I remember first seeing the 1950 Barbara Stanwyck melodrama-cum-film noir No Man of Her Own on the old American Movie Classics channel in the early '90s. In a lot of ways, it is the perfect
American Movie Classics Turner Classic Movies movie - not necessarily a top-drawer piece of vintage Hollywood studiocraft, but the kind of absorbing, well-crafted and somewhat ludicrous flick that immediately sucks you in while channel-surfing on a lonely Friday night (what, that never happened to you?).
Excelling in one of those "woman in jeopardy" roles she did so well, here Stanwyck plays a down-on-her-luck pregnant woman named Helen Ferguson. Penniless and desperate, she appeals to her onetime boyfriend Steve (Lyle Bettger) for help. Refusing to come to the door of the apartment he's sharing with a sulky blonde, Steve slips her a train ticket and a wad of cash. Taking the train ticket but not the money, Helen embarks on a trip from New York to San Francisco. On the train, she meets a nice married couple (Richard Denning and Phyllis Thaxter) who introduce themselves as Hugh and Patrice Harkness. Hugh is coming West to introduce his now-pregnant wife to her new in-laws. Before that can happen, however, the train crashes (in an effectively done sequence) while the two women are sharing a dressing room - with Patrice's wedding ring conveniently placed on Helen's finger.
Awakening in a hospital, Helen finds that her baby has been delivered, a healthy boy. She is also told that the couple on the train both died, but the hospital staffers mistakenly think that Patrice (whose ring is still on Helen's finger) was the one who survived. Since Helen's future prospects were cloudy at best, she goes along and completes the train journey posing as Patrice, with her son in tow as the new Harkness grandchild. Arriving at the station, she meets Hugh's warm-hearted mother (Jane Cowl) who unconditionally accepts Patrice/Helen into the family. She is eventually welcomed by Mr. Harkness (Henry O'Neil) and Hugh's attractive brother, Bill (John Lund). Despite spending the holidays with the family in their well-appointed home, Patrice/Helen is constantly on edge that her secret will be found out. The tensions escalate when she starts receiving anonymous telegrams from someone who knows her real identity. Then Helen's ex-boyfriend Steve shows up ...
No Man of Her Own's durable story was based on a novel called I Married a Dead Man, written under a pseudonym by crime fiction icon Cornell Woolrich (Rear Window, Deadline at Dawn). It was remade over the years as a Bollywood production, the 1982 French film I Married a Shadow, and most recently as Mrs. Winterbourne with Ricki Lake in the Stanwyck role. As enacted in No Man of Her Own, the story veers from typical women's-picture stuff into dense, compelling noir. Director Mitchell Leisen is noted for getting strong performances from his leading actresses and (perhaps unfairly) for lavishing undue attention on the lighting, sets and overall look of his pictures. In this case, the tactic works well as the cozy domesticity of the Harkness home over Thanksgiving, Christmas and the following Spring is contrasted with Stanwyck's mounting dread. Leisen does a lot of interesting business with mirrors and reflections commenting on the character's duality. It also helps that the film benefits from some truly gorgeous cinematography by Daniel L. Fapp (West Side Story, The Great Escape).
Certainly the best reason to seek out No Man of Her Own is Barbara Stanwyck. She gives a committed performance, even as the story strains credibility. It's a tribute to Stanwyck's gifts that her Helen/Patrice remains a sympathetic character even as most of us are yelling "tell the truth, already!" at the screen. It's also fascinating to watch her transition from pathetic woman-done-wrong into a more assertive noir heroine.
Olive Films has issued No Man of Her Own as standard-issue single DVD with packaging that recycles lurid artwork from the original movie poster. This disc is made available as a result of Paramount's agreement to license out some of its back catalog to Olive - a nice surprise for classic film fans.
No Man of Her Own's 1.37:1, black and white image was sourced from a grainy, aged print that nevertheless looks pretty sharp. There are some consistent signs of dust and white flecks - nothing that denigrates the viewing experience, however.
The only audio option is the film's decent original mono soundtrack, with no subtitles. Dialogue and music are generally clear and all right for a 62-year-old flick.
Overwrought and unbelievable it may be, but No Man of Her Own benefits from one of Barbara Stanwyck's better performances and some finely-tuned scenes of suspense from director Mitchell Leisen. Stanwyck particularly did well at playing women in peril; her Helen a.k.a. Patrice is a pip. Recommended.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist and sometime writer who lives in sunny (and usually too hot) Phoenix, Arizona. Among his loves are oranges, going barefoot and blonde 1930s movie comedienne Joyce Compton. Since 2000, he has been scribbling away at Pop Culture weblog Scrubbles.net. One can also follow him on Twitter @4colorcowboy.