Noirvember Review: ‘Woman on the Run’

Every November fans of cinema celebrate one of the mediums most influential periods, the era of the film noir. This movement from the 1940’s through the 1950’s, presented audiences with edgy pulp crime flicks with a dark and moody stylization. Film noir gives moviegoers no shortage; troubled antiheroes, seductive femme fatales, grizzled detectives, ruthless villains, urban wastelands, and violent crimes. This month I will be looking at some of the best noirs for what has been dubbed Noirvember. 

Just like last year’s Pitfall, 1950’s Woman on the Run is a film noir that was once thought lost which has been thankfully saved by the efforts of film preservationists. Originally made by the tiny independent studio Fidelity Pictures with the aid of a distribution deal with Universal Studios, the movie was released to little fanfare and not a lot of promotion. The deal between Universal and Fidelity came to an end shortly thereafter, as the studio folded and Woman on the Run became a movie rarely seen and the status of who held the rights to the movie was constantly in question.

After witnessing a gangland hit, an artist named Frank goes into hiding to escape any expected reprisals. The police want to get him into protective custody and begin to badger his estranged wife Eleanor for a lead, despite her being oblivious to where he could be hiding. She has not seen her husband in quite a while that is more than alright by her. However, when Frank reaches out to her through a series of hidden clues and puzzles, Eleanor reluctantly begins her own search. With the tenacious newspaperman, Danny Legget by her side Eleanor scours San Francisco for her missing husband. Along the way she learns secrets about the man she is married to including, the fact he has a life-threatening medical condition and most importantly that despite the broken state of their marriage he is still in love with her. Throughout this dangerous scavenger hunt, she is hounded by a police detective who believes she knows more than she is letting on. And while Danny may seem like a helpful companion, he may have his own nefarious reasons for finding Frank.

As previously mentioned Woman on the Run was thought to be yet another film lost forever when the infamous 2008 fire at Universal Studios destroyed the final known print of the movie. However, as time passed people noticed that the movie was often screened at the Noir City Film Festivals. Naturally, attention was turned to the organizer and host of these festivals, Film Noir Foundation founder and host of TV’s Noir Alley, Eddie Muller. When confronted by Universal about it, Muller confessed that when they had previously loaned him their print, he realized the importance of what he possessed. Knowing that it could be the last remaining copy of Woman on the Run the respected preservationist had it duplicated for his own collection without the studio’s permission. All this time it had stored away in a safe deposit box as a safeguard against harm. Rather than take expected legal action, the then-archivist at the studio commended Muller’s good stewardship. With assistance from UCLA, the Film Noir Foundation was able to restore the film and make it available for cinephiles everywhere.

This movie largely falls on lead actress Ann Sheridan to carry and she does so magnificently. For much of her career, Sheridan was showcased as merely eye candy over at Warner Bros. in films like the Footloose Heiress, Angels with Dirty Faces, and the Man Who Came to Dinner. In 1939 a panel of men decided, she was the “Oomph Girl” of Hollywood, a sort of 1930’s version of the “Sexiest Woman”. The actress wanted to prove that she was actually capable of so much more and felt this was the perfect vehicle to show off her talent. Sheridan believed in Woman on the Run so much that she even became a producer, putting up some of her own money to have it made. Sure enough, this is argued as Sheridan’s finest performance. With a world weary gaze and sharp dialogue, she largely wrote herself, her performance sucks you into the film. She portrays Eleanor as the antithesis of the model post-war housewife, she is a sardonic and jaded character who has accepted her marriage is pretty much over but at least she has a dog to keep her company. Sheridan’s co-star Dennis O’Keefe as “Danny Boy” Legget proves to be the ultimate partner in crime for her to bounce off of. Like Sheridan he was given liberty to craft much of his own dialogue as the natural chemistry between the two carried them through.  

In the director’s chair for Woman on the Run was actor turned Orson Welles protégé Norman Foster. Given that his own marriage to Claudette Colbert had fallen apart a few years prior, it is easy to see how a movie based around a failing marriage appealed to him. Coming from an acting background himself, he knew the importance of giving his cast the necessary freedom to truly bring their characters to life allowing for ad-libs and changes to the script. Joining him behind the camera, was veteran cinematographer Hal Mohr who proved the perfect fit for this project.  When the setting of the film had to be moved from New Orleans, as in the source material, to San Francisco due to budgetary constraints, Mohr literally had a hometown advantage. This familiarity with the city by the bay came in most helpful during the production. He casts a moody atmosphere over what was at the time a blue-collar city, but in a way that maintains the realism of what the audience is seeing.

Had more people seen it, Woman on the Run could easily rank among the great watershed movies of the film noir movement. This film hits all the right notes throughout it’s runtime and Ann Sheridan is terrific in the lead role. With efforts the Film Noir Foundation have gone to in order to rescue this film one can hope that more people have the opportunity to see it. If possible, be sure to donate to this wonderful organization so that they can continue saving and preserving these dark and gritty classics.