Originally titled Man on the Run, Woman on the Run has two claims to specialness. First is the choice role it hands to Ann Sheridan, the film’s star. The second is the extensive use of locations out on the streets of San Francisco, where much of it was shot.
It opens as a classic film noir – a nighttime cityscape and a lone male out walking. With his dog. This is strange. Film noir males don’t have pets. They’re loners. A bottle is more likely to be their special friend. And this is 1950 – peak noir. Curb Your Dog, reads the sign Frank Johnson (Ross Elliott) pauses besides at the start of the film. Here he lights a cigarette and here he sees an innocent man being murdered by an unseen gangster against whose boss the victim was about to testify.
The cops arrive. Frank is told point blank that he’s now a also target for the gang, because he saw the killer’s face, and that he’ll have to go into protective custody. Having told the cop on the case, Inspector Ferris (Robert Keith), very little about himself, apart from the fact that he and his wife have a semi-detached marriage, Frank promptly does a runner. Man on the Run then?
Not only is Frank not a film noir male, he’s not in the film very much. He disappears after these opening scenes and only re-appears again at the end. Between times it’s his wife who’s the film’s focus, and her relationship with he husband. This starts with insinuations about Frank’s sexuality. As cop Inspector Ferris (Robert Keith) looks for clues as to Franks’ whereabouts, he discovers that Frank is a failed artist (suspect), who now works as a window dresser (very suspect) and smokes a pipe (very Freudian). “Pipe smoker, huh?” Inspector Ferris says to Frank’s wife, while Keith resists the urge to send semaphor signals with his eyebrows.
Eleanor is a tough nut with a wiseguy demeanour, a cigarette more or less always on the go and a low opinion of her husband. But as Eleanor hares around San Francisco looking for her husband – accompanied by a newspaperman (Dennis O’Keefe) keen to get Frank’s story, and pursued by Inspector Ferris, who suspects that the wife knows where Frank is – she realises that she does indeed have feelings for her husband. An enigmatic complex noir female – is Eleanor the dismissive femme fatale, or the gumshoe pounding the pavement, or both?
Sheridan co-produced the film and was about 35 when she made it. She hoped it would reboot her foundering career. It didn’t but it’s a chewy role – a female protagonist in a film noir is rare enough – and she bites down hard, delivering a charged, emotionally developing performance as a resourceful woman wondering if she’s read her husband all wrong and learning things about herself in the process.
Apart from Sheridan, it’s really just the other two, O’Keefe and Keith, with O’Keefe’s doughty newspaperman looking like he might at any moment become a romantic lead (nice plotting), and Keith injecting the cop with plenty of energy (nice playing).
Norman Foster directs with energy, too, keeping the characters in motion and the illusion alive that money has been spent. The cinematography, by Hal Mohr, is superb, and in a story about a search for a missing man in a shady city, parallels with The Third Man are made even more obvious when Mohr goes into mini-homages to the sort of Expressionism (tilting camera angles and stark lighting) that marked Carol Reed’s film, which came out the year before. Mohr is so good, in fact, that even the back projection sequences look plausible, and the remarkable Alfred Hitchcock-meets-Carol Reed-meets-Orson Welles finale at a funfair, when he pulls out all the stops with crane shots, Expressionism and heady montages is alone worth watching the film for.
All this, though, comes second to Mohr’s work out on San Francisco’s streets, which give the film an added documentary heft.
A good plot, fine acting, fantastic production values, ace cinematography, all this plus a cute dog (Rembrandt), who gets to feature as part of the plot, and all delivered in a shade over an hour and a quarter. What are you waiting for?
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