Thursday, November 1, 2012

Mitchell Leisen | No Man of Her Own

with this ring
by Douglas Messerli

Sally Benson, Catherine Tunney, and Mitchell Leisen (screenplay), Mitchel Leisen (director) No Man of Her Own/ 1950

Mitchell Leisen’s 1950 film, No Man of Her Own, takes novelist Cornell Woolrich’s I Married a Dead Man in strange directions, crossing what the 1940s and 1950s often describes as a “women’s picture” with the generally male-dominated film-noir genre, while simultaneously seeming to toy with the strictures of the Hays Code. On one hand the convoluted and often quite unbelievable plot seems closer to Douglas Sirk’s soap-opera confabulations of later in the decade. Yet Leisen’s work, much darker and lushly filmed in black-and-white, at times, becomes a sexually coded film that, in the end, allows his female characters near-complete dominance.

       The film begins a long series of appositions as the voice of the film’s central figure, Helen Ferguson describes the lovely beauty of the small Illinois town in which she has found herself, the camera tracking down rows of stately trees and honeysuckle as it enters a grand house where she lives, she with her young son on her lap, her loving husband sitting across. Everything, she gushes is a beautiful in a life which, she insists, cannot be enjoyed. Despite the deep love the couple feel for one another, she proclaims, one or the other will have to leave, and their near- perfect life will be destroyed. The tension in the room is palpable as the couple tentatively plan a night out. An interrupting phone call seemingly terrifies them both; at the other end are the police who announce they will soon arrive. The only question is an odd one: which one of them are the police in search of?

        Most of the remaining film is a long flash-back as we slowly come to perceive their situation. Helen, uncomfortably climbing stairs with a suitcase, batters the door of her former boyfriend, Steve Morley (Lyle Bettger), who, inside with another woman, Irma (Carole Mathews) refuses to open up. Begging him to help her, Helen is near desperation. We have already seen that she has only a few cents, having apparently, followed him from San Francisco to New York. She has nowhere to go and she knows no one in New York. His only answer is to slip a five dollar bill into an envelope along with a train ticket back to San Francisco. Opening the envelope, Helen pulls out the ticket, the money falling unnoticed to the floor. A long trudge down the staircase represents the downard spiral of her life into what can end only in disaster, for as Leisen has hinted by her heavy breathing, the sweat forming on her upper lip, is that Helen is pregnant. The train is filled, the desolate woman forced to sit in the aisle on the suitcase, her head facing down in despair. Suddenly a woman’s foot kicks the man next to her, kicks him again, as he rises, offering the woman his seat. The young married couple, Patrice (Phyllis Thatcher) and Hugh Harkness (Richard Denning) are the first truly friendly faces in the film. Patrice, the more affable of the two, immediately strikes up a conversation with Helen, admitting that she too is pregnant, and sending off her husband for a couple smokes, presumably so that she and her new friend can chat. It is an odd gesture, symbolic of a sudden intensity between the two women, which is even further played out over dinner conversation and a late night visit to the toilet, where Patrice shares her face cream with her new friend and, of far more significance, asks her to hold her wedding ring, eventually even putting the diamond ring upon Helen’s finger. While certainly this entire scene suggests a kind of hidden sexual relationship it, more importantly, suggests a deeper kind of “marriage”; for before Helen can even hint at the old wives’ tale that such an act leads to bad luck, the train itself explodes into a vortex of destruction, continued for several cinematic moments as we see one of the women wheeled into an ambulance and, ultimately, staring face up at the doctors who operate upon her, the operating-room lights whirling into a spin.

      The saved woman and her child is Helen; both Patrice and her husband have been killed. Because of the ring and the coincidence of both women being pregnant, however, Helen has been mistakenly identified by the doctors as Patrice. Despite Helen’s muted attempts to explain the truth, she, pacified and drugged, is unable to speak out, soon after realizing that were she to identify her real self, she and her baby would be lying not in a private room but in the general ward. Gifts are sent by the Harkness family, whom Patrice and Hugh have been on their way to visit. For the sake of her child, Patrice continues to play along with the mistaken identity. Finding herself hurtling through space on yet another train to the small Midwestern town in Patrice’s in-laws reside, she is suddenly horrified by her own deception.

       The crisis she is facing, it is apparent, is not very different from a gay man or woman—much like the bisexual Leisen—pretending he/she is straight, allowing those around to deceive themselves about his or her real sexuality/identity, and there is both a kind of thrilling terror in the act that provides the deceiver with a sense of power, both of which come through in Stanwyck’s excellent acting.

       The elder Harknesses, superbly realized by Jane Cowl and Henry O’Neill, as well as their maid (the outspoken Esther Dale) could not be more welcoming and embracing. While the real Patrice had worried whether they would like her (they have never seen her, not even a photograph), it is clear that, despite some vague lapses of knowledge and inexplicable reactions—which the family attributes to her hospitalization and shock of her husband’s death— the “new” Patrice and family are perfectly suited, almost as if the “false” Patrice were better than the real thing. The family’s benevolence goes farther, moreover, with the arrival of Hugh’s younger brother, Bill (John Lund), who not only is friendly to the deceiver, but quickly falls in love with her, despite, as it is later revealed, he has suspected Helen’s deception from the beginning. Again, the sexual innuendos here further strengthen the resolve of the “gay” deceiver. She has not only, symbolically speaking, “wedded” Patrice, she has entered her body, literally “become” her. And despite her protests, the family alters their will to further reward her and the new family heir.

      Such a bizarre acting out of identity can only lead to complications, which soon arrive the form of Helen’s former sleazy boyfriend, Morley, who begins by sending her cryptic telegrams (“Who are you? And why are you here?) before quickly escalating into bribery, lies and, finally, into a demand that Helen/Patrice marry him—the plot revealing our suspicions that Helen’s son was born out of wedlock—so that this sinister figure out of her past might inherit her money when the elder, sickly generation dies off. Desperate to keep her past a secret, to protect her son and herself, and save her in-laws from the painful revelations, Helen/Patrice has little choice but to give into his demands in a kind of mad-scene marriage, part of which is accidently overhead in a phone call to the Harkness house. Bill is sent out to find her, while Helen/Patrice is dumped back on the Harkness porch. The horrifying words “’Til death do us part,” still ringing in her head (another of the sexual inversions in this film) Helen/Patrice determines to make that phrase a reality, grabbing a gun from her father-in-law’s desk and rushing out of the house, determined to kill her enforced husband, without perceiving that her equally determined mother-in-law has observed her actions. A long-time heart condition ends in the elderly woman’s death.

      Helen does accost Morley, now lying in his temporary office across the bed, and shoots him, although both she and the audience realize that he is already dead. The arrival of Bill suggests that he might have beat her to the punch, and he is only too ready to help dispose of the body and any evidence.

       As we return to the scene of the first few moments of the film, we now comprehend that she and Bill have married and attempted to make a good life for themselves, despite all they have done and the guilt that faces both of them. Now we can truly comprehend why the police might come for either one.

      Just before the police arrive, however, the writer and director throw in another wrench of the plot that reveals just how powerful the women of this film have become. Josie, the family maid, explains that just before the old woman’s death she had insisted upon writing a letter to her daughter-in-law. In that letter Mrs. Harkness admits to having killed Morley in order to protect Helen/Patrice. It seems that Bill might be even willing to use the letter in their defense, despite the fact that Helen/Patrice refuses to allow him such an out, knowing that the epistle has simply been another example of her mother-in-law’s great love and largesse.

       As the police enter, Helen, abandoning all pretense, admits to having shot her ex-husband. But when she identifies the gun, they tell her that, although her bullet was found in the mattress, the murder weapon was another one. The murderer, we discover, was Morley’s blond-haired girl, Irma, of the very first scene, who shot him in revenge for his having left her! So are the film’s great deceivers reunited in bliss, able now to live out the lives which, given their true selves, they never imagined they might have been able to have experienced. It now makes no difference whether Helen, free to fully become Patrice, has been straight with Bill or not; it no longer matters whether or not he has purposely allowed himself to be deceived or not. So Leisen, I would argue, has created an oddly “gay” fable out of heterosexual drama. And, in the end, we must ask, which “dead ‘man’” did Helen Ferguson ultimately marry? Was it the pleasant, now buried Hugh—whose wife she pretended to be—the criminally uncaring Morley—with whom she was forced to enter into a marriage contract—the personable and engaging Patrice—whose ring, one imagines, remains on her finger and whose name she has now embraced—or, perhaps, the ineffectual, yet abiding and still living Bill Harkness? As the title suggests, it may not be “any man.” In 1950 those were simply questions one did not ask.   

Los Angeles, October 31, 2012

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