Today was very pleasant but very tiring. It has been a sleepless week, most of yesterday was a migraine, and I feel exhausted to the point of stupidity. In lieu of a movie I really need my brain for, here's one I can talk about while wanting to pass out.
Last October I watched but never wrote about Norman Foster's Woman on the Run
(1950), a famously near-lost noir painstakingly restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive and the Film Noir Foundation and released last year onto home media as a double bill with Byron Haskin's Too Late for Tears
(1949). Part of the delay is that I liked but did not love the former film as I did the latter with its stone cold antiheroine and uncompromising final shot; this one suffers more from the congealing sexism of the nascent Fifties and as a result its emotional resolution leaves a tacky taste on my teeth and an inchoate longing for the advent of no-fault divorce. If you can bear with its limitations, however, Woman on the Run
is worth checking out as a thoughtfully layered mystery and a fantastic showcase for Ann Sheridan as an unapologetically bitchy, unsentimentally sympathetic protagonist, a rare combination in Hollywood even now.
The 1948 source short story by Sylvia Tate was titled "Man on the Run" and the film begins with one: late-night dog-walker Frank Johnson (Ross Elliott) who takes a powder on learning that the murder he conscientiously reported—and witnessed at close enough range to know the killer again—was connected to a high-profile mob trial. A failed artist with a bad heart and a marriage that's been on the rocks almost since it launched, he looks tailor-made for the dark city, a loser coming up on his final throw. The camera doesn't follow him into the night-maze of San Francisco, though, to face or keep running from his demons in the kind of psychomachia at which an expressionist genre like noir so excels; instead the point of view switches almost at once to his estranged wife Eleanor (Sheridan), wearily deflecting the inquiries of the hard-nosed Inspector Ferris (Robert Keith, who will always look like Lieutenant Brannigan to me) with flat sarcastic cracks and an indifference so apparently genuine and total, it can take the audience a beat to recognize the depths of anger and resignation that underlie lines like "No, sometimes he goes to sleep and I walk the dog." Ever since Max Ophüls' The Reckless Moment
(1949), I have been wary of assuming the limits of women in noir, but Eleanor still stands out for me in her flippant, abrasive intelligence and her willingness to look bad—she knows it shocks the conservative inspector that she isn't all housewifely concern for her man and she needles him with it, referring to the dog as their "only mutual friend" and dismissing the bare kitchen with "He's not particular and I'm lazy, so we eat out." Faced with the possibility that Frank has taken his brush with the underworld as an excuse to run out on his marriage, she's more than half inclined to let him. But she's not inclined to let him get killed, especially not playing star witness for a police force whose last star witness got whacked while Frank was watching, and so in the best traditions of amateur detecting, complete with dubious Watson in the form of "Legget of the Graphic
" (Dennis O'Keefe), the flirty tabloid reporter who offered his services plus a thousand-dollar sweetener in exchange for exclusive rights to Frank's story, Eleanor sets out to find her missing husband before either the killer or a duty-bound Ferris can. He's left her a clue to his whereabouts, a cryptic note promising to wait for her "in a place like the one where I first lost you." In a relationship full of quarrels and frustrations, that could be anywhere, from their favorite Chinese hangout to the wharves of his "social protest period" to the tower viewers at the top of Telegraph Hill. Let the investigations begin.
I like this setup, which gives us the city as memory palace after all: Eleanor's memories of her relationship with Frank, what it was like when it was good and where it failed and how it might be reclaimed again, if she can only find him alive. She is almost being asked to perform a spell. And while I suppose she could have done it on the sympathetic magic of a Hollywood backlot, it is much more satisfying to watch her revisit real statues and sidewalks, real crowds unaware of the private earthquake taking place in their midst. Hal Mohr's cinematography is a street-level document of San Francisco in 1950, with a cameo by our old friend Bunker Hill
; he can organize shadows and angles as effectively as the next Oscar-winning DP when he needs to, but he keeps the majority of the action on the daylit side of noir, the lived-in, working-class city with Navy stores and department stores and parks and piers and diners and lots of California sun, which only looks like it shows you everything. The literal roller-coaster climax was filmed at Ocean Park Pier/Pacific Ocean Park, last seen on this blog in Curtis Harrington's Night Tide
(1960). Back at the Johnsons' bleak, hotel-like apartment, Eleanor mocked Ferris for "snoop[ing] into the remains of our marriage," but increasingly it seems not to be as cold a case as she thought. Going back over old ground, she discovers new angles on her missing person; nondescript in his introductory scenes and ghostly in his own life, Frank Johnson becomes vivid in absence, hovering over the narrative like Harry Lime in Carol Reed's The Third Man
(1949) or the title character of Otto Preminger's Laura
(1944) until his wife begins to see a curiously attractive stranger in the place of a man whose familiarity had long since bred hopelessness. To fall in love with someone who might already be dead, to find someone in the process of losing them, these are the kinds of irony that noir thrives on and Woman on the Run
derives as much tension from the audience's fear that irony will carry the day as it does from the actual unknowns of the plot, the killer's identity, Frank's status, Eleanor's own safety as her sleuthing calls for ever more active deception of the police and reliance on Legget, who keeps saying things like "I'm sorry I was so rude a moment ago, but it's always discouraging to hear a wife say that her husband loves her." He is another unexpected element, not without precedent but nicely handled. In most genres, his pushy charm and his genial stalking of Eleanor would mark him as the romantic hero, or at least an appealing alternative to a husband so avoidant he couldn't even tell his own wife when he was diagnosed with a serious heart condition. Here, with a triangle already established between Eleanor and the husband she knows and the husband she doesn't, the reporter is a fourth wheel at best and the audience hopes he accepts it. Without a reciprocating spark, it's not as cute as he thinks when he encourages Eleanor to call him "Danny Boy" ("People who like me call me Danny Boy") or leads her casually under the same wooden coaster where he used to bring dates, his contribution perhaps to the film's romantic psychogeography.
Honestly, I don't even dislike the resolution on the strict level of plot. By the time Eleanor realizes that the place where I first lost you
isn't a bitter dig at a bad memory but a hopeful allusion to a good one, the audience is sufficiently invested in the reunion of these long-fractured lovers—despite the fact that we've never once seen them together, even in photographs or Frank's sketches and paintings—that to frustrate it would feel deliberately unfair, although of course in noir that never rules anything out. They're both taking chances, not just with their lives but their hearts. Frank who always runs away is standing his ground, risking being found by a gunman and a partner he's disappointed. Eleanor who has built such prickly defenses is lowering them, making herself reach out rather than preemptively rebuff. You want to see that kind of bravery rewarded, even when heart conditions and prowling killers aren't involved. What I dislike in the extreme is the film's attitude toward this conclusion. In its examination of the Johnsons' marriage, the facts of the script assign plenty of blame to Frank, an artist too scared of failure to try for success, a husband who retreated from his wife as soon as he felt that he'd let her down, a man who could talk about his feelings to everyone but the woman he was living with. The dialogue, however, insists repeatedly that the ultimate success or collapse of a marriage is the woman's responsibility—that it must be Eleanor's fault that her marriage went south, that she wasn't patient or understanding or supportive enough, that she has to be the one to change. It's implied in some of her encounters; in others it's stated outright. Inspector Ferris constantly judges her as a wife and a woman, even once asking "Didn't your husband ever beat you?" when she tells him to back off. He's the dry voice of authority, the hard-boiled but honest cop; I want to believe that Eleanor is decoying him when she apologizes for not believing his criticism sooner ("I guess I was the one who was mixed up—a lot of it's my fault anyway—I haven't been much of a wife"), but I fear we're meant to take her at face value. He's too active in the film's ending not to be right. Hence my wistful feelings toward California's Family Law Act of 1969. Sheridan's acting carries her change of heart from resolutely not caring to clear-eyed second chance, but I almost wish it didn't have to. At least she has a good rejoinder when Frank queries their future together, wry as any of her defensive cracks: "If this excitement hasn't killed you, I'm sure I can't."
The movies with which Woman on the Run
links itself up in my head are Robert Siodmak's Phantom Lady
(1944) and Roy William Neill's Black Angel
(1946), both stories of investigating women with ambiguous allies and ghostly romantic patterns; Sheridan's Eleanor is a harder, less conventionally likeable protagonist than either Ella Raines' Kansas or June Vincent's Cathy, which may account for why the patriarchy comes down on her with such personified, decisive disapproval, or it may be the distance from wartime, or it may be some other idiosyncratic factor that still annoys me. The fact that I can read the ending as happy rather than rubber-stamped heteronormativity is due almost entirely to Sheridan, who never loses all of Eleanor's edges any more than she slips out of her angular plaid overcoat into something more comfortable, plus the final cutaway to the Laughing Sal on the lit-up midway, rocking back and forth as if a husband and wife embracing is some great joke. Maybe it is. What makes this couple, so fervently clinging to one another, so special? He writes a nice love-note. She climbs out a skylight like nobody's business. They named their dog Rembrandt. This reunion brought you by my particular backers at Patreon