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Woman on the Run

Woman on the Run(1950)


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Woman on the Run (1950)

The title is a tad misleading. The woman on the run in Woman on the Run is actually more of an amateur detective on the streets of San Francisco. Ann Sheridan is Eleanor Johnson, a woman searching for her husband Frank (Ross Elliott) with the help of dogged, fast-talking reporter Dan Legget (Dennis O'Keefe). Frank is a failed artist now doing window displays in a San Francisco apartment store and she's fed up with a marriage going nowhere fast. But when he goes into hiding after witnessing a murder and barely escaping an attempt on his own life, she dutifully warns him that the police are eager to track him down and get him into protective custody, which he believes will just make him a bigger target.

Director Norman Foster trained as a journeyman filmmaker in the thirties, learning how to make the most of a low budget and move a modest picture along while toiling on Charlie Chan pictures and other B-movies. Orson Welles hired him as an assistant on the ill-fated It's All True and promoted him to helm the exotic spy thriller Journey Into Fear, the only Mercury film that Welles didn't direct himself. Woman on the Run returns Foster to the shadowy world of killers and the city at night, but this time the city is San Francisco and Foster makes excellent use of location shooting, from the dynamic murder that opens the film to a striking montage sequence of Sheridan and O'Keefe in front of San Francisco landmarks. The low angles and tilted framing gives the shots a dramatic punch, but also suggests a world off balance, an appropriate state of affairs for her character. The climax takes the characters to a waterfront amusement park, a favorite film noir location to show characters uprooted from their familiar lives and thrust into chaos and confusion and alienated craziness. The rollercoaster in particular becomes a marvelous metaphor for the panic, helplessness, and emotional turmoil of the rider trapped on the ride.

Ann Sheridan was nicknamed "The Oomph Girl" (a name that she detested) by studio publicists to promote her as a Hollywood bombshell but she's better known by classic movie fans as a talented dramatic actress (They Drive By Night, 1940; King's Row, 1942) with a knack for both comedy and hardboiled toughness. This role showcases all three elements, with Sheridan dishing out sardonic cracks with deadpan snap and then softening as she discovers new dimensions of her estranged husband on her odyssey. It's refreshing to see in a film noir, a genre known for predatory relationships, one-sided love affairs and sexual obsession, a story about a rediscovery of affection that has been ground to indifference and resentment over time.

Dennis O'Keefe made the transition from light leading man to hard-boiled tough guy in low-budget crime movies in the forties and he combines the two for his character, a newspaperman with a mercenary streak and a snappy patter that could have come from the lively newspaper pictures of the early 1930s. This dogged, fast-talking reporter matches Sheridan's smart remarks with snappy repartee delivered with an all-American grin. Film historian and Film Noir Foundation founder Eddie Muller calls it "the best Dennis O'Keefe movie there is, in my estimation."

Filling in the supporting cast is a collection of memorable character actors: Robert Keith, a familiar face specializing in authority figures, as the cynical, seen-it-all police inspector; soft-spoken John Ford regular John Qualen as an affable co-worker at Frank's department store; J. Farrell MacDonald as a gruffly friendly retired sailor bumming around the boardwalk; Steven Geray, a diminutive Hungarian import who specialized in Eastern European characters both sympathetic and sinister, as Frank's concerned doctor; and Victor Sen Yung, who played Charlie Chan's "number two son" Jimmy in 11 movies and Tommy Chan in another five features, has a small role as a Chinese-American dancer who helps Eleanor's search.

Woman on the Run was distributed by Universal Pictures but it was independently produced and it became something of an orphan after its release, when the rights fell into the public domain. Since no studio had a financial incentive to preserve the picture, there was no one to take care of the elements. Muller tracked down a print in the Universal vault and screened it in 2003 at the Noir City festival, describing it as "a revelation--partly because it offered a travelogue of the city in all its mid-20th century glory, and partly because it was thrilling to find something so completely unknown that was so good." He was planning a full restoration when the sole known surviving 35mm print was destroyed in a fire at the Universal Studio lot. When he discovered pre-print elements in the vaults of the British Film Institute a decade later, he embarked on a campaign to finally restore the film and preserve a 35mm copy for future screenings. The restoration was undertaken by the UCLA Film Archive and premiered in 2015 at Noir City 13, fittingly enough back in San Francisco.

"Rescued From the Ashes," Eddie Muller. Noir City Magazine, Winter 2015.Interview with Eddie Muller, conducted by the author in 2010.
"When a Woman Could Be an Oomph Girl," Art Rogen. The New York Times, September 12, 1988.

By Sean Axmaker

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