Woman on the Run Review

Often overlooked in favor of more well-known pictures directed by the acknowledged masters of film noir, Woman on the Run is an exquisitely moody and involving entry in the noir pantheon. It gives Ann Sheridan one of her very best roles while pinning a surprisingly deep psychological undercurrent of marital disharmony onto an above average plot. The film starts off all shadows and darkness as a man we later learn is Frank Johnson (Ross Elliott) has taken his dog Rembrandt out for a late night walk. Johnson sees the murder of a man who was to be a witness against his eventual killer. The murderer fires at Johnson's shadow as the dog walker catches a glimpse of his fleeing assailant. Now the only eyewitness to see the killer, Johnson is questioned by the police and promised protection. He tells them where to find his wife (Sheridan), but sneaks away into the darkness when no one's looking.

Unsubtle hints by Frank are confirmed after meeting wife Eleanor, and it's obvious that the Johnsons' marriage is strained. Sheridan's Eleanor comes off as biting and sarcastic but nonetheless confused, almost hurt about where things went wrong. As some trivia that may or may not apply, co-screenwriter Alan Campbell was married to Dorothy Parker. Twice. Read into that what you will, but Sheridan's performance borders on revelation. If you're most familiar with her through the Warner Bros. pictures she did with Cagney and Ronald Reagan or even Howard Hawks' I Was a Male War Bride, prepare for something in an entirely different key. She's far more embittered than the "Oomph Girl" limitations would've allowed a decade earlier. This Ann Sheridan shows a tough vulnerability that registers far beyond being a male star's requisite girlfriend or wife.

The balance Sheridan attains is really quite impressive. Eleanor is not a particularly sympathetic character on paper, but she really becomes someone deserving of our empathy as the film progresses. The one tiny, nagging detail clinking against Eleanor is that the viewer knows her investigative partner, newspaper reporter Danny Leggett (played by Dennis O'Keefe), is the trigger man about midway through the film, and she keeps letting him tag along. She doesn't know, has no reason to know, but the writers decided to let the audience in on Leggett's true motivation for some reason. This comes out of nowhere since there's no earlier indication that Leggett was the murderer, adding tension to the latter half when we now know why he's in such hot pursuit of Frank. The early reveal also lets O'Keefe have a couple of sinister reaction shots and gives us a downright unsettling end to the poor Asian girl who had told Leggett about a sketch of him that Frank did.

Director Norman Foster doesn't generally inspire much respect, but his work here shouldn't be undervalued. From viewing several of Foster's pre-Code films where he was an actor, I'd say he was an unusual, though generally pleasant, leading man. He was also married to Claudette Colbert at one point, but quickly moved to directing in the 1940's. His Journey Into Fear starring Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten is sometimes insinuated as having been actually directed by Welles. Regardless of what happened in that instance or the fact that Foster was otherwise mostly known for directing Charlie Chan and Mr. Moto movies and a great deal of television later on, Woman on the Run turned out quite fine. Foster's direction, his collaboration with Campbell on the screenplay, and the work of two-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Hal Mohr, who'd later move on to The Lineup and Underworld U.S.A., provide a hefty technical punch that elevates the film above its B-movie limitations.

If the previous hour-plus left any doubts, a climactic stroll through the boardwalk confirms Woman on the Run as something special. Eleanor, with O'Keefe's Leggett still tagging along, finally realizes where her husband was referring to in a note he'd sent to set up a meeting. The place referenced was one where he stated he'd first lost her. Throughout Eleanor's search she's repeatedly discovered things she never knew or realized about her husband. These are things that flesh out his character, things that seem to slowly help repair the schism in their marriage. This is deftly handled and played by Sheridan, her veneer ever so gently cracking with each new bit of information. Eleanor's inability to think of what the clue means is shown as a nagging concern both in the immediate sense so that she could find him and as a barrier to remembering happier times. Her eventual arrival at the amusement park by the coast lets the film conclude strongly with the help of a nightmarish roller coaster ride and a memorably creepy doll that cackles the film's goodbye.

The Disc

After Trapped and Quicksand, Woman on the Run is the third and last of the titles I've reviewed from The Film Noir Collection, a new set of releases by Revelation Films' Glass Key. The distributor's own website boasts each as "one of fifty four of the most sought-after and popular Film Noir titles being released to form one great DVD collection." This begs the question of whether Revelation Films actually viewed its own product before putting that sentence together. These releases are downright poor, not just using beat-up materials below VHS quality but also improperly transferred from NTSC to PAL.

Watching Woman on the Run is akin to looking through a window while it's raining. Truly awful picture quality, plus combing and black bars on each side of the frame. Another review site called it "unwatchable," but there's little alternative if you want to see the film (and you should). The existing version still allows enjoyment of the movie, though I'd advise against purchasing this particular DVD in lieu of cheaper alternatives or even viewing the picture online in a free, completely legal setting.

The unfortunate truth seems to be that we may not get a better looking edition of Woman on the Run any time soon. Film noir aficionado Eddie Muller reported in a message board post that an impressive print of good quality burned in the Universal vault fire last year and that the studio, which distributed but didn't produce the film, wasn't in possession of the original negative. Certainly a terrible situation for a very good movie.

Regarding the audio on this single-layered disc, the English mono provided sounds distant and weak. Volume is consistently low. On the bright side, it isn't scratchy or marred by hissing. Dialogue can be made out fairly easily, which is good since no subtitles have been offered.

It's bare in the extras department as well.

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