No Man of Her Own (1950)
Directed by Mitchell Leisen
Produced by Richard Maibaum
Screenplay by Sally Benson, Catherine Turney
Based on the novel I Married a Dead Man by William Irish (Cornell Woolrich)
Cinematography by Daniel L. Fapp
Edited by Alma Macrorie
Music by Hugo Friedhofer
Costumes by Edith Head
Stanwyck’s throaty narration begins as the camera takes us from a quiet street up past a perfectly manicured lawn to a sprawling home large enough to house dozens of people. It’s a place, Stanwyck’s voice tells us, of “perfect peace and security. The summer nights are pleasant in Caulfield, but not for us.”
Once inside, we see Bill Harkness (John Lund, above right) reading a copy of Look Homeward, Angel while a woman (Stanwyck, above left) holds a sleeping baby. Neither of them, however, show expressions of perfect peace and security; quite the opposite. There’s a great shot of Harkness looking out the window and instead of light reflecting on his face, there’s darkness. The woman has a worried look on her face that’s further intensified when the phone rings. It’s like she’s waiting for a bomb to drop, then it does. Harkness tells her the police are coming. “Did they say which one of us they want?” the woman says.
During a flashback, we learn that the woman asking that question is Helen Ferguson. Helen’s traveled to New York, trying to get her boyfriend Steve (Lyle Bettger, above left) to take her in. She’s pregnant and has nowhere else to go, but Steve doesn’t care. He’s moved on to other things, namely a new girlfriend. He slips Helen a train ticket to San Francisco and a $5 bill. What a guy.
Although she’s initially a weeping mess, Helen decides to board the train and face the future. She has no idea.
On the train, Helen meets Hugh (Richard Denning) and Patrice Harkness (Phyllis Thaxter, above left). Patrice is also pregnant and notices that Helen is as well and the two strike up a friendship. Patrice discloses that they’re on their way to see Hugh’s parents, who have yet to meet Hugh’s new bride. Patrice has never even sent them a picture. Late that night as the two women enter the washroom to remove their makeup, Patrice hands Helen her wedding ring for a few moments. Out of nowhere, disaster strikes and the train derails.
Helen awakens in a hospital to discover that she’s survived the wreck, but Hugh and Patrice Harkness haven’t. In fact – thanks to Patrice’s wedding ring on Helen’s finger – everyone thinks Helen is Patrice. With no other options, Helen decides to impersonate Patrice and live with Hugh’s family. Of course, she knows nothing about Hugh or his family, but on the other hand, they’ve never met Patrice. I won’t describe the rest of the film except to say that what follows is a mixture of mystery, suspense and definitely noir.
When I attended this film at the Noir City DC festival last October, I was surprised and delighted to discover that No Man of Her Own – the first film on a rainy Sunday morning – was to be introduced by Foster Hirsch, author of many works on film noir including The Dark Side of the Screen: Film Noir. Hirsch stepped up to the lectern and spoke for a few minutes about No Man of Her Own, lamenting the fact that no 35mm print exists (We watched the DVD from Olive Films.), commenting on the clash of two worlds (country club world vs. noir world) depicted in the film, the Cornell Woolrich source material (the novel I Married a Dead Man), Barbara Stanwyck’s performance, Mitchell Leisen’s direction, and more.
Leisen was an art director and costume designer in addition to an A-list director for Paramount from the 1930s-50s, known for glossy Hollywood melodramas, musicals and screwball comedies, not film noir. If I had to assign percentages to No Man of Her Own, it might come out 60% melodrama, 40% noir. Hirsch may agree with that percentage. He mentioned that the film has dropped out of favor somewhat in noir circles because it focuses on a middle-class suburb that doesn’t look like noir. “That’s the whole point,” said Hirsch.
I agree. So did the nearly-packed house on a rainy Sunday morning in October at Noir Fest DC. Much of No Man of Her Own takes place in an upper middle-class, country club neighborhood, yet one that’s been overthrown by the tentacles of noir. It’s the opposition of two worlds: a safe, middle-class neighborhood and the seedy underbelly of noir. Hirsch nailed it, calling the combination “a recipe for absolute disaster.”
The wreck of the train from inside the washroom provides one of the movie’s most memorable scenes, and quite effective as the two women (probably stunt doubles) are thrown around the room. I believe Hirsch said that the shot was achieved by having a large box constructed that was mechanically suspended and tilted. However they did it, it still looks impressive.
Many of the performances are excellent, including those by Lund, Bettger (who has never been nastier), and Jane Cowl (above left), playing Patrice’s mother-in-law. Yet the film belongs firmly to Stanwyck. With her facial expressions alone, Stanwyck conveys a world of turmoil behind those eyes as she tries to convince others that everything is okay, hiding the truth from people she meets, especially her new family. What she does when she learns the truth in the hospital takes only a few seconds of screen time, but is so genuinely compelling – the doctor and nurse think she’s distraught over losing her husband, but we know it’s more than that – and Stanwyck conveys it marvelously.
Few actors can pull of pretending to be someone else while pretending to be someone else – acting within acting – but Stanwyck makes it look easy. When the train pulls into the station and she looks out the window, wondering which of these people are here to welcome her as Patrice, which of them will discover her deception, the mixture of pure, raw emotion is simply incredible. It’s a powerhouse performance.
No Man of Her Own is Stanwick’s 62nd film, sandwiched between two films that have stood the test of time (or rather popularity) better: The File on Thelma Jordan and The Furies, both also released in 1950. It’s a shame the film gets overlooked, since it is a very good noir and an acting showcase from Stanwyck. No Man of Her Own is available on DVD from Olive Films and currently streaming on Amazon Prime, but if you can find it at a film festival, please see it on a big screen. It’s a gem.
This review of No Man of Her Own is part of the Remembering Barbara Stanwyck Blogathon over at In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Please check out the other posts on Stanwyck and her films!