before the end that's a bit grainy and hissy; no extras at all, not even a trailer. So not the greatest noir or Stanwyck release ever in terms of disc quality, but is there likely to be any kind of upgrade? I wouldn't count on it, and the film is great enough that it's worth getting regardless.
Main character Helen is, as some have pointed out, too inclined to let men use her, and to beg, but the character has lived a hard-knock life with hints of emotional deprivation. She's plausible, if not exactly a feminist role model.
First big plus is the well-dressed set, a wealthy yet cozy middle American home. It has to evoke prosperity, without ostentation or the comedic coolness of, say, the `My Man Godfrey' kind of set. It's a house built by the Harkness family with good hardworking American values, via Harkness Textiles. At first sight I wanted to move in myself.
Stanwyck brings tense, conflicted dignity to a role that has to stay afloat among waves of melodrama without getting swamped. Try to imagine any other actress in this role. There aren't many! The plot is well-paced and tight, but some bits where she repeats a phrase over and over in inner torment ("It isn't too late, I can still back out!" 5 times!) are quite grating and Stanwyck makes them only just bearable. Co-screenwriter Sally Benson, better known for lighter work, shows there a weakness in her ability to translate noir from novel to screenplay, though the director bears some responsibility for the way these passages are overplayed. But the vital scenes following each suspect during the commission of the crime are beautifully put together, clear yet subtle enough that you have to pay attention.
And another perfect note, really, the linchpin of the movie, is struck by too-little-known actress Jane Cowl as matriarch Grace Harkness. A wonderful, wonderful performance, as a grieving, loving, warm woman who indeed becomes the only real mother Helen has ever known.
The first glimpse these 2 women have of each other seals the plot. Helen, at first, assumes Patrice's identity for her child's sake, but quickly finds that she absolutely cannot break her "mother-in-law's" heart, which would happen if Helen revealed that she isn't the real Patrice and that Grace has lost not only her son but his unborn child.
Helen is one of the worst identity-thieves ever, showing that she's too innately honest to pull it off, and her brother-in-law has her number almost immediately. But affection for and desire to protect his mother stops him from exposing Helen's deception, which in turn gives him time to begin falling for Helen himself. So Cowl, as Grace, pretty much drives the story. If the rest of it is too, as Maltin called it, "turgid" for you, you can watch the film for Cowl alone.
Woolrich's original plot was complex, full of darkness and ambiguity. In simplifying the story for the film morals code of the day, it loses a lot, but the suspense is well-crafted and the contrast between Helen's lousy previous relationship and this new, loving home makes it plausible that she'd want to embrace it and rationalize doing so.
But read the book too. (Cornell Woolrich's `I Married a Dead Man`, written under his William Irish pseudonym). Used copies are readily available, and a reprint is coming in 2013. Despite its same (up to a point) plot and many passages put straight into the screenplay unchanged, it's still a whole different experience.