Woman on the Run (1950)

Woman on the Run (1950), starring Ann Sheridan and directed by Norman Foster, is a gripping if minor race-against-time film noir, with enough pleasing twists and conceits to keep most admirers of the style happy.

There is excellent location photography of San Francisco, the likes of which is seen in very few features. Woman on the Run entirely makes a virtue of the streets, alleys, spectacles and scenery of San Francisco, with more location shots than anyone could shake a .44 at.

These include concluding scenes at the fairground at Santa Monica, which perhaps disappoint. This is because most of the questions posed by the drama have been resolved by this stage; we know who is who and what is going to happen, and so by the time the scene is set for the conclusion, there isn't much left to conclude.

The promise here at the ending is that the fairground and the rollercoaster ride are going to be a super-exciting finish, but it doesn't quite pan out like that. 

The true excitement of Woman on the Run involves the passing and pursuing around the streets, through various bars, clubs, apartments and diners; and where the mystery of the race against time which keeps things going. 

The added plot device of the missing witness' heart condition does add a certain flavour of panic, and everyone, actors included is pulling out the stops to make it work.

Cigarette noir is the crucial clue in Norman Foster's
Woman on the Run (1950)

Quiet, empty and quite bleak photography of the inside of San Fancisco buildings, either real or made on the sound stage, are where women come home alone, and cops in this instance, lurk in the darkness

Ann Sheridan and Robert Keith 
Woman on the Run (1950)

The story of Woman on the Run tells the story of Frank Johnson, an unsuccessful painter who is out walking his dog one night when a car stops nearby. Unbeknown to Frank, the passenger in the car, a middle-aged man with an Irish accent, is trying to blackmail the driver. The passenger is about to testify before the grand jury against a criminal named Smiley Freeman. The passenger promises that he will not divulge the driver's ties to Freeman in return for a cash payment. 

It's urban, it's frightening, it's noir
Woman on the Run (1950)

Frank hears a shot as the would-be blackmailer is pushed out the passenger door. The stricken man begs for his life before the driver finishes him off with a second shot. The killer sees Frank hiding in the shadows and takes two shots at him before driving away.

The police arrive and tell Frank that the victim was about to give evidence against Freeman. Because Frank clearly saw the shooter's face, Police Inspector Ferris wants to place him in protective custody. Frank has second thoughts however and slips away while the police are otherwise occupied. 

What a move.

Policeman Ferris, given in a determinedly world-weary performance from Robert Keith,  sends for Frank's wife, Eleanor, to see if she can help him find Frank. When she arrives, the police, and the viewers of the movie too I would have no doubt, are taken aback by her seeming lack of concern for her husband. 

Playing in the streets - San Francisco in film noir
Woman on the Run (1950)

Her flippant remarks indicate much more than an unhappy marriage. "It's just like him, always running away," she tells the cops. "Running away from what?" the cops asks. "From everything," she replies.

The police stake out her building in case Frank returns home, but she can do a whole lot better than that, even advising her husband to stay on the run, as he's not wanted back at the house. It's another great example of a failed film noir marriage, a dysfunctional husband and wife at their best.

Things heat up when Dennis O'Keefe arrives, playing a reporter names Leggat who offers the mean-spirited wife $1000 for her husband's story. This piques her interest, and the two of them set off on the chase together, hitting the city corners, always at odds with the police, and determined to find the missing man.

At exactly the half way mark in the movie, and in act of excellent pacing, there comes the kicker. There will be no spoilers here tonight folks, however, so we'll just leave it up to you to hit the streets and sort this mess for yourself. It's worth it.

What remains a mystery however is why this 1950 film noir is called Woman on the Run, when it is so clearly the story of a man on the run. The woman of the title, and the lead character of the film, the wife played by Ann Sheridan is anything but on the run. 

She's the opposite and is on the chase, or on the hunt. The director and writer, Norman Foster, purposely did this to indicate that Eleanor was in a sense running too, not just to find her husband and save him from possible death, but to find the lost love they once shared.

What is odder is that the original title of the movie, as announced by Hollywood's trade publications in January of 1950, was Man on the Run; a title which mist be held to be a far more accurate description.

It does however place Ann Sheridan as the wife-hero in a far stronger position, especially as this is her story, seemingly let down by husband, trusted stranger and police as well. It's her that's alone, and the paranoia is hers to hold. What run she may be on is irrelevant; she is running in the steps of her running husband, and this is film noir - - we look at male cowardice as head-on as we can.

Although this article is tagged as 'wifelet seeker hero', its own well-defined genre within the film noir style, Ann Sheridan does not quite play the wifelet here. 

The typical wifelet of the 1940s film noir cycle is a much more demure prospect, often having to learn the ways of the streets in order to solve the crime, inevitably committed against her husband.

Ann Sheridan in Woman on the Run is not that kind of seeker; although she is exactly in that style, a woman set upon a mystery by, in this case as in many, an accident of fate which places her husband in the frame. 

Peculiarly for Hollywood, there is no other love interest in the movie, which makes a change. All that remains of love is Ann Sheridan's gradual warming to her missing husband, the more she begins to appreciate him in absentia.

Oh no! O'Keefe!
Woman on the Run (1950)

It's one of the unsmiling Ann Sheridan's greatest roles, and for a film that's now free to watch it's a helluva moody nail-biter; complete with strange side-angles and touches, like the contents of the couple's cupboards and the occasional sanguine and comic recourse to the little dog that plays its part; as well as the comings and goings of the local Chinese cabaret joint. 

For value though, Woman on the Run is one hundred percent worth the time of night you give it, as it's one of many film noirs available to view because it's in the public domain.

Find it here on YouTube and dive deep into the city. 77 minutes of film noir fun.

Public Domain Films in the US

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