No Man’s Land

NO MAN OF HER OWN, directed by Mitchell Leisen in 1950, is an adaptation of Cornell Woolrich’s I Married a Dead Man (and if you’re put off by that absurd title you may struggle with certain integral aspects of Woolrich) which is probably the last really major Leisen movie. Some of his TV work is very strong, especially The 16mm Shrine, made for The Twilight Zone and starring Ida Lupino, which seems like an elegy for Old Hollywood, and there’s the fascinating footnote THE GIRL MOST LIKELY, which was both Leisen’s last film and RKO’s — as each department finished work on the movie, it would be shut down permanently. “It was eerie.”

The Woolrich movie stars Barbara Stanwyck and acts as a sort of rephrasing of her earlier Leisen vehicle, REMEMBER THE NIGHT, scripted by Preston Sturges and described by me here. In both films, la Stanwyck is a woman with a shady past, adopted into a respectable smalltown family, who don’t quite realise what they’re getting. While the thirties comedy pulls of a dizzying series of volte-faces, from screwball to pastoral to tragedy, with a side-route through film noir terrain when we meet Stanwyck’s horrific real family, NO MAN was Leisen’s first and only real noir. It should have opened doors for him and led to a whole series of thrillers. This may be the best discovery of Cornell Woolrich Week (although I’d seen the film before at the Edinburgh Film Festival’s Leisen retrospective).

One of those subjective camera hospital admissions — always welcome!

With typically Woolrichian contrivance, unmarried mother-to-be Stanwyck is injured in a train wreck (Leisen rotates the entire set 180º) with another pregnant woman, and mistaken for her by the slain woman’s grieving in-laws, who had never met their new daughter-in-law. They’ve just lost their son in the same accident, so they embrace the new family member and her child. We’re a quarter of the way into the plot and we’ve achieved the outward appearance of a happy ending, but underneath the situation is absolutely rife with anxiety. Stanwyck keeps our sympathy during this imposture since her plight is so wretched, and the misunderstanding begins as a genuine one, since she’s stunned from the wreck (not the first or the last time a bit of concussion helped a Woolrich plot along).

Just as things are settling down, although there’s plenty of suspense from Stanwyck’s errors signing her name etc, and her love for the dead son’s brother (reliable snore John Lund) creates potential crises, Stanwyck’s evil ex shows up, with a plan to leech her dry by blackmail. As in the novel, the suspense here is positively unbearable (I could only read the book in ten minute bursts, so uncomfortable did I find it), and Lyle Bettger is a superbly sleazy bad guy. Stanwyck herself is too old and theoretically too resilient for her role, which Woolrich conceived as something of a doormat, one of his perpetual victim-saps put on Earth to be trampled by Fate. But Barbara makes it all work — her toughness helps stop the character coming over as an annoying drip, which is one danger with the material, and who but Babs could have created such dread in this scene, where Bettger blackmails her into marriage ~

Regular Shadowplayer Chris Schneider, pointing out that Leisen is one of very few gay auteurs to have adapted Woolrich (Fassbinder being the other key example), suggests that this scene has a nice additional meaning, lying outside the realms of the plot — it can be seen as a vision of heterosexual marriage as a death trap. It’s hard not to agree.

The parallels between Leisen and Woolrich aren’t limited to their sexuality (although Mitch seems to have had far less trouble living with his same-sex preference, and did at least manage at least one sustained relationship with a sexual partner, the dancer/choreographer Billy Daniel, strained though it sometimes was). Weirdly, both men ended their lives minus a leg… Sickness and paralysis abound in Woolrich’s work, and Stanwyck’s faux mother-in-law in this film has a convenient heart condition which can be used to ratchet up the suspense nicely: she can’t reveal the truth, it would kill mother…

I’m not sure why this movie isn’t better known… but you could say the same of ALL Leisen’s best works. It’s tempting to blame Billy Wilder for badmouthing Leisen at almost every opportunity, but simple historical forces may be more to blame. This is a terrific film, very faithful to Woolrich’s book. The ending is more upbeat, but the solution has been carefully planted so it doesn’t feel like a cheat. Woolrich’s downbeat ending has the disadvantage of making no sense whatsoever, but then, he always did veer towards the irrational. If Leisen didn’t like the title I Married a Dead Man, he wouldn’t have liked the surreal conclusion Woolrich came up with, a locked room mystery where the two characters present suspect each other of firing the fatal bullet… of course, since they were the only ones present, suspicion would in reality harden into certainty for one, while the other wouldn’t be suspicious at all, since he’d know he did it! The ending is magnificent in its morbid fatuousness.

I always felt the heroine had suffered enough and deserved a happier fate, so I’m glad Leisen and his co-screenwriters Sally Benson (SHADOW OF A DOUBT) and Catherine Turney (MILDRED PIERCE) provided one. Actually, the eleventh hour reassignment of guilt trick was used in MILDRED PIERCE too…

25 Responses to “No Man’s Land”

  1. Just watched this a couple of weeks ago – I’d seen it on tv a long while back, and couldn’t remember the title, so it was a great rediscovery. I love the atmosphere of dread hanging over the perfect smalltown American family from the beginning, the opening with the VO smearing foreboding and terror across the lawns and sunlit porches… it’s the essence of noir, for sure. The scene where Stanwyck initially goes to her no-good ‘boyfriend’ for help is painful to watch, almost harrowing, and it makes her later pretence feel justified – as if she’s in a dream of a better world, and by the time she realises that it’s no dream, she’s gone too far and told too many lies. A really remarkable film. I don’t find the ending convincing or realistic, but it does make a sort of sense, and the way the audience is wrongfooted into thinking (for a short time) that the sweet old ailing mother-in-law might have taken the law into her own hands is nicely disorienting.

  2. I have a feeling that David Lynch would be a good director to match with Woolrich: interest in noir, sado-masochistic relationships, smalltown life, evil as a pervading force, mutability of identity, power of dreams, unreliability of reality… The difference is that Lynch, unlike Woolrich and Lovecraft, doesn’t see the universe as inherently maleficent.

    But maybe the best dynamic for an adaptation is an approximate match of sensibilities with a few notes of discord to make it interesting.

  3. “the last really major Leisen movie”? J’ACUSSE ! The last really major Leisen movie is The Last Leisen Movie.

  4. I agree with the David Lynch — Woolrich connection. There’s a lot of Woolrich in the plot(s) of Twin Peaks.

    Moreover poor Jack Nance was a real-life Woolrich character.

  5. I’d forgotten how good (and camp!) those musical numbers are. It takes them a while to show up, but that’s really excessive and fun. Like the Scots beefcake too. As I recall the movie has some interesting Howard Hughes references in its plot too.

  6. This is indeed a remarkable movie and one of the most underrated of film noirs. Too bad Leisen never directed another one. I was turned on to it by way of David Thomson’s SUSPECTS which, although a work of fiction, remains one of the best and most helpful studies of film noir that I’ve read.

  7. Suspects was a great and exciting idea, back when Thomson was really out to challenge the world.

    I do recommend The 16mm Shrine, which is like Leisen’s rebuttal to Sunset Boulevard.

  8. NO MAN was a genre hybrid – noir + woman’s film (see also, MILDRED PIERCE) – and it’s likely Leisen got the job due to his reputation as a woman’s film director. However, the noir aspects – Woolrich’s world view abetted by Leisen and his cinematographer, not to mention Ms. Stanwyck – plainly overwhelm the woman’s film aspects. It was later informally remade (i.e., plagiarized) as a woman’s film/romantic comedy, WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING (1995), which, according to Leonard Maltin, was Sandra Bullock’s “first starring vehicle” (Woolrich is not credited), and then again, only one year later, as another romantic comedy, MRS. WINTERBOURNE (1996) starring Ricki Lake (they did credit Woolrich and his novel for that one).

  9. Here’s another fabulous Woman’s Film Noir

  10. I have a copy of that one but never got around to watching it.

    Hard to imagine Wendell Corey ever being young enough to be “introduced.”

    What made anybody ever see I Married a Dead Man as good romcom material? I guess by extension Overboard is a pretty Woolrichian concept.

  11. Thanks, David, for the acknowledgement and for the agreeing.

    I remember thinking, when “Mrs. Winterbourne” came ’round, that if the Woolrich had to be remade probably the best course would be to play it as farce. I mean, after all, that whole thing about the “Dead Man” heroine trying on the wedding ring and then the train *immediately* wrecking does have an air of unacknowledged comedy about it.

    As for “women’s noir” … wouldn’t the Ophuls “Reckless Moment” count as that? Or maybe the Curtiz “Unsuspected” or that “Nora Prentiss” thing, neither of which have I seen.

  12. Reckless Moment and Caught are both women’s noirs, Ophuls always looks for the feminine angle.

    Not sure about the other two, it’s been a while. But Nora Prentiss partakes of that titular thing along with Stella Dallas and Mildred Pierce and The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. Although I think it centres on Kent Smith’s character (always a mistake).

    Woolrich exploits farcical contrivance shamelessly, but I’m still not sure openly acknowledging that is the best response to his weirdness.

  13. My lengthy dissertation on Desert Fury can be found in the anthology “Film Quarterly: Forty Years — A Selection.”

  14. david wingrove Says:

    Doesn’t DESERT FURY star the fascinating Lizabeth Scott, who got ‘outed’ by the scurrilous Confidential magazine as a ‘baritone babe’? I find her intriguing but have only seen three of her films – DEAD RECKONING, LOVING YOU and MARTHA IVERS.

    Julie Burchill describes that last film as a sort of ‘Lesbian Olympiad’ – starring as it does Lizabeth, Barbara Stanwyck and the formidable Dame Judith Anderson. I’ve even heard a rumour that ALL ABOUT EVE is based on a real-life liaison between Lizabeth Scott and Tallulah Bankhead. Most likely untrue, but how tantalising!

    Apparently Lizabeth Scott is still alive and well, but refuses to divulge any secrets from her Hollywood past.

  15. Lizabeth is also in Basic Instinct, I’m sure you’ve seen that one, David.

    I like her in Dieterle’s Dark City too, and Pitfall is interesting.

    Also, Mike Hodges’ Pulp gives her another noir moment in the sun.

  16. david wingrove Says:

    She is? Isn’t that Dorothy Malone?!

  17. Oh crap, you’re right. Lizabeth might have brought more sapphic resonance. Pulp was her swan song.

  18. chris schneider Says:

    Director Leisen later directed a THRILLER episode, “Girl With a Secret,” which has some similarities to NO MAN OF HER OWN. The script — not very good — is Charles Beaumont adapting Charlotte Armstrong. The story involves a bride with a secret (Myrna Fahey for Barbara Stanwyck) in a household run by a matriarch (Fay Bainter for Jane Cowl).

  19. I’ve been disappointed by most of the TV work I’ve seen from Leisen: usually the scripts don’t give him much to work with. the great exception is The Twilight Zone and in particular the episode The 16mm Shrine with Ida Lupino, a more romantic and fantastic version of Sunset Blvd.

  20. chris schneider Says:

    The other Leisen THRILLER, the one with Constance Ford, is worth seeking out.

  21. I’m sure I’ve seen it, but I can’t remember a thing.

  22. Thanks, Chris. Constance Ford is electrifying in Worse than Murder. Connie seems to thoroughly enjoy every unscrupulous act, especially manhandling that poor alcoholic nurse into a confession. Is it just me, or did she seem to have an orgasm at the scene’s climax? If so, I would assume that was deliberate on Leisen’s part.

  23. I have to see this now.

  24. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

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