(Open Thread) Noir Side Street — “No Man of Her Own”

Nouvelle Vague (the residues of alphaville). Photo by Emiliano Grusovin.

Today’s film is 1950’s “No Man of Her Own,” starring Barbara Stanwyck (Helen Ferguson), John Lund (Bill Harkness), Jane Cowl (Mother Harkness), and Lyle Bettger (Stephen Morley). Produced by Paramount Pictures, the film is directed by Mitchell Leisen; written by Sally Benson and Catherine Turney. Based on the novel “I Married a Dead Man,” by Cornell Woolrich.

This is the first time I’ve read the novel on which one of these film noirs was based, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The film is a pretty good adaptation of the source material, though there are some minor as well as major differences. The endings are quite different, which is typical, given the limits imposed by the Hays Code. With film noir, the endings usually suffer, because part of the code was that bad guys couldn’t gain from their bad deeds; they always had to pay for their actions. And, to be honest, this film really suffers for it. (By the way, if you’d like to read the novel, you can find it on Amazon. The Kindle version is $4.99, and worth every penny!)

As I read the novel, I could definitely see Barbara Stanwyck playing Helen/Patrice, in spite of the fact that she’s described as being a young woman of 19, while Stanwyck was 43 when the film was released. It was a bit difficult to believe that this older version of Helen would’ve fallen for the creep Stephen Morley. But let’s get to the story.

The film (like the novel) opens with establishing shots of a tidy midwestern town, in the affluent area. We hear “Patrice’s” narration of how lovely their hometown of Caulfield, Illinois is, “but not for us.” We see the beautiful home where her family lives, entering the living room where she and her husband Bill are. In this continued narration, she tells us how Bill loves her, but some day he will leave her, even though he won’t want to. Or she’ll leave him. Because murder lies between them. Or perhaps I should say, the question of who committed the murder does.

This is one point at which the film and novel diverge, because once the novel establishes “Patrice” is talking about murder, in this internal dialogue of hers she assures us she didn’t kill the victim. Bill swears he didn’t do it, and she believes him. Yet, if neither of the two of them killed the victim, then who did? She tells us no one else could. And so, they’re stuck in this endless fear that one of them must be the murderer. In the novel, this doubt plays out for quite a while, but in the film, the phone interrupts “Patrice’s” internal monologue. Bill answers, and when he returns to the living room, he tells her it was the police, who are on their way. She asks who they want to see; he responds, “They didn’t say.”

“Patrice” takes their toddler upstairs with her, settling him in his crib, while begging him to understand, she did what she did out of desperation. At this point, we go back nearly two years, to when “Patrice” was pregnant.

I’ve been referring to her as “Patrice” because we soon learn Stanwyck’s character’s name is actually Helen Ferguson, who’s just been dumped by her creep boyfriend. And this is another divergence from the novel. In the book, Helen discovers her boyfriend’s dumped her at their cheap apartment. The landlady gives her an envelope. Helen excitedly opens it, thinking he’s sent her a letter; but as it turns out, all that’s inside the envelope is a $5 bill and a strip of train tickets, from New York to San Francisco. One way. It becomes clear to her that Steve wants her out of his life and is more than happy to send her packing back to California, her home.

In the film version, we see Helen in a phone booth, calling Steve, but there’s no answer. When she hangs up the receiver, she counts all the money she has in the world: seventeen cents. (That seventeen cents gets mentioned a lot in the novel!) She then goes to Steve’s place and knocks on the door, begging him to answer. And here’s a big divergence from the novel: Steve isn’t alone. He has a new girlfriend, a blonde floozy. (The girlfriend was created for the film.) And she’s none too happy that Helen chick he knocked up is coming around once again. To get her to leave him alone, Steve pushes an envelope under the door to Helen. And, yes, that $5 bill and strip of train tickets are inside. Except in the movie, as Helen trudges away, we see the money lying on the carpeted floor of the staircase landing.

Helen gets on the train carrying her heavy bag with her; her ticket only got her onboard, it didn’t guarantee her a seat. And the train’s crowded with holiday travelers. (Apparently, back in the old days, people traveled home for the 4th of July! Yeah, I thought that was weird, too. In the novel, it’s never mentioned which holiday it was supposed to be.) So the very tired Helen turns her suitcase on end and uses it as an impromptu seat.

One thing I liked about the novel was Woolrich’s very visual style of storytelling. I’m not simply referring to describing things in detail, but in actually framing things the way you would for a film. For example, once Helen sits down on her makeshift suitcase seat, her eyes shift over toward two pairs of shoes: a pair of brogues and a strappy pair of stiletto-heeled sandals. These two pairs of shoes engage in a silent conversation of sorts, until, finally, one of the stilettos kicks the leg of one of the brogues, and the man attached to them goes over to Helen and offers her his seat. They recreated that bit in the film, but not nearly as deftly.

Helen hesitantly accepts the offer, at Patrice’s insistence. Patrice then tells her husband to get lost so the two girls can talk. He suggests he can go out on the platform (they’re in the last car of the train) and smoke a cigarette. “Smoke two,” Patrice tells him, because she’s got a lot to say to Helen. (Well, at least in the novel. In the film, not nearly as much.) Patrice and Hugh are blissfully happy, have only been married a short while, so they’re still in the honeymoon phase and expecting their first child. She mentions how she’s never met her in-laws. (Patrice and Hugh met in Europe while he was working for one a government agency “one of those initial outfits” and she was studying at university. They got married over there.) She even tells Helen the in-laws don’t know what she looks like, because she’s never sent them a photo. That night as most everyone else in the train car has fallen asleep, the two women head for the bathroom (which in the book was described as just big enough for two, but in the film appears to take up at least a quarter of the train car!) Patrice asks Helen to hold onto her wedding ring for her as she prepares to wash up in the sink, explaining, “I once dropped this down the drain.” Patrice encourages Helen to put the ring on, as her finger is the safest place for it. “Isn’t it bad luck for me to put it on?” Helen asks. “Oh, I couldn’t have bad luck,” replies Patrice.

Damn, she really shouldn’t have tempted Fate like that…

Just as Helen’s regarding herself in the mirror, enviously wishing she had what Patrice has, the train derails. The floor becomes a wall, and the two women tumble through the bathroom. In the book, it takes quite a while for rescuers to even realize there’s someone in the bathroom and then even more time to finally extricate her from the wreckage. So much so, Helen has her baby! But in the film, the next scene after the train wreck is ambulances pulling up to the emergency entrance of a local hospital; one of the victims — the only one whose face we see — is Helen. She’s whisked away into surgery, where they have to perform an emergency C-section.

Helen soon realizes that she’s been mistaken to be Patrice and tries to set the record straight, but the doctor and nurse think she’s being hysterical, and so they sedate her. (All she managed to say was things like, “You don’t understand.”) When she wakes, she asks about the other woman who’d been in the bathroom with her, was she okay? She’s told the other woman died. Then the doctor asks if there’s anyone else she’d like to know about. She asks about “him,” meaning Hugh, and the doctor giver her the news that he passed away, too. She once again tries to tell them she isn’t Patrice, there’s been a mistake, but nobody’s listening to her.

If you want to know more about the story, you can find a full synopsis here.

As I mentioned, the film and novel ending are completely different. The one in the novel is so grim it shook me. (You can ask Tiff, we were chatting when I finished reading it.) I’m still trying to decide why Mother Hazzard (the family name was changed for the film, as were many of the last names, for some unknown reason) did what she did, not realizing the possible impact; or if her feelings for Helen weren’t really as true and positive as she claimed… And if you want to know what the heck I’m talking about, read the book! Seriously, read it. You won’t be sorry.

The film doesn’t live up to the novel, which is usually true. Novels have much more time to develop character, tone, and plot. Sometimes a film can accomplish that visually, but in other instances, the necessary bits that were left on the cutting room floor to meet time constraints end up leaving a big hole. That happens here. In the novel the sense of dread is pretty overwhelming, but for much of the film, it’s just a little family melodrama. It’s not bad, just a little bland, compared to the novel. But Stanwyck does manage to convey pages of internal dialogue with a single look.

This isn’t your typical noir film, but it’s definitely the kind I prefer. I give it 4 out of 5 unfiltered cigarette puffs. (Losing 1 for the ending.)

Next week’s film is “The Killer Is Loose.” I can’t tell you about it, because I’ve never seen it!

As always, this is an open thread, feel free to discuss anything you like. And just remember, never, EVER brag that nothing bad ever happens to you!

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