Woman on the Run (1950)
Directed by Norman Foster
Produced by Howard Welsch, Ann Sheridan
Screenplay by Norman Foster, Alan Campbell
Based on a short story by Sylvia Tate
Cinematography by Hal Mohr
Edited by Otto Ludwig
Music by Arthur Lange, Emil Newman
In his book Film Noir FAQ (2013) , David J. Hogan writes, “At this writing, Woman on the Run is commercially available, via a poor print, on budget DVD. A good print is hidden in a vault somewhere. Let’s find it.” (p. 293)
That’s exactly what Eddie Muller set out to do. Muller wanted to include the film in his 1998 book Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir , but all he had was a video of the film that was so bad he literally couldn’t tell what he was watching.
(photo by Michael Kronenberg)
Just before the screening of Woman on the Run last Saturday at the AFI Silver Theater and Cultural Center, Muller told the story of how he discovered the lone surviving print of the film, the enormous risks he took in order to borrow it, and how his heart almost stopped as he looked over at the Universal Studios lot and saw black smoke billowing into the sky. He knew that black smoke from a movie studio only meant one thing: the film vault was on fire.
One guess what was in that vault. That’ s right: the only known print of Woman on the Run.
So how are we viewing the film today? That’s a story I’ll let Muller tell, either in person or on a future DVD/Blu-ray release of the film. I will tell you that all the efforts it took for Muller to rescue the film were worth it. (You can actually Google the story pretty easily.)
A struggling San Francisco artist named Frank Johnson (Ross Elliott, above) picks the worst possible time and place to take his dog on a nighttime walk. Johnson witnesses a murder, but this is not your run-of-the-mill murder. As Johnson soon learns, he has just witnessed the murder of a man who was about to inform on a leading underworld figure. Johnson agrees to cooperate with the police until he realizes that if things don’t go well, he could be the killer’s next victim.
So what does Johnson do? He goes on the lam.
Knowing they’ve been given the slip, the police – led by Inspector Martin Ferris (Robert Keith) – visit Johnson’s wife Eleanor (Ann Sheridan, above right), who can’t tell them much about her husband’s activities because she really doesn’t know. Their relationship isn’t exactly Ozzie and Harriet; they’ve grown apart, their marriage existing in name only. But the cops aren’t giving up. Neither is a reporter named Legget (Dennis O’Keefe, above left), who’s willing to pay Johnson $1,000 for his story if Eleanor can lead Legget to him. (To put the figure in perspective, that would be about $10,000 in 2015.)
Ah, but this is film noir, and something devious is going on with someone…
The film is remarkable in that it pulls no punches on a marriage that has not only lost its spark, but in reality no longer has a pulse. This is no sentimental reflection on the days of love gone by, but rather a realistic recognition of the fact that Frank and Eleanor’s relationship just doesn’t work anymore, plain and simple. Yet – again, without sentimentality – Eleanor learns something about that relationship, something that has perhaps been buried among a dreary existence of disappointment and failure, things that can happen to just about any relationship in this hard world of ours.
Woman on the Run is filled with great writing, snappy dialogue, wonderful performances, and some of the finest use of San Franscisco on-location shooting you’ll see in noir (or any other type of film from the period, for that matter). Very few noir films can balance both suspense and humor, but the Alan Campbell/Norman Foster screenplay excels. (It should be noted, however, that Sheridan wrote much of her own dialogue.) Although the literal roller coaster finale’s 1950 technology is evident, it’s still remarkably effective 65 years later. Norman Foster – a protege of Orson Welles – certainly knew how to craft an compelling film.
The screening of Woman on the Run was not only a celebration of an almost-lost-forever film, but also a tribute to Ann Sheridan, an actor unjustly neglected. Sheridan had been a long-time player for Warner Brothers, who dropped her shortly before Woman on the Run was even on her radar. As a freelance actor, she decided to co-produce and star in the film. Yet for all its positives – and there are many – the film works primarily due to Sheridan, who is tough, beautiful, smart, clever, resourceful and engaging in a role that’s multilayered and complex.
Although Woman on the Run is currently streaming on Amazon (the first screenshot in this post is taken from that print), you should try to catch the film at a Noir City festival if at all possible . I long to see the film again on Blu-ray, hopefully with a commentary by Muller. Woman on the Run is a real treasure and Muller, the Film Noir Foundation and anyone else who had a hand in rescuing the film should be congratulated.