Norman Foster’s sublime, complex Woman on the Run asks – those marital bonds: What does it do to people? Or, rather, how do people perceive them? And, more specifically, how do women? And for women living in 1950? In San Francisco. In a small apartment. With no kids. And her husband’s pet dog. (Good for her, I say -- she is not doing what is expected of her).
But here, we see, this is a marriage where perhaps the couple is invisible to one another. They have lost their way. They sleepwalk through the motions -- maybe dreaming of another life, floating in some marital netherworld they never anticipated.
We see this through steely, smart Eleanor (a wonderful Ann Sheridan), who, when the cops come to question her (her husband has bolted from the scene of a crime and they are suspicious as to why -- was he involved?), she walks around her small kitchen and coolly reveals rows of dog food cans. She doesn’t cook much, obviously, and she makes that fact known, almost as a matter of sardonic pride. She’s no Donna Reed type. She also doesn’t see her husband much. He does his own thing (he’s a painter – she shows his work to the detectives, praising some of it), and she does her own thing. It’s quite a modern arrangement, really. It would seem that, in 1950, this was not the norm in movies, especially when the woman will not become an easy “femme fatale” -- a bitch out to destroy her poor husband. Nothing is unrecognizable in the movie – people, and relationships, are complex. Humans are human. And odd. And frustrating.
When cynical, seen-it-all Eleanor (could she even be described as a housewife?), is asked to describe her missing husband to suspicious detectives, she answers: “I haven’t been able to for a long time.”
It’s an unusual, intriguing set-up. After Eleanor’s husband, Frank (Ross Elliott) witnesses a murder, he immediately goes missing. Why? Who cares about the cops, we wonder why? And most importantly, Eleanor wonders why. So, it is not the cops (who try to find him) but Eleanor who winds up the one doing arduous detective work to track down Frank. As said, when you first meet her, she seems to barely care he’s gone. He’s always gone, it seems, and their marriage is so damaged, she’s hardened into grim acceptance. That’s just how it is. Still, she’s no rat (see, she does care about marital bonds –thou shall not rat your husband seems implicit – or maybe that’s just me). But then she isn’t even sure what she would be ratting out – she has no idea what is going on. And then she learns that Frank needs life-saving heart medicine – she didn’t know this about him either. This concerns her and so she teams up with a reporter (Dennis O’Keefe) and scours San Francisco (the film utilizes striking and nicely lived-in locations in the city) to find her missing heart-afflicted husband. It can’t be purely medical that she’s out to restore his heart.
You’d think the title -- Woman on the Run, a film noir (though it feels a lot more than that – it goes beyond genre) would simply be about a woman fleeing – and as described earlier, fleeing a bad marriage. But it isn’t really about that – this is a woman who is, essentially, fleeing from the nosey, rather sexist interrogations of police detectives who bugging her husband and judging her for her unconventional life. Frank’s the one who has fled, but, now, she is fleeing to figure out what in the hell is going on and where in the hell he is, and, really who is she? She’s fleeing from her own mental prison and it’s a fascinating beautiful thing to watch – and in in the end, incredibly romantic. With style, beautiful grit, and hard-boiled empathy, Woman on the Run dissects the sacred union without any artifice. It’s a tough movie, but damn if you’re not enormously moved by the end.
With that, the picture upends expectations of the cynical wife in this noir landscape – as she searches for him, and talks to locals at bars and various areas in San Francisco, she starts learning how much her husband actually loves her. How much he brought her up to others. She was on his mind. And she starts feeling things again. She starts understanding him more.
Baroquely beautiful, absolutely brimming with style, and even surrealistic at times, Foster’s Woman on the Run still feels firmly grounded in reality. The director’s mentoring and work with Orson Welles (Foster collaborated with Welles on It’s All True and directed Journey Into Fear) is felt throughout (with help by DP Hal Mohr). And marriage is the focal point (with a script by Alan Campbell, who had recently divorced Dorothy Parker, the two got back together after this picture was made, another curiosity).
Sheridan (the “Oomph girl!” – a moniker she detested. She once said: “Oomph" is what a fat man says when he leans over to tie his shoelace in a telephone booth.”) gives one of her greatest, perhaps her greatest performance here: Tough, but vulnerable, jaundiced but sophisticated, she’s able to light up when she really starts to see that her marriage has been muddled by a dreary fog. And they both (she and her husband) let it happen. It’s powerful and disarmingly moving that the picture’s finale occurs on what’s often representational of love: a rollercoaster (up and down and up and down and a lot of screaming and laughing and fear) and Sheridan is so moved to finally see her husband, that she screams his name with fear and love. It’s a beautiful moment.
What’s intriguing about Woman on the Run is that the picture isn’t trying to wag its finger at Sheridan for being such a hard-boiled cynic – a “bad” wife.” She’s presented with empathy and complexity and it’s not all her fault things have stagnated in her marriage. It’s not all her husband’s fault either. They both need to work on things. But this is about the “woman on the run” – Sheridan – and she needs to find her life and resuscitate her marriage, so, after she finds herself running from the police, she eventually will find herself running from the reporter (who reveals his true, evil intentions later in the movie). She can’t trust anyone. Really, she can only trust the one she was so dismissive about from the start – her husband.
Sheridan plays a woman who appears to have a hard heart tamped down by disappointment and marital atrophy – but as the movie reveals, she is full of love and understanding once she really opens herself up again. Marriage is viewed through a dreamy, demented landscape here, but it’s part of the institution’s tumultuous journey. A key moment in Woman on the Run occurs when, before Frank flees, he’s asked by an inspector if he’s married. His answer: “In a way.” Yes, in a way. But by the end of the movie, what that really means, romantically, is, it’s their way.