The 1950 film No Man of Her Own is based upon the Cornell Woolrich novel I Married a Dead Man. The film is a fairly straight-forward adaptation, containing voice-over narration that is nearly word-for-word from the novel. This includes the repetition of phrases about how beautiful the nights are in their neighborhood, but “not for us.” The film begins after Helen Ferguson (Helen Georgesson) and Bill Harkness (Bill Hazzard) have gotten rid of the body of Steve Morely (Steve Georgesson), the father of Helen’s baby. Bill and Helen are being pulled apart by the crime that has been committed/ They don’t know which of of them murdered Steve. Each suspect’s the other. Helen is crippled by the guilt of her deception and the situation that she brought upon her new family. Renzi writes that “the guilt that figures so crucially in I Married a Dead Man is retained in No Man of Her Own” (332). Bill and Helen receive notice that the police are on their way. This triggers the flashback that serves as a majority of the film’s narrative.
Helen, pregnant and distraught, pounds on Morely’s door. Morely slides money and a train ticket beneath without answering. A woman in the room with Morely tells him “Don’t ever brush me off like that.” This is the sole piece of foreshadowing for the murder that the woman will later commit when Morely does not take her warning seriously.
The development of the relationship between Helen and the real Patrice Harkness moves quickly with a series of very short scenes. The hospital scene that follows it seems relatively long, as a result. In a conversation that lays out the stakes for Helen, she asks if she would receive such good medical treatment if she was not a Harkness. The nurse assures her that if she was not rich, she would have been kicked out to a ward long ago. This line fuels the rest of the story. Helen’s assumption of the Patrice identity assures a secure future for her child. Her true identity, as Helen, assures nothing but uncertainty. Thematically, the story is as much about class as identity. Helen is protected because she is believed to be a Harkness. Ironically, Morely returns to target her also because she is believed to be a Harkness.
Much of the rest of the film follows the events of the novel. Bill obviously knows that Helen isn’t who she says she is long before she actually tells him. He doesn’t care about that, insisting that her identity is based upon who she is to him there and now. They hide Morely’s body together, which creates the tension and suspicion between them.
The biggest departure from the novel comes with the ending. Woolrich, for the most part, doesn’t do “happy” endings. His characters survive horrible situations, but they don’t come out of them whole. There have a perpetual dark cloud hovering over them, as if they are waiting for the deathblow to put them out of their misery. That sort of down ending is a bit of a Woolrich trademark. Director Mitchell Leisen does not follow Woolrich’s lead in that regard, instead opting for more of a typical “Hollywood” ending. The real killer is discovered, the down-on-her-luck woman who assumes Helen’s role with Morely in much the same fashion that Helen commandeers the role of a Harkness. The wealthy, respectable Harkness family is never suspected, at all.
As the police take the guilty woman away, the film closes with Helen’s voiceover: “What stood between us is gone now. Whatever comes, we can face together.” The distrust, suspicion, and sadness have been washed away by the light of justice. As tends to happen in Hollywood, everything is fine now.