Saturday, January 17, 2015

Noir City XIII #1: That's No Lady, That's My Wife

by Odienator

To the superstitious, 13 is either a lucky number or a portent of doom. Here in San Francisco, 13 is also the age of our beloved Noir City Film Festival. Once again, the denizens of Noir City congregate to bear witness to tales of unlucky men and far luckier dames, all unspooling in large-screened glory at the famous Castro Theatre. As always, our host for 10 days of classic cinematic deviltry is the Czar of Noir himself, Eddie Muller.

Though more associated with bar mitzvahs, the number 13 leaves its mark on another holy ritual here in Noir City: Matrimony. "Til Death Do Us Part," goes the oft-recited promise of those who check into the institution of marriage. For some people--fictional or otherwise--that mortal parting can't come swiftly enough. As a reminder, and a warning, the tagline for Noir City XIII appends a wicked coda to the familiar matrimonial vow:

"They said 'Til Death Do Us Part...and she MEANT it!"

This year's festival kicked off with a gorgeous restoration of 1950's Norman Foster vehicle, Woman on the Run. The underrated Ann Sheridan stars as the titular character, who isn't on the run so much as she is in pursuit. The real runner is her husband, Frank Johson (Ross Elliott), witness to a mob-sanctioned hit on a star witness. Frank is out walking the dog when the unlucky victim gets plugged by a mug he refers to as "Danny Boy." The pipes are definitely calling when Danny Boy shows up, and despite being shot at, Frank is able to avoid having them played at his wake.

Inspector Ferris (Robert Keith) wants to bring Frank down to the precinct for protection, but the elusive Frank goes on the lam. While seeking assistance from Frank's wife, Eleanor (Sheridan), Ferris discovers that all is not rosy in the Johnson household. In fact, it appears that Eleanor would be happy to see Frank remain outside witness protection so the mob can help her invoke matrimony's death clause. 

As is the case in all great noir, all is not as it seems. Eleanor's anger at her husband may burn with the fire of a few thousand suns, but she doesn't want him six feet under. Instead, in the genre's grand cynical tradition, she thinks he has better odds evading Danny Boy without police intervention. This frustrates Ferris, who gets to mutter some amusing though familiar masculine thoughts about marriage. 

Eleanor is armed with even sharper quid-pro-quo commentary, much of it written by uncredited producer Ann Sheridan herself. Tart-tongued and self-assured, Sheridan makes an excellent foil for all the men in this picture, including Legget (Dennis O'Keefe), the obnoxious newspaper reporter who's drooling for the inside scoop on the murder Frank Johnson witnessed. Legget and Ferris spend much of their screentime chasing the elusive Eleanor. Though they always catch up with her, the interactions are clearly the result of Eleanor's charity. She's happier to see Legget than Ferris, a mistake the audience discovers when Legget reveals that his nickname is "Danny Boy."

Once we know this detail, Woman on the Run not only becomes a figurative rollercoaster ride, it also ends with a literal one. While we wait for the inevitable showdown between Frank and his assassin, we're treated to a refreshingly female-centric look at a marriage on the rocks. Sheridan's best scene is the moment when she realizes that her relationship has always been more salvageable than either party realized. Screenwriters Foster and Alan Campbell pull a clever switch on the cliched notion that men never remember important details of their romance; here it's Sheridan who is put to the test with a riddle whose answer requires her to remember a crucial, trivial detail of her courtship with Frank. 

Woman on the Run was shown at an earlier Noir City, but its print was lost in a fire at Universal. The Film Noir Foundation and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (yes, the Golden Globes people) are responsible for the gorgeous 35mm print rescued, restored and shown at Noir City XIII's opening night. 

Watching Sheridan slowly piece together the clues while emotionally reliving moments long since past packs an unexpectedly sweet wallop, but methinks darker days are ahead for the denizens of Noir City.

Next time: Revisiting Born to Be Bad, about which I wrote a randy, raunchy piece for the 2011 Nicholas Ray Blog-a-thon here. The Castro Theatre audience was a lot nicer to the main character than the folks at the Film Forum whom I describe in that link.

No comments: