If Barbara Stanwyck was the Queen Bee of film noir (as she was dubbed in an iconic issue of Film Comment), Ida Lupino was its tough cookie, a beauty with brass and a dame who knew the score. She was a romantic heroine who could hold her own against the brawny heroes and rough villains of Warner Bros. crime movies without losing her sexiness or her independence. And she was arguably at her best when directed by Raoul Walsh, who made her a mad femme fatale in They Drive By Night (1940) before bringing out her potential as a scuffed survivor with a true heart in High Sierra (1941), their third film together and her first real signature performance as the modern Lupino. They reunited for their fourth and final collaboration in 1947 with a a refreshingly mature film rich with stories of frustrated lives, unrequited loves and tough times just getting by in the world without selling your soul.
It may be stretching definitions to call The Man I Love a true film noir—it’s not a crime film per se, though it is far more than a typical melodrama, thanks in large part to the strong, tough direction of Raoul Walsh, and for all the nocturnal lives it lacks the shadowy style that informs the genre. Yet this 1947 film, set in the post-war era of swank nightclubs and the seedy types they attract, is seeped in the post-war sensibility and it gives Lupino the confidence and control and narrative command usually reserved for men. Lupino’s calloused heroine is a New York chanteuse who goes home to Los Angeles to see her family: a married sister with a child and a soldier husband in the hospital for shellshock, a sweet younger sister infatuated with the married man next door and a cocky brother who sees his future as a hired thug for sleazy nightclub lothario Robert Alda. Lupino knows her way around the octopus hands of night club operators and puts herself between Alda and her family to save their innocence from the urban corruption that threatens to seep into their lives.
Lupino may have a weak singing voice but her smoky delivery is filled with understanding and regret, as if she’s lived the lyrics of her songs of lost loves and bruised romanticism, and her tossed-off delivery of smartly scripted lines gives her an American urban worldliness. The film may be best known today as Scorsese’s stated inspiration for “New York, New York,” but it’s not the plot that found its way into his film. It’s the shadowy culture of working class folks tangled in the post-war culture of seductive night life, of dive bars and the itinerate musicians and singers and underworld types who frequent them, and in the tough attitude that Walsh and Lupino bring to the film. They made a great pair and she is the perfect Walsh heroine: tough, smart, experienced, and still something of a romantic at heart. This is one of the great “women’s pictures” of the era, never showy but always simmering with complicated relationships, frustrated desires and unfulfilled affections that are more authentic and conflicted than most Hollywood pictures.
More classically noir, at least in a rural variant, is the 1948 Road House, with Lupino in the acute position of a romantic triangle with a hunky but impassive Cornel Wilde and a pathologically jealous Richard Widmark. Her big city chanteuse sashays into the road house of the title as Widmark’s “discovery” with scuffed cynicism and brassy attitude and instantly clashes with Wilde, the joint’s practical manager. The antagonism is instant, the attraction a matter of time and the showdown with the psychotically possessive Widmark inevitable. While the title and the plot sound a little tawdry, it’s a handsome production that drops urban toughness in a back-country town setting, and it gives Lupino a role as tough and knowing as The Man I Love. And why not? Lupino bought the story and developed the script herself, selling to Darryl Zanuck at 20th Century Fox as a package with herself attached as star.
Lupino stage manages her introduction beautifully, sitting presumptively behind the desk of club manager Wilde, her long legs stretched out with a casual sense of arrogance and disdain that instantly antagonizes him. And her opening night entrance is just as good, striding to the piano in a sleek, off-the-shoulder gown that looks designed to stand out from the rural casual attire of the patrons and distract from her talent, and launching into that iconic saloon song of lost love and late night regret, “One For My Baby (And One More For the Road),” with her husky, musically untrained voice. “She does more without a voice than anyone I ever heard,” marvels cashier Celeste Holm with genuine appreciation, and indeed her smoky delivery is filled with understanding and regret as if she’s lived those lyrics of wounded hearts and bruised romanticism. Director Jean Negulesco is a little too clean for the messy little melodrama of the script, which cries out for a little more unsavoriness (Widmark helps some in that department with his volatile mix of swagger and anger and self-righteous revenge in the face of betrayal) but by the end of the studio-bound production, he turns the limitations of his manufactured location into an atmospheric prison cut off from the world by fog and mist, a primordial swamp of emotional instability with the same oppressive, claustrophobic feel of the shadowy city sets of conventional noir. (FYI: The Fox DVD release features commentary by film noir historian Eddie Muller with my MSN colleague Kim Morgan.)
Lupino starred in a number of other significant noirs, including On Dangerous Ground (truly one of the unsung masterpieces of the genre) and Beware, My Lovely, but one of her essential contributions to film noir came from her work on the other side of the camera. You can feel the grit scraping off the screen in The Hitch-Hiker (1953), her independently-produced low-budget thriller about two everyday urban guys (Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy) taken hostage by a psychotic killer (William Talman, before he remade his image from rugged thug to figure of authority as Hamilton Berger in Perry Mason) who has hitched a ride on their road trip to fish the Gulf Coast. The wide open plains become a veritable prison to the easygoing every-men as long as their captor has the gun, the car keys, and a spooky deformed eye that never closes… even when he sleeps. Lupino was no stylist but her gritty location shooting and cheap sets create a vivid world far from the Hollywood gloss of her work in front of the camera. The Hitch-Hiker is another film t hat slipped into the public domain and is widely available in any number of cheap, inferior editions. The best I’ve seen is Kino’s edition but there is still room for improvement.