Thursday, June 14, 2007

I Married a Dead Man

The first version of I Married a Dead Man appeared as a novella in the April 1946 issue of Today's Woman. By 1948, when the book was published under the pseudonym William Irish, Cornell Woolrich had expanded his novella and completely rewritten its ending, resulting in a fine American Noir novel that has been filmed at least three times. The best known movie version of I Married a Dead Man is the 1950 film starring Barbara Stanwyck for which the title was changed to No Man of Her Own. The movie is an excellent representation of the film noir of the period although it was somewhat weakened by the studio's decision to use the original ending of the novella rather than the stronger, more compelling, ending of the novel itself.

Helen, a very young woman, finds herself seven months pregnant and abandoned by the father of her child. All that the father of her child has left her is a five dollar bill and train tickets from New York to the West Coast where she hopes to start a new life for herself and her baby. By the time that she is seen struggling to find a place for herself and her one suitcase on an overcrowded train, Helen is down to her last seventeen cents and is near despair. But fate has a surprise in store for Helen and the young couple who befriend her on the train, a surprise that offers Helen the chance to provide her child with the kind of life she never dreamed possible.

Does she have the nerve required to snatch that chance when she recognizes it? Is her love for her new baby so strong that she will do anything to ensure the child's future? By the time that Helen has to answer those questions for herself, she finds that circumstances completely beyond her control have made it possible for her to live a life she never dreamed possible if only she keeps her mouth shut. But of course, fate is not that kind, nor is life that simple. That's the rest of the story, a story that would have made Alfred Hitchcock smile, and one that I'm not going to spoil for you.

Cornell Woolrich deserves to be better known than he is today. He was a contemporary of Dashiell Hammett, James Cain and Raymond Chandler, all of whom have remained largely in print for the last 60 or 70 years. But despite the fact that during the period between 1940 and 1948 alone, Woolrich produced six novels under his own name, four as William Irish and one using the name George Hopley, his work is not easily found today. Woolrich has been called "the Hitchcock of the written word" and, in fact, between 1938 and 1950 Hollywood producers turned some 15 of his stories into movies, the most famous of which is Hitchcock's own Rear Window, a film based on the 1942 Woolrich novella It Had to Be Murder.

So if you are a fan of Cain, Hammett and Chandler but have read all of their work, Cornell Woolrich is a name you need to remember. Finding his work will require some extra effort, but Woolrich is a worthy addition to anyone's American Noir collection.

13 comments:

  1. This sounds like a Ricky Lake movie I saw a while ago,except it was translated into comedy. I didn't know this was out there. I'd like to read it.

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  2. Kimmie, I don't know of the Ricky Lake movie but if it's the same story it would be a very, very dark comedy. Let me know if it turns out to be one and the same...thanks.

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  3. I'm a big Cain fan and admire Hammett's stuff immensely. I've never heard of Woolrich/Irish/Hopley. What a great discovery. I'm in your debt. Now this is the stuff that book blogs are made of!

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  4. Wow. I was trying to find some info on the original book and stumbled on your post about the film--very nice write up.

    FYI: The Ricky Lake film version was called Mrs. Winterbourne and it has a very light feel with a highly modified ending--it's unambiguous and happy--and the sense of paranoia is absent, replaced with a more simple and less compelling fear that gets played for laughs by the timing of "scares". Not much resemblance to Woolrich once all is said and done. I'm sad I've never see either No Man of Her Own or read the original novella to see how much those differed from the novel.

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  5. Thanks for the info on that Ricky Lake film, Kat. I haven't seen it and it doesn't much appeal to me from what you say about it.

    I'm trying to find a copy of the novella myself, BTW. I've never read it, only comments about it and how it was adapted into the novel version.

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  6. I have had the priviledge of seeing No Man Of Her Own - a wonderful movie in my opinion. It has just the right amount of drama and suspense. Will her secret be revealed? Will she confess? I thought it was great. I haven't seen the movie in a while and was serious thinking of asking Turner Classic Movies to play it. I have, unfortunately, seen Mrs. Winterbourne - gag! This movie was not meant to be a comedy and it ruins the plight Helen finds herself in by making light of it. In NMOHO I was really pulling for Helen and hoping things would work out. In Mrs. Winterbourne I couldn't care less. Not a great film, not even a good one. Now that I found out information about the book, I really want to see if I can find it.

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  7. Vera, I hope that you find a copy and that you enjoy it as much as I did. Be sure to let me know what you think about it if you get your hands on a copy.

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  8. Hi! I just found this article when looking up the kitsch-y cover for a pulpy William Irish version. I'm thrilled I found this review. I thought "I Married A Dead Man" was a recently created novelty item idea. Hooray! It has history! Thank-you for enlightening me. =^.^=

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  9. Thanks, Agent M. It's really hard to believe that the story is 60 years old because it holds up so well. I really like it.

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  10. The Movie "Mrs.Winterbourne" starring Ricky Lake is a great romantic comedy. If you Don't compare it to the book, you will love the movie!

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  11. When I first saw "Mrs. Winterbourne", I immediately knew it was the same story as "No Man of Her Own". Glad to know there is a original story to read!

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  12. I still haven't seen "Mrs. Winterbourne," Murrah. Maybe I'll catch up one of these days...doubtful as that thought is.

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