Never heard of Ann Sheridan? Well, you will now! She’s one of my absolute favorite actors from the 1940s; she died in 1967 at the age of 51, so many people’ve never heard of her.
In “Woman on the Run”, she plays Eleanor Johnson, whose husband, Frank (Ross Elliott, doing a great job), witnesses a murder while out walking their dog, Rembrandt, not too far from their apartment in San Francisco. The murderer, who just killed the state’s number-one witness against him, fires a few shots at what he thinks is Frank’s head, but it’s actually his shadow thrown on the pillar at the top of a flight of stairs, not too far from where the car was in which the murderer committed his foul deed. The police, led by Inspector Ferris (David Keith, whom I didn’t know was in it as I was composing the beginning of this blog when the opening credits were showing), discover all this, but Frank manages to get away from them – they want to put him in protective custody, but look what happened to the last guy! – by saying he dropped his pipe; he releases Rembrandt (who looks like some sort of water spaniel, I wasn’t able to find any credits for him). By this time, they’ve brought Eleanor to the scene; she doesn’t seem too concerned.
So now, the whole point of the film is to find Frank Johnson, an average-looking white guy in a trench coat in a city filled with average-looking white guys wearing trench coats. A reporter from one of the local papers, appears, wearing a trenchcoat; he’s a white guy named Legget, and wants more on the story. Mrs. Johnson isn’t cooperating. With anyone.
I’m not sure, but it’s either her hairdo or the fact that her husband doesn’t trust her enough to tell her about his life before her that’s making her cranky – while looking for him, she finds out quite a bit about him from other people. And it turns out, after talking to his doctor, that he has a heart condition THAT COULD KILL HIM. Never told her about THAT, either. I’m amazed they stayed together for four years! So now she has another reason to find him: To give him the ampules of medicine that will keep him alive (hypertension pills, they are in actuality).
Eleanor teams up with Legget to find her husband. It helps that they need money and that the reporter has made her an offer of $1,000 for an exclusive story about her husband’s situation. We get to see San Francisco’s many neighborhoods as they take the roughest cab in town (they bounce back and forth in the back seat every time the car makes a turn) searching for Frank at all of the places she could think of where he might be, all the while avoiding Inspector Ferris. This also makes for a lot of fun banter betwixt Ms. Sheridan and Mr. O’Keefe. One of the funniest bits of business, though, involves Eleanor and a drunken blonde at bar that Frank used to frequent. Here’s the scene: The blonde is in the foreground, on the left of the screen, Eleanor to her right, facing the camera; the dialogue:
Blonde (slurring): “Why don’t you wear a hat?”
Eleanor (facing Blonde); I look funny in hats. (turns away, showing small beanie-type cap covering the crown of her head)
Blonde (still slurring): Y’know, you’re right!
I about died laughing over that little exchange! Joan Fulton, who played the towheaded lush, is now burned into my memory.
The key to finding Frank seems to depend on Eleanor remembering the place they were at when Frank “lost” her. You see, she’s received a cryptic letter from him and it all has to do with their entire relationship and marriage and how she doesn’t understand him and I think you get the idea. Also, he’s an artist , which should tell you a lot right there.
Soooo, after a lot of in-and-outs avoiding the lady cop trailing both Eleanor and Legget, she remembers where Frank “lost” her – a seaside amusement park (disappointingly, it’s not San Francisco’s Playland, it’s instead shot at Pacific Ocean Park in Santa Monica, CA) where they once got separated in the crowd. (At least I think that’s it). He’s been doing sand sculptures there, disguised as a ferryboat captain (no really!). Eleanor tells him what’s going on, and that Legget is waiting for him behind the roller coaster to get the story and to give him the money (which they badly need; he’s an artist and she won’t get a job – an age-old tale). She tells him she does love him, and she wants to know why he never told her about his heart problem. Frank downplays that, but agrees to meet Legget.
MEANWHILE: Inspector Ferris has been extremely busy trying to find Eleanor, Legget AND Frank – he even ordered all the drugstores in SF to deny Frank his prescription (he didn’t carry his ampules with him everywhere, which is kind of dumb for someone who allegedly could pop off if over-stressed). He was especially ticked off when, after filling Rembrandt’s food bowl with a full can of Ken-L Rations dog food (remember that stuff?) and adding a variety of condiments and soap flakes to it, Eleanor wanted to take Rembrandt to the veterinarian because wouldn’t he wouldn’t eat! Of course, it’s a ruse so she can get away from him, but he insists upon going with her. She gives him the slip at the vet’s office, and ends up getting back with Legget to get to the amusement park.
Inspector Ferris is now at the amusement park with Rembrandt, who is now pulling bloodhound duty. Eleanor and Legget are alerted to this, so they get on the roller coaster, with Legget getting off and going to meet Frank and suggesting Eleanor stay on the next run so Ferris won’t find her. She’s not too thrilled, since she told him before they got on the first time that the ride makes her sick. Now, the shots of her on the roller coaster are just WHOAH-DUDE! great, if you know what I mean!
Frank is meeting with Legget – who turns out to be corrupt and is working for the gangster who committed the original murder at the beginning of the film (remember that?)! Didn’t expect THAT, didja? Neither did I! And instead of shooting him, Legget tries to kill him by giving him a strangulation-induced heart attack, or at least that’s what it looks like; I mean, he tells Frank that he’s going to make him kill himself, but he also puts his hands around his throat and Frank appears then to have problems breathing, so that’s the conclusion I’m drawing on that.
Eleanor, trapped on the roller coaster (which appears to be operated by the brother of the cab driver from earlier on in the picture) screams herself practically hoarse yelling to Frank. So what happens next?
Inspector Ferris finds Frank and Legget before Eleanor gets off the coaster. She hears a shot after she’s gotten off and is running to the back of it. She looks down and sees a trenchcoat-wearing body doing the deadman’s float in the water below; Ferris tells her it’s Legget, not Frank and that he shot him. And this is when we have the real reunion between Eleanor and Frank, who pretty much mutually agree to stay together and maybe get to know one another a little better.
The whole flick moves really well, the pacing is fast where it should be and slows down when it should. I found out when watching this on “Noir Alley” on TCM that Ms. Sheridan and Mr. O’Keefe were encouraged to improvise, and it shows; a lot of the dialogue sounds real. Eleanor is snappish, and is bundled up in a semi-bulky, houndstooth-checked long coat through most of the film, if not all of it. Her hair…I can only ascribe that to current fashion amongst the housewives of those years immediately following World War II, there’s no other logical explanation for it.
Here’s the trailer:
Ms. Sheridan is not credited as the co-producer, but she was. Alan Campbell, Dorothy Parker’s 2nd ex-husband, was the co-writer of the script along with Norman Foster, who directed it. Campbell and Parker had a rather bitter divorce, so draw your own conclusions as to how much impact that had on the script’s sub-plot about the marriage of Eleanor and Frank (and those names…sound familiar to anyone besides myself?). John “Go ahead, shoot me!” Qualen has a good part as a window-trimmer co-worker of Frank’s; his earnestness is memorable. The original source material was a magazine story entitled “Man on the Run” (!) by Sylvia Tate. And, Joan Fulton was credited as Joan Shawlee – she played Pickles Sorrell on “The Dick Van Dyke Show” – no wonder she seemed a bit familiar to me!
I like this film. I recommend it. Thanks for reading!