A Month with Mitchell Leisen: No Man of Her Own (1950)
Welcome to A Month with Mitchell Leisen! Each week this month I will be reviewing one of Leisen’s films. An underrated director whose specialties were comedies and romances, Leisen is a very "niche" director that only the most devout of film lovers seem to recognize. I am admittedly not one of them (film geek that I am), but the purpose of Mitchell Month is to rectify that. As I pointed out in my review of Swing High, Swing Low, he has a sensitivity to his plots and characters that tends to be lacking, especially in today’s cinema.
Tiresome Disclaimer of the Day: No Man of Her Own is not to be confused with the 1932 comedy of the same name with Clark Gable and Carole Lombard.
In the intervening time since I've reviewed Easy Living, I've been able to do some research on Mr. Leisen, and the word that is most frequently used to describe him is "visual". It's little wonder: before taking his place in the director's chair, Leisen was an architect and a designer of both sets and costumes. He has an artist's eye for beautiful details, and this was more than evident in Easy Living, especially in the preternaturally plush hotel, with its Art Deco furnishings and shower that looked like it was ordered from Mount Olympus. As noted in Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman, Dan Callahan noted that Leisen had a special fondness for jewelry shops, and loved having them in his films, such as Midnight and Remember the Night. If that's the case, then Leisen came to his job as director at the right time: 1930s and 40s screwball comedies, which were already glossy and decidedly detached from reality, gave him carte blanche to go wild with his flamboyant taste in decor, clothes and accessories.
Not that Leisen was a one trick pony, for he takes a walk on the darker side in today's film, No Man of Her Own. Based on a novel by Cornell Woolrich (who is also penned Rear Window), Leisen was smart enough to change with the times. By 1950, when No Man of Her Own was released, film noir still ruled the box office. Gone were the days of glitzy, decadent screwball comedies, and a new chapter in Hollywood was about to unfold. Still, Leisen's touch remains distinctive, as his love for eye-catching interiors is displayed in the main setting: a cosy, Rockwell-esque suburban home that manages to be both comforting and unsettling, depending on our protagonist's state of mind.
Our film opens in a similar way to Meet Me in St. Louis, with a loving pan across an idyllic suburb as we hear our narrator describe life in this peaceful neighborhood, but her somber voice doesn't match the loving description. There are murky shadows cast by the trees, there are no shadows near the house the camera zooms in on… yet. This peaceful house is threatened by encroaching darkness. Our narrator is our heroine, Helen Ferguson (Stanwyck, flawless as always), and we see her inside her house, sitting tensely with her lover, Bill (John Lund, who also appeared in Leisen's To Each His Own), and her baby. They hear police sirens, and Helen's voiceover mentions murder.
Flashback to a then-pregnant Helen as she begs her worthless boyfriend Steve (Lyle Bettger) to help her, but he instead gives her a train ticket out of town. Heartbroken, Helen leaves on the train, but grabs the attention of chatty newlywed (and just as pregnant as Helen) Patrice Harkness (Phyllis Thaxter) and her husband Hugh (Richard Denning), and they show Helen some much needed kindness. Later that evening, as the ladies prepare for bed, Patrice takes off her wedding ring and puts it on Helen's finger as she washes her hand (people are so trusting in the movies). Just as Helen questions if it's bad luck for a woman to wear another's wedding ring, the train is thrown violently off the tracks, and Helen wakes up in the hospital, having had a C-section to save her baby. To her dismay, Helen learns that not only have Patrice and Hugh been killed, but she has been mistakenly identified as Patrice by a family member because of the family wedding ring that is still on her finger. Helen is too weak and concussed to argue, and before she knows it, she is invited by Hugh's family to live with them. They are an eminently decent group of people all too eager to accept her as one of their own, and Helen lacks the heart and guts to tell them the truth. Besides, having never had a family of her own before, she can't help but accept Hugh's as her own.
Does this plot sound strangely familiar? It should… in 1996, No Man of Her Own was remade into Mrs. Winterbourne, with Ricki Lake (remember when she had an acting career?) and Brendan "George of the Jungle" Fraser. While No Man of Her Own is a deadly serious drama, Mrs. Winterbourne is a lighthearted, "ugly duckling" romantic comedy. Yup, a frothy, charming romantic comedy… involving the gruesome death of a pregnant woman in a train wreck and identity theft. I confess I've never actually seen Mrs. Winterbourne, so who am I to judge? Maybe it's actually good (though I doubt it). Just the same, please check out the below posted trailers for both movies and I'll leave you to decide which one deals better with the above mentioned themes.
But back to the main point: No Man of Her Own deserves high praise for addressing the guilt and inner turmoil that should go with identity theft. Throughout the movie, even as Helen embraces her new family and falls for Hugh's brother Bill (Lund), she is consistently tormented with anguish over what she's doing, and fear of the repercussions should she be discovered. The situation snowballs beyond her control: her infant son is showered with expensive gifts and baptized, and Helen is even written into the family patriarch's will. Making matters worse is the re-emergence of Steve, who has tracked Helen down and has a sterling opportunity to blackmail her; all Helen has to do is marry him, then let him have her inheritance when it comes time. Terrified for the future of herself and her infant son, Helen reluctantly agrees to marry Steve, but, thinking quicker than most movie victims of blackmail, she immediately schemes to murder him that very night. But we all know what they say about the best laid plans...
If I have one complaint, it's that the movie botches its own ending with a laughable, unnecessary MacGuffin that contributes nothing and simply wastes time. Watch the scene again, imagine it written without said MacGuffin, and it works so much better. I otherwise don't mind the ending, but I actually would have been fine with it having a darker or more open-ended conclusion. Like I said, it deals with Helen's guilty feelings in an honest, visceral way that even movies made today wouldn't. No Man of Her Own is a wonderful showcase for Ms. Stanwyck, whose acting really (it must be said) mops the floor with everyone else. No one else is more grounded and real, and Stanwyck captures Helen's desperation and loneliness so perfectly that you root for her, even as she is assuming a dead woman's identity and deceiving kind people who trust her.
It seems the stars weren't aligned quite right for Leisen in terms of directing film noir. He rises to the occasion, curbing his trademark lavish style in lieu of shadowy cinematography. Alas, his movie career began to decline in the 1950s, but he soldiered on in the world of television. He directed several episodes of General Electric Theatre and three episodes of The Twilight Zone, most notably "The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine", in which faded actress Ida Lupino is able to revisit her glory days as though by magic. The idea of longing to visit the glamour of days gone by, recapture the triumph of your youth, I can't help but wonder if this touched a nerve in our friend Leisen.