“I don’t know any of his friends. the dog is our only mutual friend.”
This little-seen marvel was scripted and directed by Norman Foster, a man who worked with Orson Welles early on in career. He spent some time in the 30’s as an actor, then moved to directing with a feature he starred in called I Cover Chinatown (1936), after which he worked on 6 titles in the Mr. Moto series and a couple of Charlie Chan films.
It is interesting in light of this past work to note the featured appearance he gives to Asian-American actors Victor Sen Yung and Reiko Sato as a team of dancers who get in the way of the killer as he hunts for the man who witnessed his hit job in the dramatic opening moments of the film. Yung is probably most recognized prior to this as Charlie Chan’s number 2 son Tommy (or number 3 son Jimmy, depending on the film), a comic relief role, but here he is given several minutes to display the broader range of his talents, from song and dance to a dramatic scene that is a far cry from the Chan parts he usually played. Reiko Sato also was generally relegated to generic Asian supporting roles, but here is featured in part that holds one of the keys to identifying the killer, shortly before she herself becomes one of his victims. Both actors had bigger and better parts after this, but props are due to the film for giving them this early chance to shine outside the one-dimensional roles Hollywood previously would have limited them.
The story is co-scripted by by Foster & Alan Campbell, and based upon a Sylvia Tate story called “Man on the Run.” This may have been a more accurate title, but it is easy to see why it was changed for the movie. The story’s plot is centered around a search for a man named Frank Johnson (Ross Elliott) who is witness to murder, but for reasons of his own runs away and into hiding rather than stand before the grand jury to testify. But for the majority of the film, he is absent, an off-screen presence, a maltese falcon motivating the key players to find him. The woman in the title is his wife, Eleanor Johnson (Ann Sheridan), and it is she who we follow around the various high and low points of San Francisco as she alternately conducts a search of her own, and dodges police tails that hope to follow her to her husband.
Given how recently it has been finally made available to wider audiences after years as an unknown quantity, I’m somewhat loath to give a detailed synopsis. This is a story that deserves to be discovered, and not spoiled by my crude outline of the plot. Instead, I’ll just paint a brief portrait of some of the highlights you will encounter when you watch it for yourself.
Woman on the Run is a delightful treat, a shadowy film filled with nail-biting, labyrinthian twists and turns, taking us on a tour of the city that takes us places most contemporary San Francisco based films never explored. The cinematography by Hal Mohr perfectly captures this mysterious, dangerous parallel world, and the musical score by Emil Newman & Arthur Lange sells us on the soul of the story.
For, as much as this is the story of a manhunt, it is even more a story of rediscovered love. Eleanor Johnson and her husband have long since grown distant, estranged even while still sharing the same house and pet dog Rembrandt (who has a role of his own to play in the tale’s unfolding). As she traces her husband, she learns things about him (and herself) that she never realized.
For example, far from the hypochondriac she took him for she discovers from his doctor that he is very sick indeed - with a bad heart from hypertension. Is it her fault? Does she blame herself for the way she has treated him? Regardless of the cause, she is told she must get his medicine to him before he runs out.
Frank Johnson is an artist, and the trail of sketches, paintings, mannequin busts and sand sculptures he leaves behind tells a story of a man who still loves his wife in spite of the icy wall that has grown up between them. Some of the drawings are evidence and clues leading to the killer, but more are keys to unlocking Eleanor’s bottled up feelings, and by the time she figures out where he is, a palpable love and concern for his safety is evident in Sheridan’s performance, as it develops from wise-cracking and cynical to concerned and intensely urgent as the pressure and tension mounts.
There are two more principle players I’ve not yet introduced. The first is Detective Ferris (Robert Keith), a hard-nosed, shrewd investigator who knows his game well- when to put the pressure on, and when to give Mrs. Johnson a long leash and set his small army of tails on her tracks to follow her progress in finding her husband. He is determined not to lose this witness, and is occasionally cruel in the pursuit of his objectives, though driven by righteous intentions, and a desire for justice and the protection of innocent citizens.
The fourth member of the party that hunts for Frank Johnson is “Legett of the The Graphic” a reporter who in his unshakable pursuit for an inside story, uses his charms to insinuate himself into Eleanor’s confidence. Ferris warns her, “I wouldn’t get too cozy with that guy if I were you. He’d crucify his grandmother for a story.” And as these two follow the leads given them, danger surrounds them and death follows in their wake.
The big climactic set-piece takes place on a roller coaster at a beach-front amusement park, and is a vivid visual metaphor for the emotional drama of the scene as it unspools. The hunt for Frank leads all the principle parties here, and Legett selects a hidden spot at the center of the coaster for a meeting place to interview Frank and get the story. The spot is surrounded by the rumble of thunder and screams from the cars as they roll past.
Eleanor expresses her sense of dread. “I don’t like this place.”
“It’s a good spot,” Legett replies. “I used to come here with my girl when I was a kid.”
“It’s more frightening than romantic,” she observes.
Darkly he notes, “That’s what love is when you’re young... and life is when you’re older.”
Like the coaster itself, the plot of the film is filled with dramatic twists and hairpin turns sure to keep an audience gripping tightly to the seat in front of them False leads, mistaken identities, mysterious deaths, coded messages, and more, as the late-breaking tips and clues all fall together in a rapid crescendo of intensity like a snowball rolling toward the big finish. The story is punctuated and lightened by moments of humor that keep things from getting too grim. There is a comic recurring bit involving the fall-out from an intentionally generic description of Frank Johnson that is given out by police, as well as the ever-present snappy patter with which the dialogue is so thoroughly laced. There’s even some meta-humor, like one line in which a female detective charged with following Sheridan’s character quips, “How could I lose a redhead like that?”
The world is also peopled with a array of secondary characters and bit parts that add color and fun to the journey. There are funny off-beat moments with incidental characters, like the woman in bar who interrupts the conversation between Eleanor and the bartender to offer her drunken advice on life and love. John Qualen has an entertaining scene as Maibus, a window-dresser who works with Frank, and recounts to Eleanor the many wonderful hours he’s spent talking with her husband about his adventures. And reliable character actor Seven Geray puts in a gentle appearance as Frank’s doctor who delicately informs Eleanor of the severity of her husband’s illness while carefully avoiding blaming their relationship for the strain that brought it on. Also adding comic and dramatic grace notes to the case are J Farrell MacDonald as a sand sculptor/ retired ferry boat captain friend of Frank who works at amusement park, and uncredited Steve Carruthers, who has a funny bit part as an optometrist on the street who Eleanor uses as a diversion to throw the police off her trail. I’d even swear I heard Mel Blanc’s voice as a cab driver in one off-screen exchange, though I can’t substantiate the claim.
The net total is a thrilling adventure into darkness, and a moving, dramatic journey that will leave you as breathless as a midnight roller coaster ride.
***** out of 5