Modern Twist: ‘Woman on the Run’

Is reporter Daniel O’Keefe trying to help Ann Sheridan find her husband—or planning to kill him?

Oh, those film-noir classics! The quintessential American film genre — tales of menace and dark alleys, nail-biting suspense, and wicked detours. Usually shot in magnificent black and white, where the shadows are dagger sharp or creeping like evil wraiths. Men in fedoras and belted trench coats. Women, always beautiful, running in high heels, clutching their handbag so a lipstick touchup was ever handy. Everybody smokes, as if the endless white puffs were smoke signals trying to ward off danger.

Woman on the Run, made in 1950, bears all the film-noir qualities. Yet it is surprisingly relevant for today’s audiences. An ordinary woman, not a male loner detective, is the main character. The dialogue is snappy, often subversively funny. Most importantly, the film, in addition to its required thriller veins, is also a poignant look at the difficulties of modern marriage.

It’s post-WWII San Francisco. Frank Johnson (Ross Elliott), an unhappy artist, is walking his dog when he witnesses a mob assassination. When the police arrive, they are full of questions. “Are you married?” Frank is asked. “In a way,” he answers, summing up in one line how he’s feeling about his marriage and bewildering the cops. When Frank learns that the gunman saw and shot at him, too, he realizes he is next on the kill list and disappears.

Inspector Ferris (Robert Keith) interrogates Eleanor Johnson (Ann Sheridan) at the couple’s apartment. Eleanor shocks the police, and the audience, too, with her blasé attitude about her husband’s disappearance. A tall, pushy reporter, Dan Leggett (Dennis O’Keefe), gains Eleanor’s confidence, and together they search San Francisco for her husband … along the wharves teeming with sailors from all over the world, in a Chinatown nightclub, in a department store where Frank made mannequins — some of whom look like Eleanor — and finally in a beach-side amusement park, where the roller coaster becomes a hellish, twisting monster.

As they get closer to Frank’s hideout, from the people they interview, Eleanor learns more about her husband than she ever knew before. He’s not the aloof loser her anger had turned him into, but rather a good man, revered by the people who know him, and one who is still madly in love with her. Will her changing opinion of him come in time to save him? Or, being a noir film, will he still have to face the gunman’s bullet?

The making of movie is as fascinating a story as what’s on the screen.

Ann Sheridan, wanting to escape from the hated “Oomph Girl” label that defined her as a pin-up for many years, took producer reins on the movie — a rare event in Hollywood at the time. Sheridan even changed the tale — based on the short story Man on the Run, by Sylvia Tate — to make the woman the main character.

Although most noted for his later TV work (such as the Loretta Young Show), director/co-writer Norman Foster was a veteran Hollywood filmmaker at the time of Woman on the Run. His Journey Into Fear (1943) was a stylish thriller starring Orson Welles. Another was a western, Rachel and the Stranger (1948), starring William Holden, Robert Mitchum, and Loretta Young. Sharing the writing duties was Alan Campbell, most known for his long relationship with the  wisecracking writer Dorothy Parker. Parts of their real-life tumultuous relationship no doubt slipped into the script for Woman on the Run.

Unlike many other movies shot in San Francisco, Woman on the Run disdains the fancy socialite view of The Golden City and instead presents the city’s seamier, blue-collar side: the neighborhood dives, the second-hand clothing stores, the ugly morgue. Occasionally, there are shots of the city’s architectural wonders in a rare day of sunshine, but mostly shadows prevail. Woman on the Run was shot by legendary cinematographer Hal Mohr, whose work, over a 50-year period, was responsible for the memorable beauty of many Hollywood films.

Despite the quality of Woman on the Run, it died a quick death at the box office and eventually disappeared, almost entirely. Like a phoenix, however, it was brought back to life, laboriously, some say miraculously, by a few strokes of good luck, combined with the efforts of historians and film restorers.

Marcianne Miller is a member of SEFCA (Southeast Film Critics Association) and NCFCA (North Carolina Film Critics Association) Email her at marci@aquamystique.com.

Woman on the Run

Quick Take: A woman struggles to find her husband, who’s on the lam from witnessing a gangland murder.

Special Appeal: A classic American film-noir tale, restored to its original glory.

Players: Ann Sheridan, Dennis O’Keefe, Ross Elliott, Robert Keith.

Director/Co-Writer: Norman Foster (prolific Hollywood filmmaker, 1903-1976).

B&W, 1950, 77 minutes.

Showing at Hendersonville Film Society, Sunday, June 12, at 2pm at Lake Pointe Landing (333 Thompson St., Hendersonville).

A short feature about the Film Noir Foundation and its role in preserving Woman on the Run and other film noir classics will precede the film. For information on the foundation and its terrific work, go to: filmnoirfoundation.org.

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