Archive for Mildred Pierce

No Man’s Land

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 14, 2010 by dcairns

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…

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