No Man of Her Own

In the world of Cornell Woolrich every dream is in reality a nightmare concealed behind a mask, every instance of happiness is merely bait to lure the unsuspecting into the ultimate trap of despair. It should be no surprise therefore that his tales of dread with their outrageous turns of fate have formed the basis for a fair number of films noir. No Man of Her Own (1950) is a slick piece of dark cinema, opening with desperation, then tantalizingly suggesting that fortune may be more than just an illusion, before relentlessly gathering up those crumbs of comfort one by one.

Many a film noir has opened with a voiceover, frequently stentorian and strident, eulogizing the agencies of the law, or sometimes harsh, cynical and redolent of whisky, cigarettes and hard knocks. Here it’s a different matter, dreamy and wistful with regret and resignation. As the camera pans across an idyll of suburban charm and respectability, and then on into a picture postcard house the weary tones draw the viewer’s attention to the already obvious attractions, before trailing off to the merest whisper to acknowledge disconsolately: but not for us. On we travel, deeper into the home we now realize nurses something painful, perhaps even incurable. A man sits before his hearth, book in hand but tension writ large on his face, and across from him sits his wife, cradling an infant, rigid and apprehensive. Hers is the voice that has guided us inside, and the hers will be the memory that carries us back via flashback to the months before when a different brand of despair held her in its grip.

Helen Ferguson (Barbara Stanwyck) is in a bad way. She’s pregnant and alone in a big city, with barely a dime to her name, nowhere to go and a former lover (Lyle Bettger) who wants nothing to do with her. In lieu of salvation she’s presented with a door resolutely locked and an envelope shoved hastily across the threshold. This is the ultimate brush off, a cross country rail ticket, with a five dollar bill scornfully keeping it company. And thus she sets off, worn down by the life she’s left behind and fearful for that within her and before her. The overcrowded train seems to foreshadow her future, perched precariously on the periphery, surrounded by apathy. Well, perhaps not quite. A sunny young couple (Phyllis Thaxter & Richard Denning), recently married and on their way back from Europe take her under their wing, the wife confiding how nervous she feels about meeting the in-laws who know nothing of her beyond her name. It’s a bittersweet moment for Helen, a rare instance of compassion that both warms her for its simplicity and decency, and chills her too as it’s a glimpse of the life she will never know. The latter is emphasized almost cruelly when her new acquaintance asks her to slip her ring onto her finger for safe keeping while she freshens up. It’s here that fate, in the shape of a calamitous train crash, strides on the stage and alters the course of everybody’s lives…

Mitchell Leisen is a director whose work I’m not overly familiar with, having seen only a handful of his movies and that being a long time ago. I recall reading somewhere that Billy Wilder was none too fond of Leisen, based I believe on his experience of scripting a number of films for him. What I do know for sure is that No Man of Her Own is a very stylish piece of work, fluid and smooth, seamlessly moving from that languorous opening narration – somewhat reminiscent of Rebecca in a way –  into the long flashback that charts the peaks and troughs of  horror and hope navigated by the heroine. Much of the action takes place in the family home, with occasional forays to a country club and also to the seedier part of town where blackmailers and chiselers can rent short term as they angle for the big score. Wherever the camera might roam, from secure domesticity to boozy squalor, Leisen frames his shots with great clarity and director of photography Daniel L Fapp lights and shoots it all in an atmospheric noir style. Dread and doom might be loitering with intent in the shadows, but they’re awfully attractive shadows all the same.

Barbara Stanwyck was nothing if not versatile. There was always a toughness about her, but she could suppress that to some extent when a role required it. In No Man of Her Own she certainly displays grit, and there’s more than enough adversity thrown her way to necessitate that, but she also manages to convey the essential vulnerability of her character, especially in the earlier scenes but later on too as the threats she faces see her options shrink. Throughout her long career she was able to slip from one character to another with ease, and this role offered her the opportunity to indulge in a wide and nuanced acting workout.

John Lund is impressive as the leading man. He starts out as an ebullient and carefree man of means, never any more serious than he needs to be. Then comes the suspicion, the persistent little niggles, the doubts which can never be entirely dispelled, finally seguing into the implacable fatalism of his love. The extent to which this love has consumed him becomes apparent in his dead-eyed determination to cover up a crime, and in his frank admission that whether or not it happened as he was told means nothing to him.

“That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain.” Watching Lyle Bettger make his debut, it’s hard not to have Shakespeare’s lines from Hamlet spring to mind. Smug, impossibly self-satisfied and without the merest scrap of decency, Bettger was introduced to cinema audiences as a thoroughly bad lot. There’s not one redeeming feature on show and he has the rottenness of the character down pat, not only the smirking and preening but also the steel edge beneath the surface which lends substance to his threats. Richard Denning and Phyllis Thaxter are not around long enough to make much of an impression in support. However, veteran stage actress Jane Cowl, in one of her rare and sadly one of her final screen roles too, is very good as the patrician matriarch. It’s also worth mentioning that Dooley Wilson (the man every film fan will know as Sam from Casablanca) pops up in a virtual cameo early on. And of course Carole Mathews has a brief but decisive part to play.

No Man of Her Own was released on DVD by Olive Films some years ago, and I don’t think it’s ever been upgraded to Blu-ray – no doubt someone will put me right on that if I’m mistaken. It’s a strong transfer, to my eyes anyway, and the quality of the image is pleasing throughout. This is a fine and hugely stylish film noir, highly polished in every department and just as highly recommended.

Other adaptations of Cornell Woolrich material which have been featured on this site:

Black Angel

The Leopard Man

Night Has a Thousand Eyes

Phantom Lady

45 thoughts on “No Man of Her Own

  1. Colin
    As always, nicely done. Stanwyck, as you say, can slip in and out of various roles with such ease it always amazes me. Talented is an understatement. Lyle Bettger is an actor more people should know about. He shines in his next role as well, UNION STATION. I also recall him quite well from several episodes of his later television work.

    Again, well done.
    Gord

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  2. A very fine piece of writing here, Colin! Your words paint the scenes for us vividly, acknowledging that you are reviewing a very good film.

    We (re)watched it just recently and found the film utterly rivetting. Stanwyck shows here what a nuanced actress she could be and so often was. I even found the young couple played by Denning and Thaxter very convincing, brief yet key as their appearance was, as an excited newlywed couple about to embark on a life together.

    Lyle Bettger is an actor I always enjoy watching. He was rarely the good guy but then he was so good at showing the other side. For me, one of his most memorable roles was the protagonist in the U.I. western “SHOWDOWN AT ABILENE”, a western that is a favourite with me, probably because of leading man Jock Mahoney but also Bettger.

    I agree – highly recommended.

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  3. The story has been remade several times, notably as “I Married a Shadow” (J’ai épousé une ombre) [1983], starring a poignant Nathalie Baye. Others, per Wikipedia:

    “The Japanese film Shisha to no Kekkon (1960), the Brazilian TV miniseries A Intrusa (1962), the French film J’ai épousé une ombre (1983), and by Hollywood again with Mrs. Winterbourne (1996), starring Shirley MacLaine, Ricki Lake and Brendan Fraser.[4] There is also a 1970 Super hit Bollywood remake, Kati Patang, for which Asha Parekh won the Filmfare Best Actress Award.[5]”

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  4. No Man of Her Own is one of my top favourite films noir for the reasons you so aptly described. It comes so very close to recreating the kick in the gut feeling I had the first time I read I Married a Dead Man.

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  5. Love this film and am glad you like it too. John Lund didn’t get many good roles but he proves he is a capable actor in this. I was so impressed with Jane Cowl – a shame she didn’t do more films, a consummate actress.
    Bettger, of course ,just perfect. A shame really ,he was so typecast, but small wonder, he did it so well!
    Great role for Barbara .

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  6. Must say this is one excellent review. Barbara Stanwyck could play anything, she was just so versatile. I think her greatest gift was that she made the audience feel.

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  7. Another brilliant review, Colin, which leaves me determined to buy a copy of the film. Some of your turns of phrase are superbly descriptive: “ … the implacable fatalism of his love”, for example. I am a huge admirer of Stanwyck’s talent and am looking forward to seeing her in this dialled back mode.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad to hear you’re keen on seeing the movie, Steve. I don’t imagine anyone who enjoys Stanwyck’s work would be disappointed, and the fact that the contributions of many others involved in the production are so strong just makes it an all round pleasure.

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  8. Mitchell Leisen made some pretty decent screwball comedies in the 30s. HANDS ACROSS THE TABLE is a delight and MIDNIGHT is pretty good. I can see why Billy Wilder didn’t approve – Leisen’s screwball comedies were undoubtedly too good-natured for Wilder’s liking.

    Leisen isn’t the sort of director I’d associate with movies like NO MAN OF HER OWN but he did a pretty good job with it.

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    • I’ve often thought that seeing a director successfully step outside of what might be perceived as their comfort zone – and I deliberately use the word “perceived” here as I feel this is generally a constraint that viewers tend to apply retrospectively rather than anything coming from the filmmakers themselves – is a good indication of their talent.

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  9. Up for the weekend is….
    SANDS OF THE KALAHARI I pop this one on every 5 years or so. Never fails to deliver.
    REVOLT IN THE BIG HOUSE. 1958 Finally got a nice looking print,
    NEAR DARK 1987 My fav Vampire film of all time. An early Kathryn Bigelow film that punches way above it’s weight class.

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  10. Great writeup on a movie that I’d put into the dreaded category of “woman’s Noir”. It does have its Noir credentials straight, but can’t quite forgo the occasional soap suds and slips into Stella Dallas mode.

    Woolrich lived a life full of anguish and despair, and obviously his writings are the perfect blueprint for Noir. Here is a quote from him about his life: “I had that trapped feeling, like some sort of poor insect that you’ve put inside a downturned glass, and it tries to climb up the sides, and it can’t, and it can’t, and it can’t.” Truly sad.

    In most film adaptation Woolrich’s Nihilism is softened, and maybe that’s a good idea. No Man of Her Own doesn’t end with the abject defeat of the novel and that’s fine with me.

    The entire film is all utterly implausible but works beautifully thanks to great performances, most notably by Stanwyck who could do no wrong in my eyes.
    Lyle Bettger almost walks away with the movie. He seemed to have a lot of fun playing one of the most despicable rats ever.

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    • Yes, Woolrich is bleak and you have to be in the mood for it. When you are in that mood though, he’s hard to beat. Yes, the story is packed with implausibility but I feel that’s Woolrich all over once again. Still, it’s an aspect I’m OK with; it’s contrived yet it’s the execution and effectiveness of that contrivance that matters to me, and I reckon it hits the spot in that respect. And of course this feeds into the whole matter of artificiality and its desirability in film. Personally, I don’t think it’s a stick that ought to be used to beat any movie and I’m actually more inclined to celebrate it.

      “Woman’s noir” is an interesting term and I can’t say I’m averse to the kinds of movie I guess could be classified as such. I do find myself becoming less enamored of what might be referred to as the “Docu-noir” style though. I don’t know if it should be categorized in this way but I watched Highway 301 the other day and the “ripped from the headlines” narration and series of earnest public representatives at the beginning, as well as the snarling coda had me thinking of it in those terms. I think I recall you saying you liked it and I’m sure John Knight, if he happens to read this, will never forgive me, but I really didn’t get on well with it. Sure there are some very well handled sequences and it has a definite edge about it, but the fact is I didn’t care for any of the characters aside from Gaby Andre and therefore couldn’t get drawn in.

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  11. I agree, contrivances in movies don’t bother me at all, as long as the actors can put them across. A good actor should be able to bulldoze over any implausibility or script absurdity with complete nonchalance.

    I liked Highway 301 better than you, it has Steve Cochran in it. 🙂
    Yes, the stentorian lecture at the beginning of so many Docu-Noirs can easily come off as silly. In Highway 301 they went for the sledgehammer approach.

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  12. Hi Colin – I was able to watch this movie yesterday and agree it is a high-quality, deeply immersive production. Watching it also deepened my appreciation of the insights in your review.

    I love the pace and economy of the storytelling in this film and the way the director makes every scene count, cutting quickly to the point and building suspense effectively as the plot develops. The twists in the story make it hard to predict what the ending will be.

    Stanwyck is very good in this: I watched her face closely in the key scenes and her skill in conveying feeling comes through so strongly. Compare how tender she looks when she takes a lover in her arms in one scene with her expression when she says the words “I will” in a marriage ceremony later in the movie. Among a strong cast, the other exceptional performance is by Jane Cowl, magnetic in playing a warm and acutely intelligent matriarch.

    There IS a plausibility issue in the plot but it is hard to think how the key dynamic could have been better set up. That dynamic is how a woman who has nothing can come to have everything she has ever dreamed of and then have that put under dire threat. How can, how will she protect what she loves?

    I was able to rent the movie on Amazon Prime for a small fee. The print sounded and looked crisp and clear.

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    • That’s great that you got to see the movie so soon, and it’s good to hear you had a positive experience with it. That marriage scene you refer to is so well done, and much of the reason why it works is down to Stanwyck’s modulated reaction.

      The entire premise of the story and the way it plays out is full of implausibility, which is pretty common with Woolrich but is also true of many a film noir, and plenty of movies in general. As long as everything is regarded as and portrayed as plausible within the self-contained bubble or universe of the movie, then I have no problems accepting it.

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    • Steve and Colin…….I took this movie in for a second time in the last 48 hours. The first go around left me thinking it was a very good movie, but I felt there were a few holes that could have been filled in within the screenplay. After viewing the film again those holes were, in fact, neatly filled in and my thoughts about the film improved. For me, it seems giving a film a second look, especially when so well thought of by others, more times than not provides me with a better perspective.
      For those that are interested in viewing the movie online in HD the following link is provided………… https://ok.ru/video/1202430020098

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        • So I ask the question. Why are themes that may be revealed during production (Screenplay and Direction) be less apparent to some during a first viewing? Is it a shortcoming of the production team to not connect the dots and flow for the viewing audience? Or could it be that the written script may flow just fine on paper, but when delivered to celluloid misses the mark? I have two such examples that stood out in my mind watching this film. 1) The unexpected encounter of Stanwyck and Bettger at the country club dance. The aftermath of the encounter completely left Lund out from having any response to Stanwyck regarding her encounter with Bettger. It just didn’t seem plausible that there would be no dialogue between the two. Instead the following scene cut directly to the next day’s events. 2) Also, I think it would have been better served to witness, to some degree, Bettger’s much deserved comeuppance even if it meant not revealing the shooter. You know……Bettger (film debut) ended up being so damn good in his supporting role maybe the production team were concerned about Bettger overshadowing leading man Lund. Just some of my thoughts here.

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          • I tend to think that, particularly in relation to films noir, that plotting is often so convoluted and motivations so twisted up that it takes all of the viewer’s time (or a significant part of it at any rate) to keep it all straight. I know this reflects my own experience on my occasions, where it is subsequent viewings where thematic concerns, subtexts or nuance come to the fore.

            With regard to the points you raise about this movie, I can’t see Stanwyck wanting, or feeling able right after the country club meeting, to do anything more than attempt to gloss over the meeting with her ex Actually, I’m glad that Lund was left essentially in the dark for so long – it highlights the depth of his love and commitment, regardless of any suspicions that may have been nibbling at his consciousness he was still prepared to back his feelings all the way.

            As for Bettger’s ultimate fate, I personally have no issue with this as it stands – it makes more a satisfyingly shocking moment, and the filming and montage employed in the sequence is very well executed.

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  13. Scott, Colin – a good point about the country club, Scott. It is odd that there’s no immediate follow up from Lund. Have been thinking that the film could have set the encounter with Bettger somewhere where it would have been just the two of them, so that Lund was unaware of it. However, that would have lost the warmth and friendliness of the other couples at the club towards Stanwyck and the jarring effect of that hand dragging her back to her rotten past. Am also watching the movie for a second time and thinking the dialogue in the script is nothing special but the actors’ performances make it work very well. Also like how the blonde’s comment to Bettger about his brush off of Stanwyck early in the film plays out towards the end.

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    • Hi Steve……..regarding Bettger’s blonde. As it turned out she was literally ‘dead’ serious when she forewarned Bettger in the event of dumping her. I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall leading up to the fatal event. Ya know……during my first viewing, I did not pickup on the blonde’s appearance at the gift shop sales counter just after Lund and Stanwyck departed. Went right over my head. I must have been caught up in the moment when Stanwyck mistakenly wrote her real name Helen. Kind of supports what COLIN talked about above regarding so much to sort out at a particular moment. That little snip-it gave us a clue that Bettger was in town and trouble was at the doorstep. Like I said…..right over my head.

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      • Hi, Scott – there was so much going on in that scene, that I had to rewind to check if that was the same blonde as the one earlier in the film. The pen business and the writing of the wrong name and Lund’s reaction to it made you think there’s no way Stanwyck’s going to get away with her deception and then the blonde’s appearance has you thinking that something very nasty is just around the corner. The tension just keeps building … It was a great role for Stanwyck as it gave her so many different facets of her character to display. My second watching brought out how well she played the desperate and careworn figure in the early scenes.

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  14. , Speaking of Woolrich, it just popped into my pointy head that back in July, one of the trio of Edmond O’Brien tv episodes I wrote about was a Cornell Woolrich penned story, DEBT OF HONOR. The episode is based on the Cornell Woolrich novel, I.O.U. One Life..

    Gord

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  15. WARNING OFF TOPIC…….but I just can’t help myself. I know some of us are surfing the Web quite a bit lately, so I thought this find would interest some. Just popped up 2-days ago…………..
    Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp TV Movie 1994 colorized

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  16. Weekend viewing
    Finally going to watch LORD JIM from 65 with Peter O’Toole, Curd Jergens, Eli Wallach and James Mason. For some reason I cannot truly answer, I have never seen it.

    Next will be THE BIG LAND 57 with Alan Ladd, Virginia Mayo, Edmond O’Brien, Julie Bishop and helmed by Gordon Douglas.

    A great weekend for all of you.

    Gordon

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