Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Road House

Jean Negulesco | 1948 | 95 mins | USA

No, this isn't the Patrick Swayze film by the same name. This is another Ida Lupino gem that I discovered recently on my Noir kick. This time, she plays a tough lounge singer from Chicago named Lily Stevens who takes a six week gig at a backwoods road house owned by rich boy Jefty Robbins (Richard Widmark). It's not quite clear why Lily takes the job at first, but she obviously needs the dough, doesn't want any funny business from Jefty, and probably thinks it's none of your damn business why she took the offer anyhow.

Jefty's manager and lifelong friend Pete Morgan (Cornel Wilde) assumes Lily is just another pretty face with no talent that Jefty has dragged in to seduce until he tires of her. Instead, Lily's cigarette-soaked voice and melancholy air charms not only the road house customers, but Pete Morgan himself.

When Jefty leaves Lily in the care of his trusted pal while he's on a business trip, the inevitable happens. The two argue so much that they end up falling in love with each other, and are left with the considerable problem of what to tell Jefty when he returns.

The last couple of Ida Lupino films I've seen make me wonder if she had it in her contracts that she had to be smoking in every scene because she couldn't do otherwise in real life. Her hauntingly hoarse voice and dazzling outfits certainly thicken the atmosphere, but what really makes this an effective thriller is Richard Widmark's remarkable transformation from affable (if spoiled) playboy to menacing psycho who will stop at nothing to squash his former friend's every chance at happiness. Teetering on the edge between hatred and insanity, Widmark's Jefty is dangerous, volatile and relentless in his drive to get what he wants and ensure that nobody else does.

Plus, the film is almost worth watching just for the brilliant misty-woods set in which the grand finale takes place. It's an example of the kind of perfection that makes you not care that the forest was built in a studio lot somewhere, because it looks better than real woods anyway.

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