“Summer nights are pleasant in Caulfield. They smell of heliotrope and jasmine, honeysuckle and clover. The breeze that stirs the curtains is soft and gentle. There’s the hush, the stillness of perfect peace and security. Oh, yes, the summer nights are pleasant in Caulfield–but not for us. Not for us.”
Desperate, pregnant, and recently dumped by her no-good boyfriend, Stephen Morley (Lyle Bettger), Helen Ferguson (Barbara Stanwyck) boards a train back to her hometown. On board, she encounters a friendly couple, Hugh and Patrice Harkness (Richard Denning and Phyllis Thaxter), who offer her one of their seats on the overcrowded train. Phyllis, also heavily pregnant, confides in Helen that the couple is on their way to visit Hugh’s wealthy family, whom Phyllis has never met. While in the washroom, Phyllis asks Helen to hold her wedding ring while she bathes, encouraging the other woman to try it on for herself. At that moment, the train crashes, and the women are thrown mercilessly about the train car.
Upon waking in the hospital, Helen discovers, to her horror, that the Harknesses have died in the accident, that she has given birth to a son, and that she has been mistaken for Patrice due to the wedding ring on her finger. Feeling as though she has no other options, and desiring the best for her newborn son, Helen reluctantly embraces the masquerade, presents herself to the Harknesses as Patrice, and is warmly welcomed into the family by Hugh’s mother (Jane Cowl). Though Hugh’s brother, Bill (John Lund), eventually begins to see through Helen’s charade, he falls in love with her anyway, and she, too, with him. Everything seems perfect for a while, until Morley shows up with threats of blackmail and Helen’s fairytale new life begins to unravel.
Based on Cornell Woolrich’s 1948 novel I Married a Dead Man (originally published under Woolrich’s pseudonym, William Irish), Mitchell Leisen’s No Man of Her Own (no relation to the same-named 1932 comedy starring Clark Gable and Carole Lombard) was released in February 1950 to mixed reviews. That varied reception is likely due to the film’s inability, at times, to decide what it is. Is it a stylish noir, with star Stanwyck playing the femme fatale with the same intensity and verve as in previous roles such as Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity (1944) or the title character of 1946’s The Strange Love of Martha Ivers? Or is it a traditional “woman’s picture,” centering around the sympathetic Stanwyck’s sacrifices for the sake of her newborn child?
The simple answer is, No Man of Her Own is both noir AND woman’s film, and though the two genres don’t meld together as cohesively as Leisen may have desired, the movie is nonetheless an entertaining entry in the filmographies of both its director and its leading lady. No Man marks the second time that Leisen directed Stanwyck: the two had previously worked together in the holiday comedy/drama Remember the Night in 1940, a movie that has in recent years (re)joined the pantheon of perennial Christmastime classics. That movie partnered Stanwyck with Fred MacMurray, her later cohort in evil misdeeds in Double Indemnity, a pairing that remains one of the most chillingly effective collaborations in all of film noir, with Stanwyck and MacMurray evenly matched in both menace and appeal.
In No Man of Her Own, however, Stanwyck is partnered with Lund, who pales in comparison to Stanwyck’s overpowering screen presence, even as she plays a somewhat more passive role. Indeed, for someone who is supposedly passionately in love with Helen/Patrice, Lund’s character is not all that demonstrative. There’s precious little chemistry between Stanwyck and Lund in the film, perhaps due to the relatively skimpy amount of time spent building up the relationship between those two characters in favor of developing the bond between Helen and Mrs. Harkness—a payoff for the denouement of the film, in which Mrs. Harkness confesses to a crime she’s certain Helen/Patrice committed.
No Man of Her Own fits well into that subset of film noir revolving around mistaken or stolen identities. As pointed out in Violence and American Cinema (2001), the living and the dead are not so far from one another, as “protagonists assume the literal identities of dead men in nearly fifteen percent of all noir.” But No Man presents a sort of role reversal in that, in a majority of those films, it is a male character who adopts a dead man’s identity. For a woman to do the same thing—taking on the mantle of a dead woman’s identity in the wake of a tragedy—adds its own set of complications to the plot. Helen’s motivations for “becoming” Patrice are both noble and selfish; though Helen justifies the decision to become Patrice as a means to give her son a good and comfortable life, there are undeniable benefits in raising her station in the world.
Stanwyck’s appealingly complex Helen is an interesting case study, if only for the almost comically quick transformation of the character from victim to femme fatale late in the film. With the seeming ease of flipping an internal switch, Helen morphs from the despairing prey of Morley’s scheme to the confident predator, almost in the blink of an eye. Perhaps it’s not altogether surprising—after all, Helen is quick and clever enough to maintain the charade of playing Patrice, though she does have trouble maintaining the lie when caught in an obvious misstep—but the transformation is still somewhat disconcerting. When Morley blackmails Helen into secretly marrying him (to ensure that he will share in the Harkness wealth she stands to inherit), the sacred wedding vows take on a new meaning for Helen when she hears the phrase “long as you both shall live.” A familiar gleam comes into Stanwyck’s eye here—that same look that once spelled disaster for Walter Neff—as she immediately begins to plot her new husband’s demise.
The climax of the film could almost make for the plot of a dark screwball comedy, with Bill stepping in to help Helen cover up a murder that neither one of them actually committed. It culminates in Bill tossing the dead body onto a passing freight train, and then later reporting to Helen that, although the body landed on the train, “his head didn’t.” Though meant to be a disturbing moment, Lund’s delivery invites a bubble of unintentional laughter instead. Truly, the entire ending of No Man of Her Own is somewhat subversive, though probably not in the way Leisen and company intended it to be. The movie completely undermines the typical noir tone in the end; an hour-and-a-half spent wallowing in a sense of utter hopelessness fed by Helen’s constant anxiety of discovery is turned completely on its head by a bit of deus ex machina (revealing the true murderer’s identity) and rosy declarations of love between Bill and Helen.
No Man of Her Own was remade in 1996 as Mrs. Winterbourne, with Ricki Lake in the Stanwyck role, Brendan Fraser taking on the Lund part, and Shirley MacLaine as the matriarch of the family. With the exception of MacLaine (because, let’s face it, the great Shirley Maclaine can make any cinematic endeavor seem worthwhile), Winterbourne is a pallid retread of the original. That’s not to say that the original itself is some lofty achievement in the history of film. Make no mistake—No Man of Her Own is pure soap opera. But with just enough touches of noir to cast shadows on the fanciful edges of the plot, the film remains a diverting exercise in 1950s melodrama.