Tuesday, December 1

Good 40s Films: Road House

1948 Film Noir
From 20th Century Fox
Directed by Jean Negulesco

Ida Lupino
Cornel Wilde
Celeste Holm
Richard Widmark

Back in the day Ida Lupino and her about-to-be-second-husband, Collier Young were having a chat.  She said that she had just read a wonderful story, The Dark Love, and she thought it  would be right for her.  Her contract with Warner Bros now over, she was on her own and looking for new properties.  Young said how funny that was because he had taken the book, one of several he owned and hoped to produce as films, to 20th Century Fox to see if Darryl Zanuck would be interested.  Zanuck read it, declared it would be a good film noir and agreed his studio would produce it.  Young then added it would only come with Lupino as the star.

A deal was cemented and the title changed to Road House.  She would play Lily, a down-on-her-luck, flippant torch singer who smoked and probably drank too much.  Her speech was tinged with sexual innuendo and she gave off an aura of having seen and done it all.  She snagged a job at a country road house with an attached bowling alley.  The pay was ok.  She wasn't expecting much.  From the moment she met the owner, Jefty, she knew there was a screw loose.

Lily was shown around the joint and met Susie, the competent bookkeeper-cashier whose entire life seemed to be working at Jefty's Road House.  Soon it would be obvious that Susie was the most level-headed one in the joint.

Lily also met Pete, the club's manager and a childhood friend of Jefty's.  Pete is muscular, quiet, controlled... as much the opposite of Jefty as he could be.  Something in Pete's life seems to not be working.  For one thing, what's he doing in a place like this, working for a hothead like Jefty.  Jefty inherited the place from his old man and his head isn't really into it.  That's why he hired Pete.  Let him run it.  Pete, concerned about finances as always, feels there's no place for Lily.  They don't need a singer.  He tries to bribe her to leave town.  But Jefty's hired her for at least a six-week run and she needs the dough.  Lily and Pete have that sexual tension and a dialogue that allows us to see that something is there despite the occasional snarling.  Jefty continually tries to put the make on Lily but she will have none of it.

When Jefty comes back from a fishing trip with his cronies, he brings along a marriage license with the intent of surprising Lily.  Indeed.  While he was gone, she and Pete moved past the verbal sparring and declared their love for one another.  Pete takes a big gulp and tells Jefty that Lily may be marrying, all right, but it won't be with Jefty.  Let's say that Jefty doesn't take it very well.

Pete and Lily decide to leave town.  He takes $600 from the safe that he is owed, writes a note to that effect and we see him leave the day's $2600 receipts in the safe.  At the train station they are met by the police who haul them in. 

Jefty has framed Pete by saying that he took the $2600.  There is a trial and Pete is convicted.  We all wonder what is going on when Jefty corrals the judge and asks him to put Pete on probation and in Jefty's care, 24/7.  He claims Pete was probably drunk, feeling down, has no past record and that he would be better in Jefty's care  than prison.  The judge agrees.

After finding things too upsetting, Pete decides he is going to take off but Lily doesn't want him to get in worse trouble.  Everyone knows things at the road house are not going well with Jefty having the upper hand.  It's at this point that Jefty tells Pete and Lily that they are going to go out to Jefty's desolate cabin for some shooting.  Of what... or whom... one ponders.  They balk but decide to go along, as does Susie.

Once there, of course, all hell breaks loose.  Jefty goads everyone and soon the men are fighting and even Susie is shot by Jefty for not giving him some incriminating evidence that would clear Pete.  They all run off with Jefty in pursuit.  When he catches up with them, he and Lily have the face-off that they should have had in the beginning.  She gets a hold of his gun, which he loses in another fight with Pete.  As Jefty is about to throw a large rock at Lily, she shoots him.

Lupino personally requested Widmark for the film after she saw his giggly psycho portrayal in Kiss of Death (1947).  This was only his third film, which may explain his fourth-place billing.  He would ultimately become a bigger star than any of his costars and certainly had a role more important than, say, Holm.  She and Widmark and Wilde were all under contract to Fox and pretty much did as they were told.

For Lupino and Wilde, this was their third film together.  They shared no scenes together in 1941s High Sierra but they were the love interest in 1942s Life Begins at 8:30.  They played well off one another and by this time had formed a nice friendship.   

I thought Lupino was an accomplished actress, one of the top draws of the 1940s. but I never really warmed to her in the way I would an actress who became a favorite.  I suspect her frequent portrayal of hard, cold and indifferent women was truly an unmasking of Lupino the woman.  Lily was another such woman.  What was different here is that she sang.  Her prior singing roles were dubbed but not this time.  And the truth is... she wasn't very good at it.  That fact is even mentioned in the movie several times.  She is dressed exquisitely as she sits at a piano which she burns with cigarettes.  My, my, she smoked a lot.  No wonder her voice sounded like that.  Despite the poor voice, she did have a musicality about her and was believable. 

While we're chatting up the singing, we'll give mention to the three songs Lupino was given to warble.  The Right Kind was the least interesting of the trio and her voice sounded like she just finished a bad coughing spell.  It was brave to let Lupino do her own singing and I wish I knew what the motivation was.  Was it to demonstrate part of the character's struggle?  She even had to fight having a good voice?  The Johnny Mercer-Harold Arlen hit, One for My Baby, was used most effectively.  Most interesting perhaps was that the musical director, Lionel Newman, wrote a song, Again, and it was such a hit that Lupino made a recording of it... and so did a number of  popular vocalists.

Widmark, of course, was electric.  That sneer, that evil giggle, a face that can be smiling one moment and quickly change to maniacal.  There's never been a film that wasn't better because he was in it.  By the time he made Road House, he became so identified with playing scary creeps that he begged Zanuck for something quasi-normal.

Wilde turned in his usual competent performance in a part that was not as showy as Widmark's.  Holm was not really given a lot to do and of course was outside the main love triangle story but she was always a great addition to any film and I must say she looked especially lovely in this one.

Director Negulesco crafted a tight, tense, well-crafted, well-cast film noir.  He had done only a few noirs.  He was better known for straight dramas and in later years added light comedies with big-name casts.  He had given his home studio, Warner Bros, an award-winning drama, Johnny Belinda, and then was unceremoniously dumped by the studio.  Road House was his first film away from WB. 

Noir tends to be about the good but misunderstood guy who comes to town and runs into a bad girl.  Here it was a misunderstood girl who comes to town and finds a psychotic bad guy.  It worked well.

Have a quick peek of Lily and Jefty near the end:


Next posting:
Their 4 films together


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