In compiling my list of the best neo-noirs, I did not think of the 1963 “Running Man” (also known as “The Ballad of the Running Man). I’m pretty sure that I saw it long ago on tv, interrupted by commercials. I had conflated it with the mediocre spy movie “Dandy in Aspic” (1968) that also starred Laurence Harvey (indeed, he finished directing it after Anthony Mann died).
Seeing “Running Man” again (as part of a Lee Remick marathon on TCM this past week), I found it a quite satisfying thriller, if probably insufficiently urban and nocturnal to qualify as a neo-noir.
It was helmsed by Carol Reed, who directed two of the greatest noir films” “The Third Man” (1949) and “Odd Man Out” (1947), both of which feature men on the run, as did Reed’s 1953 adaptation of Conrad’s Outcast of the Island, and 1953 “The Man Between,” his breakout 1940 “Night Train to Munich,” and, arguably, his Oscar-winning “Oliver!” Also. Charlton Heston’s Michelangelo wanted to flee the demands of Rex Harrison’s Pope Julius II in “The Agony and the Ecstay.” In addition to desperate flight, a leitmotif of Reed films is misperception: Holly’s of Harry Lime in “The Third Man Out,” the boy for his hero in “The Fallen Idol,” the spy played by Alec Guiness in “Our Man in Havana” confusing at least three sides, defectors and informants in “The Man Between,” Sophia Loren in the underrated”The Key,” and various passengers on that old “Night Train to Munich.”
The running man, Rex Black, was played by Laurence Harvey, who specialized in playing cads, helping Simone Signoret (Room at the Top), Elizabeth Taylor (Butterfield 8), and Julie Christie (Darling) win Oscars (and Geraldine Page earn an Oscar nomination in “Summer and Smoke”) coping with his character’s aloofness and/or nastiness. Here, he was a pilot whose insurance premium payments were not up to date when he crashed. Infuriated by this, he takes out life insurance and stages another crash.
Lee Remick has to act a lot to play Rex’s devoted wife, Stella. Stella is uncomfortable with the insurance fraud but does whatever Rex asks her. After they are both in Malaga, with Rex with hair dyed blond and an Australian accent that comes and goes, what Rex wants includes Stella doing whatever it takes (which means giving her body) to the insurance adjuster, Stephen (Alan Bates in the first role in which I saw him, though I have since seen him in his breakthrough role in the very Reedian 1961 Bryan Forbes movie “Whistle Down the Wind” since then, as well as Tony Richardson’s screen version of “The Entertainer” (1960) in which Alan Bates played a supporting role).
As later in “An Unmarried Woman,” Bates is sympathetic and the woman (here Remick, in MW Jill Clayburgh) is tied to a nasty, undermining man (here Harvey, there Frank Langella). The focus in “Running Man” is on what does the Alan Bates character know, what has he written in his little book, first seen when he calls on the widow in England.
The movie was shot on the Spanish coast and has some car chases as well as the obsessive guilt endemic in the noir universe. The screenplay adaptation of a crime novel by Shelley Smith (set in Switzerland rather than on the Costa del Sol and Gibraltar) was done by John Mortimer, who is most remembered for his Rumpole of the Bailey novellas and their enactment on BBC by Leo McKern. Mortimer also wrote a very late and tense noir, “Bunny Lake Is Missing,” directed by Otto Preminger in. 1965 in which there is also question about a disappearance.
The stylish cinematographry was done by Robert Krasker, who had shot “Odd Man Out,” “Trapeze,” ” and “The Third Man” (along with “Senso” for Luchino Visconti, “The Quiet American” for Joseph Manckiewcz, “Billy Budd” and “Romanoff and Juliet” for Peter Ustinov, “The Collector” for William Wyler, and three movies for Anthony Mann.
OK, Reed’s neonoir did not and should not eclipse his two great noirs, but “Running Man” is an interesting portrait of resentment, mistrust, and love with fine performances, good cinematography, and backdrops of that big rock that was once regarded as the northern pillar of Hercules.