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No Man of Her Own

No Man of Her Own(1950)

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In the dark semi-explored jungles - urban, industrial, suburban and otherwise - of film noir, a great many films still remain forgotten and overlooked, and the more of these you see, as they trip out onto video one by one or in packs, you become increasingly aware that if someone thinks they know noir because they've seen The Asphalt Jungle, Out of the Past, Mildred Pierce and maybe Pickup on South Street, they don't actually know much at all. Noir is famous for being a heavily codified, self-invented genre, and equally famous for the coolness of those codes - the femmes fatale, the Venetian blinds, the fedoras, the handguns encountered in dark alleyways or corridors - which have all been over-analyzed and iconicized in both popular and academic culture. Noir only existed properly for perhaps 16 years or so, from Double Indemnity (1944) to Sam Fuller's Underworld U.S.A. (1961), but in that span hundreds of films hooked into the Zeitgeist, and many of them crossed into other genres, pulsed with their idiosyncratic directors' ideas, and generally explored the dark fields of the genre in ways that didn't fit neatly into "codes."

Mitchell Leisen's No Man of Her Own (1950) is a prime example, a fiercely ambivalent and morally fraught noir that cross vectors with the "woman's film" melodrama with far more nerve and queasiness than any Joan Crawford film of the day. Leisen himself remains an underappreciated journeyman-auteur whose lengthy career is filled with genre films that mutate into stranger and more affecting things: Death Takes a Holiday (1934) is a romantic fantasy harboring a bitter pagan pessimism, Easy Living (1937) is a screwball with a salient capitalism critique at its center, Remember the Night (1940) is a Preston Sturges rom-com that turns the corner into disarmingly grown-up pathos, and so on. Leisen's Oscar-nominated hits, Hold Back the Dawn (1941) and To Each His Own (1946) are Olivia de Havilland melodramas remarkable for their oddness and sincerity. Leisen had his fair share of mediocrities, too, but No Man of Her Own is a restless freak, beginning with Barbara Stanwyck's portentous narration telling us that the perfect suburb she lives in is indeed perfect "but not for us," meaning her Thomas Wolfe-reading husband (John Lund) and dozing child, suggesting a Brief Encounter-style disrupted domesticity but then coming clean with, as she says on the soundtrack, "murder."

How exactly Stanwyck's weary Mom came to be haunted by more than one cold corpse is something of a crazy uber-noir story (adapted from a Cornell Woolrich novel), beginning, shockingly, with a 40-something Stanwyck pregnant, penniless, and sobbingly begging at the skid row apartment door of the despicable louse (Lyle Bettger) who knocked her up. Her name is different, too, but how exactly she has a new identity thrust upon her is merely the outrageous set-up; eventually, once Stanwyck embraces her new life amid the nouveau riche with her new bastard baby, Bettger comes crawling back into the picture, and blackmail spawns far nastier business.

Shades of Antonioni's The Passenger, adopting a dead person's identity is fraught with potential disaster, not to mention an existential dilemma that metaphorically reaches out to the very idea of marriage (particularly for a woman in the mid-century) as well as a good deal of postwar lostness and aimlessness. But Leisen's film has more classically James M. Cain-ish things on its mind. The twisted angst of the story is completely founded on a dread of losing newfound affluence and sanctuary - Stanwyck's very self-aware character walks on eggshells for the whole film, this close at all times to being disqualified from the American Dream. Leisen, as always, hones in on the emotionally ambivalent details. Lund, as the brother of the dead man the family thinks Stanwyck became pregnant by, is full of both suspicion and ardor from the beginning, but as he himself admits deep in, he doesn't care what Stanwyck's real name is, or who fathered her child. Stanwyck resonates in this tense situation, but never so much as when she, strong-armed by Bettger into a shotgun wedding service, decides silently to kill the bastard, and subtly smiles and tears up in the same instant.

Look at Lund, too, returning to the car after dumping the body, a complete future of haunted guilt soaking his features. Everyone is alive to the gravity of what's at stake - Bettger's the villain, but nothing he does compares to what's done to him. It's a heck of a narrative millstone to tie around the pearl-adorned throat of the film's romantic aspects, and that's the film's ace in the hole. Like so many films before it, but more acutely than, say, Otto Preminger's Fallen Angel or Michael Curtiz's Mildred Pierce (both from 1945), Leisen's semi-noir paints a deft portrait of suburban paradise, only to lift the carpets and examine the social stratum's bloody costs and repressed anxiety. Even during the finale, which typically pulls a few rabbits out of a hat and absolves Stanwyck from any technical culpability, the film is eloquently conflicted and tellingly guilt-ridden.

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by Michael Atkinson