“Woman on the Run”

Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:

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This 1950 noir, directed by Norman Foster, and written by Foster and Alan Campbell, from a story by Sylvia Tate, is intriguing for the way in which it uses its thriller premise to mine the complexities of a relationship. The movie opens in standard noir fashion: with Frank Johnson, played by Ross Elliott, wrongly accused of a murder. But when the cops pay a visit to his wife Eleanor, we enter unexpected territory. Here the movie assumes Eleanor’s point of view, and it’s quickly apparent that she and Frank are on the skids. She thinks he’s finally skipped out on her, and she doesn’t seem to care if he returns. Yet she doesn’t believe Frank is guilty, and she’s too wised up — too cynical — to cooperate with the law (she has no respect for it). So Eleanor launches her own investigation. And when she exits her apartment through a rooftop skylight, she’s like a character in a Jacques Rivette movie — a fugitive from the everyday.

As Eleanor visits Frank’s old haunts, questioning those who know him, an image of Frank — and of his relationship with Eleanor — begins to cohere. Our experience of this image parallels Eleanor’s: As we discover Frank, she rediscovers him. Despite the movie’s genre trappings, this process of rediscovery causes it to resemble classic comedies of remarriage, such as “The Awful Truth” and “The Palm Beach Story,” movies in which couples are forced to break their routines in order to regain their mojos. As do many rom-com couples, Eleanor and Frank own a little dog. It’s a comic reminder of their shared, and sometimes divided, interests.

Ann Sheridan, in one of her last major film roles, plays Eleanor with the perfect mix of resignation and defiance. We sense how her willfulness contributed to the failure of her marriage, yet we also come to understand the role it plays in Frank’s rescue. As Eleanor collects clues, neutralizing irritations with perfectly timed wisecracks, we realize that her capacity for forbearance, cultivated as an unsatisfied wife, is an essential part of her detective’s toolkit. In a triter movie Eleanor would save her relationship by changing in some essential way — by becoming a new person. Here she does the opposite: she reinvests in what’s already present. As conceptions of marriages go, this is an uncommonly shrewd one, and “Woman on the Run” is an unusual noir in that it doesn’t focus exclusively on female (“Mildred Pierce,” “Caught”) or male (take your pick) preoccupations. In fact, it strives to unite them.

Unfortunately, Foster doesn’t have the sadistic instincts necessary to bring off the screenplay’s blatant suspense elements. An alternative offer of romance presented by Dennis O’Keefe’s ostensible reporter isn’t hot or suggestive enough to make you feel the danger it presents to Eleanor’s marriage, and Frank’s dependence on heart medication fails to instill the race-against-time anxiety for which it seems designed. But Foster’s handling of the procedural and character material offers ample compensation, as does the canny employment of the San Francisco setting. Seasoned cinematographer Hal Mohr provides a no-nonsense series of location and studio representations of the city, which culminates in a setting that seems outside of time and place: a fantastical seaside amusement park. With its swooping roller coasters and clanking, novel machinery, the park is an exaggeration of the vertiginous city, and a suitable metaphor for the fraught ground of marriage.

Related

  • The ace digital media company Flicker Alley will soon release a Blu-Ray of “Woman on the Run.”

About Fabrizio del Wrongo

Recovering liberal arts major. Unrepentant movie nut. Aspiring boozehound.
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