Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Down with the Dead Men

Continuing my participation in the Film Preservation Blogathon: For the Love of Film (Noir). This is a fundraiser, folks, so send a few bucks to this link. Proceeds benefit the Film Noir Foundation and will help fund the restoration of The Sound of Fury (1950).

I discovered Cornell Woolrich shortly after I graduated from college. I was already edging deep into the hard boiled crime writers, having gone on a tear through Jim Thompson and Richard Stark as I was finishing my degree and afterward. But Woolrich...Woolrich rocked my world. My first acquaintance with Woolrich was in a Harlan Ellison story, oddly enough. This was during my SF New Wave phase in my late teens. The story was "Tired Old Man" in Ellison's book, No Doors, No Windows. In truth, I wasn't looking for crime stories when I bought the book. Ellison's long introduction apologized for the inevitable bait and switch involved. I gobbled it all down anyway. Ellison's fictionalized account of meeting Woolrich is impassioned and infectious. It took a while to find the books, though, because Woolrich is only a rumor these days. That's a literary estate that's in serious disarray and it's one of the great shames of publishing that Woolrich remains mostly out of print.

I knew the movies, of course. Rear Window. The Leopard Man, The Bride Wore Black (which I hated, actually), a handful of episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. But the books themselves? No. Not until I found a cache of the Ballantine reissues of the Black Novels at a dissolute used bookstore. The first one I read was The Phantom Lady (not technically one of the Black Novels, but Ballantine expanded the purview of the series to include all of Woolrich's major works). The second was The Bride Wore Black. From there, I was hooked.

I have a pretty good collection of Woolrich novels, including such mathoms as Strangler's Serenade and Beyond the Night. I'm still missing some major novels, but Woolrich is one of those writers like Philip K. Dick, who never seems to show up at used bookstores. People don't part with his books. The crown jewel of my Woolrich shelf is I Married A Dead Man, written under Woolrich's famous William Irish byline. Of all of Woolrich's books, it's the one that's easiest to find. It's one of the masterpieces of the roman noir. And, my, oh my, is it bleak.

There are three movie versions of I Married a Dead Man. I haven't seen the 1983 French version. I wish I could un-see Mrs. Winterbourne, which inexplicably turns the story into a comedy. I've been looking for No Man of Her Own, the 1950 version with Barbara Stanwyck, for years. When it showed up on Netflix instant a couple of months ago, my heart almost stopped. I knew the Film Noir Blogathon was coming up, so my forbearance in NOT watching until now was a serious test of will. For the most part, I'm not disappointed.

The story here follows Helen Ferguson, a woman who has been thrown to the curb by the father of her unborn child, who brushes her off with five dollars and a train ticket back to San Francisco. She doesn't take the money, but she gets on the train where she meets the Harknesses, Patrice and Hugh, a young couple just returning from Europe. Patrice, like Helen, is with child. The women strike up a friendship, and while the two are in the washroom together, Patrice asks Helen to hold on to her wedding ring while she washes up. Helen slips it onto her finger. The train crashes. The Harknesses are among the fatalities, but the Helen survives and has her baby. When she revives, she discovers that she has been mistaken for Patrice, and taken in by her in-laws, who never met Patrice. Here, she meets Bill Harkness. They fall in love. Unfortunately for them, the father of Helen's baby resurfaces, threatening to undo her masquerade and destroy the happiness she's found. Helen's only way out, it seems, is to murder him...

This was an A-picture for Paramount and looks it. Director Mitchell Leisen imparts a high-gloss sheen onto the film commensurate with the prestige women's pictures of the day. I told a friend of mine that this movie is the best Douglas Sirk movie that Sirk never made, and I'll stand by that. This is ultimately a soap opera shot through with film noir's atmosphere of impending doom. By the time the crimes are committed at the end of the film, the gloss has darkened considerably. The adaptation from Woolrich is remarkably faithful, down to the the haunted narration at the beginning, taken almost verbatim from the book:

"The summer nights are so pleasant in Caulfield. They smell of heliotrope and jasmine, honeysuckle and clover. The stars are warm and friendly here, not cold and distant, as where I came from; they seem to hang lower over us, be closer to us. The breeze that stirs the curtains at the open windows is soft and gentle as a baby's kiss. And on it, if you listen, you can hear the rustling sound of of the leafy trees turning over and going back to sleep again. The lamplight from within houses falls upon the lawns outside and copperplates them in long swaths. There's the hush, the stillness of perfect peace and security. Oh, yes, the summer nights are pleasant in Caulfield.

But not for us.

The winter nights are too. The nights of fall, the nights of spring. Not for us. Not for us."

The essential darkness of Woolrich's worldview is all right there at the beginning. The movie cheats a little in the end and grants its characters an absolution that Woolrich never would, but even at that point, the movie is hitting the beats of the novel. For some reason, the narration at the beginning of the movie, along with its accompanying montage of pleasant streets and houses, reminds me of the opening of The Magnificent Ambersons. But only a little.

No Man of Her Own has a couple of striking set pieces. The one that leaps off the screen is the POV aftermath of the train wreck, where Helen is in the hospital. It's wonderfully disorienting and compares favorably with some of film noir's finer freakouts (the drugged sequence in Murder, My Sweet, for instance). There's a touch of horror in these scenes, especially when it culminates in Helen's realization of what has happened to her.

The other one that sticks out for me is a stock film noir scene in which Helen and Bill are disposing of Steve's body. A cop car drives by, stops, and peers into the window of the car where Helen is hiding. This is a popular trope for film noir because it almost always works. The movie does a terrific job of indicating a bleak season in this scene. Keep in mind, this was shot in California:

This is all well and good, but the real reason to see the movie is Barbara Stanwyck's performance. Stanwyck was probably too old for the role, but after a while, it doesn't matter because she gives a tour de force performance. I love lots of Stanwyck performances, but I don't know if I love any of them better than this one. Every note is pitch perfect, from the pathetic to horrified to the lovestruck to the doomed. She doesn't swamp her co-stars, either. It's not a barnstorming performance, merely one that's pitch perfect.

For their part, her co-stars are fine. John Lund is terrific as Bill Harkness, pencil thin mustache and all, while Lyle Bettger is as slimy as slimy gets as Steve Morely. The other actresses shine. Phyllis Thaxter's Patrice is perky and kind; someone you definitely would like to know, while Jane Cowl's matriarchal mother-in-law is a force of nature. Never was a film noir filled with such kind and loving characters. Their essential kindness only serves to deepen Helen's sense of perfidy and tighten the noose. When Bill becomes complicit, it's the kind of fall that results in a sucking downdraft in other movies. Hell, it results in a sucking downdraft in the book. Woolrich didn't care if people were good or evil. If fate put its finger on them, they were doomed regardless. I suppose that No Man of Her Own can be forgiven for relenting on this point, but if the film has a flaw, it's that it doesn't send the viewer away from it with that dark chill, with that existential dread, even though it pitches almost all of its running time on the precipice. This is a film in which the other shoe always seems ready to drop. It lacks only Woolrich's instinct for the jugular.


Vanwall said...

Great stuff! I'm a Woolrich lover from way back, too! I love his short stories - have you ever read "One Drop of Blood"? It's like a distilled version of every noir detective story. I've spent years wandering second-hand bookstores looking for his work, and have a quite a trove. I've even got a couple of his Jazz Age stories, one of which may be the bleakest of all those in the genre - I think it's partially a noir as much as any of his.

Stanwyck is great in "No Man of Her Own", it's on of the better Woorich adaptations if not the best. Woolrich is much more of an influence in noir than a lot of people give credit for. At one time, what with TV episodes, he was one of the more adapted authors in the medium.

Mykal said...

Dr. Morbius: I have not seen this film but will now (God Bless Netflix); since you make it sound so good. I enjoyed your observation about Stanwyck not barnstorming a scene, just nailing a character dead to rights instead. It made me consider other performances, including my favorite Stanwyck number, Clash By Night; in which her non-barnstorming is certainly in evidence, as well as her pitch-perfectness. Her sympathetic scenes with Robert Ryan in Clash are so effective because of this quality – made the conflict so much more tense. I am imagining for contrast Joan Crawford’s style. She is fun to watch and a big ton of talent, but she did love to throw her shoulders around in a scene.

Damn good post!

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Vanwall! I was just reading your big post on Western noir. Good, good stuff!

I haven't read "One Drop of Blood", unfortunately. Now I need to find it.

Welcome back, Mykal! Stanwyck is so good in so many movies. I hesitate to name a favorite, really, because I'll change my mind in a few minutes. She's great in Clash By Night. I think the difference between Crawford and Stanwyck (and Bette Davis, too, for that matter) is that Crawford was a star first and an actress second. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Tinky said...

I've only read a little Woolrich, but you've certainly given me a taste for more. It's interesting to read about this film, which seems to me so much more of a womens picture than a noir--but there's no reason why it can't be both. Do try watching the French version--it's softer, but very appealing.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Tinky! Thanks for stopping by. And you have a FOOD blog! Awesome...

I think the change the filmmakers made to the ending of No Man of Her Own contributes to the impression that it's a women's picture. And it IS a women's picture. You're right, it can be both.

I'll see if I can find the French version.

Charles J. Sperling said...

I guess I do things differently, because while I haven't seen "No Man of Her Own" or "Mrs. Winterbourne,"I have seen "J'ai epouse une ombre," the French version of Cornell Woolrich's *I Married a Dead Man.* In fact, I saw it in Paris in 1983.

It has a fine performance from Nathalie Baye (so great in "La Balance," not to mention as the woman who might leave a guy for a film but who'd never leave a film for a guy in "Day for Night") at its core, but it lacks the dread and unease of the book I read many years later. The couple "lost" for Woolrich. The outlook is much sunnier in the movie.

And it's in color, too, which given my great love for "Phantom Lady" just seems so wrong.

Come to think of it, all the Woolrich I've read came out of libraries, which meant that people had to return it or risk a fine. I never found *Deadline at Dawn* at a flea market as I found the Ellery Queen-edited *Hammett Homicides* (which contains three stories not collected in hardcover until *Nightmare Town* fifty years later).

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Charles,

I never did find a copy of Deadline at Dawn, though I did see the movie version some years ago.

Hmm...sunnier and in color? Interesting. Not promising. I'll find the French version eventually, but this doesn't bode well.

Charles J. Sperling said...

Dr. Morbius:

Forgive me: in rushing to speak of "J'ai epouse une ombre," I neglected to say how much I liked your review of "No Man of Your Own." It's difficult to think that Stanwyck was also Thelma Jordon the same year that she was Helen Ferguson...

...but then again, she was a spectacular actress, so maybe it shouldn't cause any amazement.

Ellison contributed an introduction to a Woolrich anthology in the 1970s and pointed out that his stories often had holes you could drive a truck through. Raymond Chandler called Woolrich "the best idea man in the business" but added that you had to read him doubt because the plotholes would get to you if you lingered.

All I know is that when his game goes well, you accept completely what he gives you, that "first you dream, then you die" (as Nevins succinctly summed it up)

*Deadline at Dawn* I had to read in an omnibus -- but as it was a pure Woolrich (or William Irish) omnibus, with *Phantom Lady* and a bunch of fine short stories ("Marihuana," "After-Dinner Story" and "Murder Story," among others, but, alas, Vanwall, not "One Drop of Blood," which I think I've read in an Ellery Queen anthology: the prince marries the chocolate-bar-with-peanuts heiress?), who's complaining?

Truffaut's "Bride Wore Black" was a disappointment, but not so much of one that I wouldn't like to see what he did with Woolrich's *Waltz into Darkness* in "Mississippi Mermaid."

Woolrich in color can work. If the director is Alfred Hitchock, the leading man is James Stewart, the leading lady is Grace Kelly and the supporting cast includes Thelma Ritter and Raymond Burr, that is!