By Michael Wilmington
The first of three wildly divergent movie versions of Cornell Woolrich’s novel “I Married a Dead Man,” this bizarre blend of domestic drama and film noir stars noir queen Barbara Stanwyck as Helen Ferguson, a ruthlessly abused, jilted (by Lyle Bettger as slimy Steve) and pregnant city gal, who, on a train ride home, tumbles into a bog of false identity and blackmail.
After Bettger gives Babs the boot (preferring blonde femme fatale Carole Mathews), Helen meets a generous young couple, Patrice and Hugh Harkness (Phyllis Thaxter and Richard Denning) on the train, and then is mistaken for Patrice, after the train crashes and many (including the nice couple) die.
Directed by Mitchell Leisen, “No Man” has a prototypical Woolrich “trap” plot. Since no one in the immediate Harkness family ever met Patrice, Helen more or less falls into the deception. The Harkness household, especially matriarch Mrs. Harkness (Jane Cowl), accepts Helen as their new kin. And Hugh’s brother Bill (John Lund of Billy Wilder’s “A Foreign Affair”) falls in love with her. What happens next? Well, I doubt if you realize how slimy Lyle Bettger can get.
Stanwyck suffers wonderfully here, and she almost single-handedly makes the implausible seem inevitable. Jane Cowl, a one-time Queen of Broadway, who crammed in a few movie roles at the end of her life (she was dying of cancer when she made this one), is touching as Mrs. Harkness. The movie doesn’t really start cooking until Bettger reappears, and by then, they seem to expect us to swallow anything. (Even if you can’t, it’s murderous fun.)
The original novel “I Married a Dead Man,” which Woolrich signed with his preferred pen name William Irish, makes more sense than the “No Man” script (co-written by that estimable small-town scribe Sally Benson of “Meet Me in St. Louis.”)
The other film adaptations of “Dead Man” include a 1982 French version called “I Married a Shadow” by Robin Davis, starring Nathalie Baye and Madeleine Robinson, and a weird 1996 comedy version, directed by Richard Benjamin, starring Ricki Lake and (as the mother) the wondrous Shirley MacLaine. That one is called “Mrs. Winterbourne.” A better title might have been “I Married a Madhouse.”
The French “Shadow” is the best of them so far. There’s room for another, though “No Man of Her Own” isn’t bad. As for “Mrs. Winterbourne,” turning the nightmarish “I Married a Dead Man” into a kooky comedy seems misguided. The results are a little forced and even a little slimy – but not as slimy as Lyle Bettger.
Olive Films recently released “No Man of Her Own” on DVD.