EDINBURGH 06 (pt5) : Mitchell Leisen’s ‘No Man of Her Own’ (1950) [7/10]

Published on: September 3rd, 2006

NO MAN OF HER OWN  ¦ USA 1950  ¦ Mitchell LEISEN  ¦ 95m (timed)  ¦ 7/10

I saw three of the 2006 Edinburgh Film Festival’s Mitchell Leisen well-received retrospective, and while No Man of Her Own doesn’t quite match up to either Hold Back the Dawn or To Each His Own, it’s still an intriguing and effective minor quasi-noir whose plot implausibilities are more than outweighed by the typically-committed central performance from the ever-splendid Barbara Stanwyck. And it makes a fascinating companion-piece for To Each His Own – both films deal with the desperate acts of unmarried mothers, terrified that their children may bear the ‘taint’ of ‘illegitimacy’; both feature the unjustly-forgotten John Lund as male lead; and both are structured around a long flashback in which the main character looks back on the tumultuous recent events of her life.

Stanwyck’s Helen Ferguson begins with how, several months before, she’d found herself pregnant, unmarried and penniless. She’d travelled from San Francisco to New York in hope of obtaining help (and perhaps money) from her unborn child’s good-for-nothing father Stephen Morley (Lyle Bettger), but had received only a homeward ticket for her pains. Dejectedly taking the train back west, she’d been befriended by a well-heeled, sympathetic, recently-maried young couple – Hugh Harkness (Richard Denning) and his pregnant wife Patrice (Phyllis Thaxter) – who were on their way to visit Hugh’s parents. But the train crashed – and when Helen “came to” in hospital, she realised that due to a circumstantial mix-up the staff believed her to be the now-deceased Patrice. And when she remembered that Hugh’s parents had never seen Patrice in the flesh or in a photo, she realised that fate was tempting her with an unexpected route out of her nightmarish plight…

As befits a film based on a novel by the “father of noir,” Cornell Woolrich – I Married a Dead Man, published under the name William Irish and adapted by Sally Benson (who also worked on Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt) and Catherine Turney – No Man of His Own is a relentlessly dark and tense drama, with only dabs of the leavening humour to be found in most of Leisen’s better-known work (or indeed in Richard Benjamim’s 1996 version of the same tale, Mrs Winterbourne.) From the claustrophobic opening (which establishes that Helen/Patrice’s account is going to culminate with a murder), Leisen and his scriptwriters, in conjunction with cinematographer Daniel L Fapp, emphasise again and again how hemmed-in Helen feels, how cruelly limited her range of options.

She assumes Patrice’s identity for what are essentially altruistic reasons – and though she’s clearly had some shady friends in the past, we recognise the essential decency in a woman whose guilelessness was always going to make the maintenance of deception a near-impossible task. Though the story occasionally requires more than the usual suspension of disbelief, Stanwyck convinces at every stage in Helen/Patrice’s hazardous journey, with crucial support from Lund as “her” brother-in-law Bill – their interaction successfully steering No Man of Her Own from melodrama through noir-thriller until it reaches a satisfyingly hard-won final berth in the realms of romance.

Neil Young
3rd September, 2006

seen 27th August at Filmhouse cinema
public show in Mitchell Leisen Retrospective (paid  £4.20 with press discount); followed by ‘a Mitchell Leisen Lagniappe’

Edinburgh Film Festival

Edinburgh 06 index page