Written by Alan Campbell and Norman Foster
Directed by Norman Foster
It is a quaint evening as Frank Johnson (Ross Elliot) walks his dog in a San Francisco park. None too far away arrives a car with two occupants, one whose face seen and another the driver’s whose face is concealed from the viewer. The driver suddenly shoots and murders his companion and, upon noticing Frank’s presence, takes fire at the passerby before leaving the premise. Having taken refuge from the bullets, Frank security is short lived, as the police explain later on that the departed was none other but a key witness in a ongoing trial against a major local gangster. Frank is now an eyewitness to a murder and the new target of those who wish to see the infamous mobster walk away free. Perturbed by his predicament, the man flees the police, leaving the latter to deal with his wife, Eleanor (Ann Sheridan). Inspector Ferris (Robert Keith) implores Eleanor to help find him locate her hubby, with whom times have visibly been rough as of late. With the help Dan Legget (Dennis O’Keefe), a newspaper man looking for a scoop, Eleanor is about to find out more about her husband than she thought she knew.
Part of the fun in watching movies is being witness to something unexpected. Knowing what one is getting when taking in a film is all fine and dandy and might be very comforting but there is something pleasant and exciting when a movie begins as one thing and eventually turns into another in organic fashion. The opening scenes to Woman on the Run set up the proceedings perfectly well, with a shocking murder prompting a nervous man to save his skin and take the lamb, even against police instructions. Shortly thereafter the police’s hopes of finding the eye witness rest on the goodwill of his wife, a woman disillusioned by her failed marriage whose reservoir of goodwill is drying up fast. She is not a mean person, simply one who has lost touch with happiness, who answers inspector Ferris’s interrogations and remarks with snide remarks and a sense of nonchalance suggesting that maybe she does not care so much about what Frank does. From her demeanor and slack line delivery, she is the female version of a Robert Mitchum character. When, initially against her own will, she teams up with the smooth talking Dan Legget to find her husband behind Ferris’ back, the movie looks to be an amusing lark featuring an unlikely pairing of individuals roaming San Francisco, ducking bullets and exchanging barbs.
It slowly becomes apparent however that what director-screenwriter Norman Foster has in mind is rather different. Make no mistake, Eleanor and Legget do not get along terribly well at first and the danger of the gangsters finding Frank before they do hangs over their heads as they make their every improvised move. As Eleanor begins to appreciate the real danger Frank is in once Ferris explains that he was shot at and is probably being hunted down by killers, Woman on the Run takes a different direction from what one may expect. Instead of relishing in the potential danger, director Foster only peppers the picture with moments of high tension and thrills, allowing the romance to take the lead. Even more interesting is the fact that the love angle is developed not between Eleanor and Lagget, which would have been obvious to say the least, but between the protagonist and her missing husband. Frank has left a series of clues, most notably a letter sent to his current place of employment, that features not only a coded message revealing where Eleanor can find him, but also expresses his true feelings towards her. As the story moves along, their love for one another is rekindled even though they do not meet up until the very end.
Foster proves a skillful director in executing this neat coup, juggling a trio of important elements that come together in a fun, tight little package. The first is the mystery surrounding Frank’s whereabouts, peeled away through the clues in his letter. This is perhaps the least memorable of the factors, in part because is the most dryly plot-based of the three. The second is the re-blossoming romance between Eleanor and Frank. Making an impression on the audience in this regard is no simple feat given that Frank disappears from sight after the few minutes, only to return for the film’s climax. As such, Ann Sheridan does virtually all of the heavy lifting, falling in love with someone anew she is not in contact with, her softer side emerging as memories of older, happier days gone by rush back to her via Frank’s cryptic yet very romantic prose. Sheridan is an excellent choice for the lead for she can play the part with a hard edge just as she can play it softer. Her looks of sheer boredom and mild annoyance in the early going when the police press her for information is a clear indication of where she stands with respect to her marriage but by the end, when Frank stares death in the face, Eleanor lays it all on the line.
The third element is the tension built around the character of Lagget, revealed to be non-other than the shooter from the start of the picture. This unnerving bit of intelligence is conveyed about halfway through the picture, thus serving the purpose of catching the viewer off guard on their toes all the while employing the timeless storytelling technique of setting the proverbial ticking time bomb for all audience members to see whilst the characters at risk go about their business, oblivious to the impending danger. O’Keefe is excellent in the role, all smiles and charm when assisting Eleanor find Frank, only fleetingly revealing his true colours with the pressure of keeping his cover under wraps mounting as well.
Director Foster offers his coup de grâce as all the pawns converge to the bayside amusement park suggested between the lines Frank’s aforementioned love letter. Frank, Eleanor, Legget and inspector Ferris find themselves running, ducking and hiding from different people from one minute to the next. At first the Eleanor and Legget try to avoid police detection, but when the former becomes aware of her partner’s true motives, it becomes a race to finish in order to save Frank from what looks to be certain death. The sights and sounds of the amusement park , specifically a humungous roller coaster ride Eleanor finds herself stuck on momentarily, brilliantly augment the sequence’s tension. The climax is sharply directed and effortlessly builds suspense until the breaking point.
Woman on the Run can be viewed as a lark, a simple diversion with good banter and interesting mystery. Then again, it is also a well crafted story about how a marriage rekindles the fire it once had through extraordinary circumstances. However one takes in Norman Foster’s cleverly constructed film, there is at least something for everybody.