NO MAN OF HER OWN begins with Barbara Stanwyck and John Lund in a perfect house in a perfect town with their perfect brat, and this being based on a Cornell Woolrich book, you know this perfection has been put before us so we can watch it come tumbling down. Being a 1950 Hollywood movie based on a Cornell Woolrich book, just how noir it is is up for grabs until the very end. In the case of this particular Woolrich, there is simply no way that ending is going to get on the screen, but how faithful is it until that point? Pretty damn, that’s how.
After the hook we jump back in time. Barbara is with child and her no-goodnik rotter of a boyfriend wants nothing to do with her and gives her the brush off, a train ticket back to New York. On the train, Barb meets up with a nice young couple, recently married and on their way to see the guy’s rich family. They’re so wholesome you pray the train has some kind of accident that kills them both. On this, the movie delivers, including a shot of the two ladies tumbling over as the bathroom set was mounted on a wheel — no stunt women involved. Already we’re seeing an effort to be faithful to the novel, right down to lingering on the woman’s kicking her husband’s ankle to indicate she wants him to give up his seat for the pregnant stranger.
In Woolrich world, crazy things happen that would get laughed off the page or screen if not done with such conviction. Woolrich’s hairier plots are audacious in their loopiness. “Then the pregnant woman tries on the married one’s ring, and JUST THEN, their train is in an accident, killing the marrieds. Now everyone thinks the fallen woman is the dead lady, because of the ring — no, stop laughing, listen, there’s more!”
Long story short, Barbara wakes up in a private room — it’s a very class-conscious movie, with one sign of wealth being the luxury of having your own room instead of being put in a ward. Her baby born (the dead married woman was, coincidentally, also approaching her due date), the ring still on her finger , everyone thinks Stanwyck is the dead woman who was on her way to meet the rich guy’s family. There is thunder and lightning, signifying nothing. For the sake of her baby, Barbara decides to fake being the dead woman, let the dead guy’s family take her and the baby in as their own, and live in their house, all for The Child.
Dead guy’s dad just kind of sits around being rich, but much is made of the nice rich Mom’s being frail. The dead guy’s brother is attracted to Barbara, and since she has no man of her own, they slip into “No, we can’t, darling” mode. As Stanwyck settles into comfortable motherhood, we see see the moll who the jerk boyfriend took up with: Boyfriend is in the vicinity. What are he and the moll up to? The quick reappearance of the moll sets up the noir part of this situation. Are you keeping up with all this?
Based on Woolrich’s I MARRIED A DEAD MAN which was based on a novella with much the same plot, NO MAN OF HER OWN is well-paced as it takes a long time setting up the inevitable collision of Barbara’s reality and her impersonation of the dead woman. The more we see Barbara becoming close to the brother and mother, the more we dread the inevitable remaking of this as the Sandra Bullock flick WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING. Woolrich adaptations work when the tone is right; REAR WINDOW, PHANTOM LADY, THE WINDOW, are stylish enough in their own ways to carry off the twisting plots. This one follows the book closely, but it isn’t nearly as gloomy as the novel, which is soaked through with the sense that this paradise was lost from the get-go.
The novella and movie end with a lot of setting up for what is a red herring. Barbara and the a-hole who left her pregnant meet again. He blackmails her, getting her name on a check, and then he goes further into deviousness, taking her out of town so they can be married. When Mom and Pop kick, Barbara will inherit mucho bucks because of the tyke, and the friend w/o benefits wants that payday. On their way back to town after the quickie marriage, Brother passes the other way and gets stuck in a Sno-Cone. Once home, Barbara gets a gun and goes to do in the guy she just married. Meanwhile, back in East Yahoo, Illinois, Brother and his car the size of a house battle a ditch just long enough to get everyone where they need to be for a Who Killed the Boyfriend? climax. Mom, who’s at death’s door already, manages to get out of bed and run around. Boyfriend ends up deceased, and Brother, thinking Barbara offed him, helps her dump the body.
This is where the movie actually turns noir, or Woolrichian. Brother and Barbara have an Impossible Yen for each other, but alas, Fate intervenes, and they fight back, leading them toward inevitable disaster. Can they dump boyfriend’s body and get away with it? Will one or both of them be caught with a corpse and no believable excuse? And what about Mom, who can’t walk to the mail box but will do anything to protect her brood? Pops hangs around a lot, so he’s not in the equation.
The novella and the movie come down on similar ground, with Mom kicking it and leaving a letter claiming she offed the dead guy, kind of like the kid fingering the guy who’s already been shot in SCHINDLER’S LIST — what difference does it make if the dead lady takes the fall, they can’t fry her twice. Not that she fried. Anyway, both end with a secondary (or thirdary) character being the killer, so Barbara, Brother and dead guy’s baby live happily ever after.
In the novel, though, things are much more complicated. It goes more or less as described here, but it turns out Mom left another letter — yes, she had time to write a B.S. explanation and the real, REAL explanation on her deathbed. Mom related things she couldn’t have known, and the discrepancies are never explained, leaving our heroine not happily ever after, but in a decaying orbit over a domestic suburban happiness she knows is doomed. She knows neither she nor Brother will ever know if the other was a murderer — SHE knows she didn’t do it, but she thinks he is just as sure. In the end, she knows she will leave him, because knowing the truth is impossible, and not knowing will drive her mad.
That’s Lovecraft’s brand of existential despair in a nutshell. Or maybe it’s just plain-old existential despair, I don’t know, but it sure seems like Lovecraft’s We Are All Meat Not Even Alien Gods Think Is Tasty attitude. The novel and the novella share similar endings in terms of plot mechanics, but the tone of the book is not only different from the shorter version, it’s almost Lovecraftian in its bleakness. Yes, you read that right: I just compared a book that inspired a Barbara Stanwyck vehicle to H.P. Lovecraft’s concept of existential cosmic nothingness.
NO MAN OF HER OWN leaves the morbidity, despair and existentialism of Woolrich aside, which was inevitable. It relates the story nicely, with good pacing and character development. Stanwyck is way too old for the part, but she carries it off as a fallen woman, with none of the hardness of her Phyllis in DOUBLE INDEMNITY. She could be one stop away from her character in CLASH BY NIGHT. Stanwyck plays the character as someone who’s perpetually wobbly from the turns her life is taking; even when at her most relaxed here, the cold touch of Fate is seconds away, from a telegram, a phone call, or a missed detail about the man she was supposedly married to. The other actors are fine but this really is her show. Llyle Bettger stands out as one of the creepiest guys since Richard Widmark’s noir villains.
It’s a good flick that, like I AM LEGEND, avoids the very thing that makes it stand out.