Flicker Alley debuts two brand-new restorations this week with the DVD/Blu-ray combo release of Too Late for Tears (1949) and Woman on the Run (1950). Public domain victims whose copies have proliferated on YouTube and other sites, Flicker Alley shows why, at least in the case of Woman on the Run, what an assured thriller this is. Modern-day cinephiles will see the comparisons with David Fincher’s Gone Girl in this tale of a missing husband and the wife “on the run” to find him, lovingly cleaned up and presented in a beautiful combo package worth the purchase.
Frank Johnson (Ross Elliott) is walking his dog one night when he witnesses a gangster murdered in front of him. Said gangster was meant to testify against a powerful mob boss and Frank’s identification of the killer is all that separates the boss from going free. Fearing for his life, Frank flees, leaving cops and a reporter named Leggett (Dennis O’Keefe) to quest Frank’s wife, Eleanor (Ann Sheridan). Despite their acrimonious marriage Eleanor goes on a quest to find Frank, but is the killer closer to her than she thinks?
In the accompanying booklet “Czar of Noir,” Eddie Muller, details the struggle to bring Woman on the Run to theaters, with fears (and a Universal fire) threatening the few remaining prints in existence. Its recovery and restoration is nothing short of a cinematic miracle and it definitely shows in Flicker Alley’s beautiful presentation. (The aforementioned booklet also includes some fantastic pictures and promotional art, as well as Muller’s essay.)
Things start off conventionally, for a noir at least, with a man witnessing a murder and almost taking two slugs to the chest. The cops believe Frank Johnson is acting like a baby. I mean, who wouldn’t want to testify against a villainous mob boss as well as the man who tried to kill you, right? “All you have to do is identify the killer,” Inspector Ferris (Robert Keith) tells Frank. In a noir, that’s often easier said than done.
Once Frank goes off into the inky night, never to be seen until the film’s third act, Woman on the Run becomes a mystery/domestic drama. Written by Sylvia Tate in 1948, her original story was entitled Man on the Run. By a simple swap in gender the film opens things up towards exploring an investigation from a female perspective. Most noirs see the troubles of a male protagonist but Woman on the Run gives us a spunky female, more than capable of taking care of herself, tracking down and solving a mystery. Think of a more hard-boiled Nancy Drew.
Anne Sheridan is the eponymous “woman on the run” and her performance as Eleanor Johnson is unlike most noir ladies. Eleanor is a flawed human – an absent and rather disinterested wife to her husband in a marriage that’s probably on the verge of divorce – and yet her inner desire for money (her huskily spoken line, “I’d rather be bought” is packed with meaning) and, later, a desire to find her husband motivates her hunt. Her character is tired and snappy, probably mired in the everyday drudgery of life we aren’t seeing because it isn’t “entertaining.”
In a similar vein to the Joseph Losey noir The Prowler (1951), we’re allowed brief entry into a marriage with Eleanor hearing from Frank’s friends and acquaintances about their perception of her based on Frank’s stories. Eventually, Eleanor becomes tired of being cited as the root of Frank’s problems, yet remains on the hunt in spite of it all. Though the denouement takes a turn for the romantic, an air of fantasy in the gritty realism of the film, it cements the feature as a noirish domestic drama.
Eleanor’s investigation into her husband’s whereabouts sees her paired up with oily newspaperman Dan Legget. Dennis O’Keefe is reminiscent of actor Van Heflin, in another comparison with The Prowler, with an average Joe mien possibly hiding something far more sinister. Like Eleanor he is also flawed, happy to exploit a wife’s desire for money in order to ascertain where her husband is for his own gain. The banter between O’Keefe and Sheridan is the film’s core, expertly retaining some great noir dialogue. Imagine if Phyllis Dietrichson and Walter Neff of Double Indemnity (1944) fame absolutely hated each other and you have the banter between Legget and Eleanor.
By the time the characters are taken on a literal rollercoaster ride, the tension has ramped up to a blistering crescendo. Woman on the Run isn’t the most tightly wound noirs out there, nor the most inventive. But – I swear this’ll be the last time I mention it – like The Prowler, it takes the conventions of a marriage and makes them fantastical, a dreamlike examination of a mundane life. Anne Sheridan as the battered housefrau becomes a clarion call for women everywhere. In a era of Donna Reed and June Cleavers, Eleanor Johnson will do what she needs to for herself, and maybe her husband, if he’s lucky.
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