Sometimes all it takes for a simplistic plot to become entertaining is a little twist. It’s easy to believe that the idea of playing with a genre is a relatively modern device, but even in the “classic era” of Hollywood, writers and directors would often toy with audience’s expectations. The 1950 Norman Foster film, Woman on the Run is one such film, providing a straightforward film noir setup, and then giving the audience a different take on the story.
A man is murdered on the street, shoved out of a car and shot in a clear gang execution. The killer is spotted by a person out walking the dog, and both killer and witness get a good look at each other. From the title, the witness is the woman, right? Nope.
The title of the film is a bit misleading, as the woman is more on the chase than on the run. When Frank Johnson (Ross Elliott) witnesses a murder, he’s briefly interrogated by police at the scene of the crime, but quickly runs off to avoid being called to testify — and thereby endanger himself, as the police informed him the victim was a witness in a trial concerning organized crime. The police go to his apartment and try to get his wife Eleanor, played by Ann Sheridan, to lead them to where he might be hiding out. But not only is she unwilling to help them, she doesn’t seem to be entirely sure she wants to find her husband herself. She is cold and bitter when speaking about him; their marriage has been on the rocks for years, and she is actively hostile at the thought of him.
Really, she’s more the cause of running in other people.
Nevertheless, she decides to try and track him down herself, attempting to elude the police in the process. A gregarious journalist (Dennis O’Keefe) decides to help her in exchange for an exclusive — and a chance to try and win her away from her husband. But as they track down the clues, Eleanor starts to realize that her husband not only wants her to find him, he isn’t as cold to her as she is to him.
While the film has the trappings of a classic film noir mystery, the murder and the chase almost take a backseat to the psychological examination of Eleanor and her husband. Sheridan performs marvelously as the jaded housewife, starting off extremely acerbic and hostile and becoming increasingly pensive and sympathetic as time goes on. O’Keefe is both charming and mildly sleezy as the journalist who seems just as interesting in getting the girl — married or not — as he is in getting the story. The interaction between the two plays with the typical noir trope of the couple that start off bickering and fall in love, as it’s clear from the beginning that Eleanor views the relationship strictly professionally, and shows no indication whatsoever of warming up to Leggit. Throw in character actor Robert Keith as a curmudgeonly police captain trying to get his witness, and the film has an entertaining small cast of characters.
The one weak point of the film is the story itself. It’s not particularly complicated as far as the events themselves; Eleanor and Leggit essentially go from one point to the next tracking down Frank Johnson. There are a few twists here and there, but most of them are easily predicted by any genre-savvy viewer. But what makes Woman on the Run interesting is the twist it puts on the concept itself. Instead of following the witness on the run, or the police detective trying to solve the case, it follows a character who would ordinarily be an innocent bystander to the whole thing. The change in perspective gives an otherwise standard film a novel and interesting approach.