No Man of Her Own

No Man of Her Own


Reviewed by: Andrea Mullaney

This wonderful, atmospheric film noir clears up something that's been bothering me since I saw Mrs Winterbourne, a 1996 comedy with Ricki Lake and Brendan Fraser. Despite Fraser's solid masculine charms (now, he's an actor who would have been better served by Fifties movies), the film was not terribly good, with a wooden performance from Lake and the usual romcom cliches. But there was something intriguing about it that I couldn't get out of my mind - something about the plot that didn't quite make sense - after all, how many romcoms involve the tragic deaths of a beloved young man, his bride and their unborn child, plus an abandoned single mother, insidious blackmail and a murder?

Now it's explained, as that film was actually a remake of No Man Of Her Own, taking the earlier movie's basic set up (based on a novel by Cornell Woolrich) but unsuccessfully trying to graft fluffiness onto something which really isn't fluffy or sweet at all. And Mitchell Leisen's one stab at film noir works much, much better as a result, being a beautifully filmed, chilling, lost classic that has something of the same feel about it as Rebecca.

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Barbara Stanwyck gives one of her career-best performances as the heroine, who opens the film with an ominous voiceover: "The summer nights are pleasant in Caulfield. But not for us. Not for us." She lives in a fine house in suburbia with a baby and a husband whom she loves and who loves her. But there is something terribly wrong.

Flashback to a desperate, penniless, heavily pregnant Helen, banging on the door of her uncaring lover, pleading with him not to abandon her. Heartlessly, he and his new girl won't even open up, just brush her off with a train ticket home put under the door. Alone, she exhaustedly drags herself onto the train, where a nice young couple, are kind to her. Mrs Harkness happily explains that she is also pregnant and going to meet her wealthy in-laws for the first time; the contrast between their situations is cruel. Then there's a dramatic train crash, hurling everyone upside down - and symbolically, Helen's life is also being turned around.

The scene where she wakes in hospital and is told that her 'husband' and a nameless pregnant girl have died but that her baby lives, that her rich relations are waiting anxiously and as she realises the impossible, tempting prospect of salvation before her, is brilliantly played by Stanwyck. Her eyes show every fear, every hope, every doubt as, terrified and shocked, she wonders if she can possibly get away with taking over someone else's life.

While Mrs Winterbourne played the same set up for laughs, watching Helen try to pass herself off as 'Patrice', the grieving new mother who is taken in by her welcoming, bereaved 'in-laws', is full of tension. As in Remember The Night, Stanwyck's previous film with Leisen, in 1940, the kindness of the family who take her in gives her a chance to change, to leave behind her old troubled life. She becomes the kind of woman she never had a chance to be: a perfect daughter who cares deeply for the old parents who believe she's the woman their son loved. And they're not wrong, as the dead man's brother (John Lund, who is fairly bland and acted off the screen by Stanwyck) comes to love her too as the lie becomes the truth.

And then the vile ex-lover turns up, Lyle Bettger, who would go on to an undistinguished career in Westerns and the likes of Hawaii Five-O but who here is a revelation as a sinister, devilish figure intent on wrecking everything she has. His poisonous influence leads her into dark, rain-soaked streets, a complete contrast to the sunny suburbia of the Harkness house, into - in fact - another kind of picture, where his shady office seems to have come out of a Raymond Chandler thriller.

There is more sentiment here than in the real hard-boiled noirs, however, with the too-perfect Harkness family. But Stanwyck's powerful performance, a mostly sterling supporting cast and a haunting, clever storyline make it surprising that this film has been so neglected.

Reviewed on: 07 Sep 2006
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Atmospheric film noir, shown as part of EIFF 2006's Mitchell Leisen retrospective.
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Director: Mitchell Leisen

Writer: Sally Benson, Catherine Turney, Cornell Woolrich

Starring: Barbara Stanwyck, John Lund, Jane Cowl, Phyllis Thaxter, Lyle Bettger, Henry O'Neill, Richard Denning

Year: 1950

Runtime: 98 minutes

BBFC: U - Universal

Country: USA


EIFF 2006

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