What a pleasure it is to come across an old suspense noir you've either forgotten about or never heard of and discover it's a solid and engrossing movie. Woman on the Run, starring Ann Sheridan and Dennis O'Keefe, is that movie. It's the story of a man out walking his dog one night in San Francisco who witnesses a mob-related killing...and realizes the killer saw him. The cops plan to take him into protective custody but he doesn't trust them to keep him alive. He has another idea. He disappears. And when the cops visit the man's wife, they discover a woman who seems not to care one way or the other. Her marriage has been on the skids for quite awhile. She won't hinder; she won't help. She just wants out. But as she learns more about her husband, she decides he at least needs a fair chance. So before long she starts looking for the guy. And so are the cops. And so is a newspaper reporter after a scoop. And so is the killer. But no one knows where he's hiding. She decides to team up with the reporter to beat the cops and the killer to her husband. When half way through the movie we realize what's going on, and she doesn't, the tension escalates briskly. It all comes together in a beach-front amusement park at night. It may be 1950 and there's no neon, but there's lots of lights, a giggling, life-size mechanical clown, cotton candy stands, a movie house playing The Big Lift, a boardwalk filled with laughing people, pitch black shadows under the piers and the roller-coaster from hell. Woman on the Run was an indie picture. No one would confuse it with an A movie from one the crumbling major studios, but it's way above a B programmer. I'd match the last 17 minutes in the amusement park against any film.
The script is tight and the direction is more than efficient; it builds tension while encouraging us to become emotionally involved with the two leads. It uses little touches to let us get to know the characters. The drink of choice of Eleanor Johnson, the wife, is gin on the rocks. She's no lush, just a confident woman who likes gin. The drink of choice for Danny Leggett, the reporter, is an Old Fashioned ("but hold the garbage"). I'm not sure what this tells us about the two, but it's a nice switch from the usual drinks clichés.
Ann Sheridan plays Eleanor Johnson with sympathy. Sheridan, at 35, is no longer one of the great girly pin-ups of WWII. Her career was starting on the downward slope as newer pretty faces emerged. Sheridan was one of the few star actresses, in my opinion, who combined sexuality with wry intelligence. Carole Lombard, Myrna Loy and Joan Bennett also had that gift. She also was a good actress. She knew how effective underplaying could be. When she's on the roller-coaster, realizes who the killer is and tries to warn her husband, who she can see below her while the killer approaches him, is a nifty acting job that involves, well, restrained screaming. We know Sheridan's character does not enjoy the roller-coaster ride, but Sheridan does not play the damsel-in-distress bit. Her screaming is directed to her husband, trying to get his attention. But she also has to deal with those fast down slopes that turn most peoples' stomachs. She handles it like a pro. Dennis O'Keefe as Danny Leggett ("Leggett of the Graphic") was also starting the slide down into television. He's not all that appreciated now, or even remembered, but O'Keefe was a versatile and effective lead actor. "I'm not a bad guy when you get to know me," Leggett tells Eleanor, "a little obnoxious, but pleasant." It's more than pleasant to see how these two actors and the characters they play deal with each other.