No Man of Her Own (1950), directed by William Leisen, starring Barbara Stanwyck, is a rare instance of a movie that is as good as the book its based on.
I enjoyed the book, I Married a Dead Man by Cornell Woolrich. The opening chapters set up a tall tale: a pregnant woman meets another pregnant woman on a train; the train crashes and one of them dies; the one who lives is mistaken for the one who died.
The rest of the book plays out this premise. The survivor reluctantly accepts the new identity thrust upon her because her own prospects as an unmarried mother are grim, whereas the other woman was a newlywed mother on her way to meet her husband's wealthy family.
Once past this unlikely premise, the suspense mounts steadily as the mother lives a lie for the sake of providing a better life for her child. It's a classic noir dilemma: doing a bad thing for a good reason.
The film makes the premise easier to believe thanks to Leisen's efficient visual style. The director's craft is evident throughout the rest of the film as well. He frequently lets Stanwyck's face tell the story in long close-ups.
If you go looking for this film, don't confuse it with another film of the same title made in 1932, starring Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. Also, don't be mislead by the film's credits, which say it is based on the book by William Irish. Woolrich originally published I Married a Dead Man under a pseudonym.
Waltz into Darkness illustrates what is best about Cornell Woolrich's fiction and what is . . . challenging.
Most importantly, the plot and characters are first-rate. A man and woman have decided to marry after exchanging letters over several months. We are left to infer such things were common in New Orleans in the late 1800s.
When the couple meet for the wedding, there is some uneasiness as each discovers that the other has---shall we say---de-emphasized certain facts. Who's playing whom?
The groom is a traditional sort of guy. His manners are old-school, and he wants nothing more than to make his new wife happy. The bride is . . . not all she seems to be.
I'd love to tell you about all the surprising things in the book, but I don't want to spoil it for you. So I'll just say, Woolrich pulls off one of the most startling plot reversals I've ever read. Characterwise, he gives us a portrait of an amoral psychopath worthy of Jim Thompson or Patricia Highsmith.
What's challenging is the author's occasional indulgence in painting pictures with words, striving for lyrical effects, and extended meditations. This purple prose crops up here and there throughout the book.
Fortunately, the scenes in which the characters move the plot forward are written with the clarity typical of his excellent short stories. You just have to do a little skimming.
Recently I mentioned reading a book of short stories by Cornell Woolrich, enjoying them, and learning some lessons from them about writing suspense. Somewhere in my subsequent reading, I saw reference to a "Cornell Woolrich Omnibus" published by Penguin in the 1990s. Amazon lead me to Discover Books, and they sold me a copy.
With most other writers, finding another collection of stories and novels would be ho-hum . . . so what? With Woolrich it is cause for celebration because he published hundreds of stories under several pseudonyms, the quality varies widely, and some of them are "rewrites" (rip-offs?) of earlier stories. Someone has to search through all those titles to find the good stuff, and it's not going to be me.
Francis M. Nevins did most of the heavy lifting in his biography of Woolrich, First You Dream, Then You Die. His bibliographical notes are the closest we'll ever come to knowing what Woolrich wrote.
But there's only so much one man can do, so I was thrilled to get this collection of five stories, a novella and a novel---especially so since it contains the story on which Hitchcock's film, Rear Window, was based. Published here as "Rear Window" to link it with the movie, I seem to recall Nevins saying the original title was "It Must Be Murder." I enjoy seeing what gets changed when fiction becomes film.
A few years back I went on a binge reading Cornell Woolrich. I can't remember exactly what got me started. Maybe it was noticing Alfred Hitchcock's classic film, Rear Window (1954), was based on a story by him.
I focused on reading his novels and was disappointed. For instance The Bride Wore Black is written in four parts, each part a complete story. The stories are linked (the bride goes from one adventure to the next), but I wasn't learning much about the structure of a novel.
Recently at the library I ran across a nice old collection of short stories entitled Ten Faces of Cornell Woolrich, edited by Ellery Queen (1965), and decided to give them a try. I've really enjoyed them and have learned a lot about what Woolrich is most famous for, suspense.
More than any writing I can think of, these stories make me want to know what happens next. They do it by saying, in effect, "He set out to do this. Then this happened." So now what will he do? And as soon as he works around the problem, something else happens or someone else shows up.
In some instances, a story almost becomes a technical exercise in multiplying twists and turns while remaining credible. "Steps Going Up" is one such, in my opinion. But mostly the stories also make us care about the protagonist, by making him an underdog, or by making her a righteous avenger. "The Man Upstairs," I think, is especially good in this regard.
Woolrich is also famous for inventing and adopting motifs that made him "the Poe of the twentieth century" according to his biographer, Francis M. Nevins: "the noir cop story, the clock race story, the waking nightmare, the oscillation thriller, the headlong through the night story, the annihilation story, the last hours story,"
So I have to conclude that, like Flannery O'Connor, his genius was for the short story. He was lucky to live through a time when that's where the money was.