What in the world — an A + top-rank film noir gem hiding under the radar, and rescued (most literally) by the Film Noir Foundation. Ann Sheridan and Dennis O’Keefe trade dialogue as good as any in a film from 1950 — it’s a thriller with a cynical worldview yet a sentimental personal outlook.
Woman on the Run
Blu-ray + DVD
Flicker Alley / Film Noir Foundation
1950 / B&W / 1:37 Academy / 79 min. / Street Date May 17, 2016 / 39.95
Starring Ann Sheridan, Dennis O’Keefe, Robert Keith, John Qualen, Frank Jenks, Ross Elliott, Jane Liddell, Joan Fulton, J. Farrell MacDonald, Steven Geray, Victor Sen Yung, Reiko Sato.
Cinematography Hal Mohr
Art Direction Boris Leven
Film Editor Otto Ludwig
Original Music Arthur Lange, Emil Newman
Written by Alan Campbell, Norman Foster, Sylvia Tate
Produced by Howard Welsch, Ann Sheridan
Directed by Norman Foster
Amazing! Just when one thinks one won’t see another top-rank film noir, the experts resurrect a classic-era winner that for entertainment value ranks right up there with greats like Double Indemnity. Get set to remember who Norman Foster is, for he’s the director of Woman on the Run, a mainstream noir with a screenplay that’s both witty and insightful. We often look to pictures filmed in this style to deliver outrageous plotting and attitudes that challenge the homogenized film fare of the day. With its impressive no-nonsense heroine, this show overturns more than few noir clichés.
It’s so good that I’m going to stay away from spoilers. So keep reading.
Oh, Woman on the Run, where have you been all my life? As it turns out, hardly anybody saw this film after local TV stations stopped showing old movies, which happened with the rise of cable TV in the late 1970s. The rescue of this title is a story even more impressive than that of its co-release from Flicker Alley, Too Late for Tears.
The superb script is by Alan Campbell, the husband and writing partner of Dorothy Parker. If ever a noir picture was an ode to marriage, this is the one. It was written when Campbell and Parker were divorced, but they would shortly remarry and stay together until his death. The film is also an ode to San Francisco, and is filmed on scores of interesting locations across that great city.
Woman on the Run is somewhat related to the ‘domestic noirs’ Pitfall and The Reckless Moment, where murder threatens a marriage. Artist Frank Johnson (Ross Elliott) witnesses a shooting. Realizing that detective Inspector Ferris (Robert Keith) is setting him up to be a witness against the mob, he runs away. Ferris leans heavily on Frank’s wife Eleanor (Ann Sheridan) to help him ‘protect’ Frank. But Eleanor’s marriage is in such bad shape that she must be convinced that Frank’s life is in danger before she shows the slightest concern. She also doesn’t trust the police, and has difficulty ditching the various tails Ferris has assigned to keep track of her. She’s at first annoyed and then aided by reporter Dan Legget (Dennis O’Keefe), a charming guy who wants a story but quickly forms an attachment to Eleanor. It soon becomes apparent that the mob is gunning for Frank, and it takes a whole day and night before Eleanor can make contact with him. By then her thoughts about her husband have changed — the things people say about him make her re-evaluate their relationship. Eleanor also learns that he’s suffering from a heart ailment. She needs to find him if only to give him his prescription medicine.
Partly produced by its star Ann Sheridan, Woman on the Run fell victim to the curse of many independent productions lacking the clout to secure a major release: U-I contracted to distribute the film but of course favored its own product. Take a look at the poster on the left — it stinks. Beautifully filmed on location, the show is aces in every respect. I can imagine it looking weak to exhibitors because Ann Sheridan’s stardom wasn’t current — at age 35 she’d already been pushed aside by the powers at Warner Bros., probably (the extras inform us) because she didn’t accept all the worthless roles she was assigned. Although a terrific presence in all of his noir output (T-Men, Raw Deal, The Company She Keeps), Dennis O’Keefe was also considered a second-tier talent, because he didn’t star in many big-studio pictures.
But Sheridan and O’Keefe are terrific together. The dialogue they are given is particularly good — slightly hard-boiled but never too clever to be believed. Eleanor Johnson is discouraged about herself and her marriage, and can’t help answering Inspector Ferris’ questions with cynical rejoinders. About the only subject on which she and Frank agree is taking care of their dog, Rembrandt; they don’t even have meals together at home. Eleanor’s interactions with the pushy reporter Legget are beautifully managed. Her early brush-offs aren’t exaggerated, while he communicates his interest in her — she’s still fed up with her husband at this point — with just enough nerve to be compelling. She crisscrosses the town in pursuit of Frank, ditching Dan in various creative ways only for him to turn up again at her side, almost like Droopy Dog in a Tex Avery cartoon.
Rather than impress us with killings or ruthless attitudes, the story goes in more subtle directions. Eleanor finds out a lot about Frank that she didn’t know. She’s disenchanted that he hasn’t become a famous artist and instead works as a window dresser for a department store; she doesn’t realize that his antipathy toward commercializing himself is due to his artistic principles, not because he ‘wants to fail.’ But more importantly, Eleanor finds that Frank is adored by everybody who knows him, from his co-worker (John Qualen) to the Chinese entertainers (Victor Sen Yung, Reiko Sato) that help deliver his messages. An ex- sea captain (J. Farrell MacDonald) thinks enough of Frank to take risks to shield him from the cops. In fact, the entire working-class population of San Francisco seems to be on Frank’s side. Woman on the Run manages to mix honest sentiment with its coarse view of reality. Frank’s cryptic note to Eleanor also has a romantic undertone. She discovers that the department store mannequins Frank sculpts all look like her, in ‘versions’ both harsh and idealized.
But the show remains resolutely noir. Inspector Ferris needs a witness so badly that he tries to downplay (or just not mention) the danger to Frank and Eleanor. It’s obvious that Frank is under a threat, what with another mob victim shot dead right under their window. Eleanor knows that the mob is in control and that the cops can’t protect her; she’s perfectly willing to crawl over rooftops to elude the Inspector’s watchdogs. Dan Leggat initially makes jokes to strike up a relationship with Eleanor, but even his attitude darkens as he must acknowledge that the bond between Eleanor and Frank is still strong. Another murder raises the stakes — we can’t tell if the finish will be a happy one, or if Woman on the Run will end as do so many noirs of 1949-’51, in a gory wipeout.
Meanwhile, the show moves forward like a real winner, with excellent character touches to complement the witty, believable dialogue. Always an intelligent presence, Ann Sheridan is vulnerable but never helpless; Eleanor’s tough resourcefulness seems to come from the actress herself. Sheridan’s chemistry with Dennis O’Keefe is always on an adult level, free of cutesy moves. She is wary, but softens; he’s charming but becomes less happy as the chase goes on. Robert Keith’s cop ends up taking care of Eleanor’s dog, a clever touch that is never used for easy comedy — Frank Johnson became a witness because he was walking the pooch at one in the morning. The best bit appearance is by Joan Fulton, a barfly who has some choice words for Eleanor and Dan, even as the bartender is singing Frank’s praises. That girl at the bar is actually a very young Joan Shawlee, the endearing floozie from Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot, Irma la Douce and The Apartment. My personal reaction is, ‘what a doll.’
I’d never thought much of actor Ross Elliott as I knew him only from his unrewarding appearances in a few science fiction movies, playing against the likes of John Agar. We see Elliott’s Frank Johnson at the beginning and then hear about him for a solid hour before seeing him again. Almost as in The Third Man, as Frank grows in Eleanor’s esteem, we care about him more as well. The conclusion is satisfying, even the sequence on a roller coaster. Interestingly, the later 3D noir Man in the Dark swipes both the rollercoaster and a grotesque carnival statue of a laughing woman from this picture. In terms of motif, the statue relates to the sculptures of Eleanor done for those department store mannequins. That makes the movie’s final shot a little disturbing.
Woman on the Run fulfills the spirit of the noir style and gives us something extra, an impressive look at a difficult marriage. Eleanor and Frank might live in a ‘guilty, dirty’ city, but committed personal attachments can make even a Dark City a worthwhile place to be.
Flicker Alley and The Film Noir Foundation’s Blu-ray + DVD of Woman on the Run is an excellent transfer of this forgotten gem. Eddie Muller thinks its reputation will recover, and I agree. The relationships and dialogue in this movie are as good as those found in things like The Thin Man and Double Indemnity, with no qualifiers.
Remastered by UCLA, the film has some speckles on its main title but quickly levels off to a beautiful presentation. An added treat is all those evocative curb-level scenes filmed on the streets of San Francisco. We slip on and off cable cars, through real back alleys and along the waterways at Fisherman’s Wharf. How the mid-century cab drivers can make those old stick shift cars climb up and down those steep hills, I don’t know. I’ll bet that the city’s mechanics once made a mint replacing clutches and brakes. I think I’d need some pointers before taking my old Mustang up there.
The commentary this time is by Eddie Muller, who adds greatly to our enthusiasm for this picture. The making-of minidoc covers all bases, explaining how some independent productions were doomed by the system. It would be a couple of years before the independent producer’s best-bet distributor United Artists would become a good venue for shows produced by movie stars. Even then Ms. Sheridan was probably not a big enough star to carry it on her own.
Brian Hollins contributes a detailed location comparison. It seems a victory whenever some expressive vintage building hasn’t been replaced by a faceless new structure. A couple of key locations are actually doubled by Los Angeles, including the steps in the opening scene. I was going to begin this review by saying that it must be a favorite of San Francisco-phile Eddie Muller, but he’s apparently tired of people making that connection. Baghdad by the Bay is Muller’s home base burg, or at least he proudly proclaims that in most of his commentaries.
A longish promo is a hard sell for the FNF’s Noir City screenings, headquartered at the Castro Theater in San Francisco but now spread out year-round in other cities. They’re doing a good job of keeping things lively but not overdoing the Mardi Gras image. I find the Los Angeles screenings more than satisfying, and I love the Egyptian Theater’s cheap popcorn.
The final featurette sees Eddie Muller explaining the restoration story, almost as if testifying from the witness box in a courtroom. The rescue of this show is even more miraculous than that for the The Film Noir Foundation’s other new disc release, the Lizabeth Scott – Dan Duryea thriller Too Late for Tears. Eddie Muller essentially found Woman on the Run *twice*. He first discovered a print held at Universal for legal reasons, long after the original producing entity had let the copyright lapse. When that print was destroyed in Universal’s vault fire in 2008 [ a fire that I am told destroyed a LOT more than just a few videotape masters ], Woman on the Run was considered lost. Then Muller, almost by accident, came upon dupe film materials on file in Great Britain. Even then, a full restoration was only possible through a nicely-timed bit of what might be deemed ‘benign film piracy.’ Muller and the FNF deserve top marks for saving this winner… which just rose to a high roost in DVD Savant’s noir favorites list. It’s nice to have at least one hardboiled noir thriller, where ‘everyone doesn’t end in mincemeat.’
The happy restoration tale is also recounted in a short essay in the fully-illustrated, 24-page insert booklet. The Blu-ray contents are duplicated on the inlcuded DVD disc.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Woman on the Run
Blu-ray + DVD rates:
Supplements: Commentary by Eddie Muller; featurettes Love is a Rollercoaster: … Revisited is a making-of piece, A Wild Ride: Restoring …; and Locations Then and Now with Brian Hollins, the City Sleuth; Noir City, a promo piece for the annual NOIR CITY film festival presented at San Francisco’s historic Castro Theatre; a 24-Page illustrated Souvenir Booklet with an essay by Eddie Muller.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: 1 Blu-ray and 1 DVD in Keep case
Reviewed: May 22, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson