Roadhouse (1948) dir. Jean Negulesco
Starring: Ida Lupino, Richard Widmark, Cornel Wilde, Celeste Holm
No, this isn’t the Patrick Swayze cult classic, it’s a 40’s noir genre film which is soon to be available on DVD for the first time. Its part of 20th Century Fox’s “Fox Film Noir” series, one of a continuing series of well packaged resurrections from their vaults.
The film stars Ida Lupino as Lily Stevens, a singer who is hired by small town bar owner Jefty Robbins (Richard Widmark) to be their new attraction. Jefty has ideas beyond mere entertainment, as he intends on courting and marrying the gal. But Lily falls in love with Jefty’s business partner Pete Morgan (Cornel Wilde). When Jefty finds out, he takes revenge by cooking up a trump burglary charge on Pete. Pete is legally trapped by Jefty’s conniving games and it will take a violent confrontation for Pete and Lily to free themselves from his web of entrapment.
Negulesco introduces Lily with classic noir mysteriousness. She’s a smart talking gal who loves to play solitaire. She loves it so much she carries a pack and starts up a game on the bar. In the noir language this means she’s a loner, who plays really hard to get. She’s coy when asked about what her act is. She’s silent at one point I thought she was a prostitute – disguised under the production code. She’s not. She actually is a singer, short on talent but has a natural stage charisma. At one point Susie the waitress says, “She does more without a voice than anybody I've ever heard!”
In the opening Negulesco establishes a sumptuous noir atmosphere. He blankets the nighttime bar in cigarette smoke and a myriad of shadows crossing the frame. Negulesco intercuts Lily’s swooning tunes with the reactions of an internally seething Pete. It’s an unspoken tension elevated to great melodramatic heights.
After Pete and Lily meet they provide some fun unintentional comedy. There first courtship is in a bowling alley. It's so completely ridiculous from fresh modern eyes, but perhaps in 1948 the thought of a man teaching a beautiful lounge singer to bowl is natural. It was probably as silly then as now, but it serves to provide some great sexual tension and piercing sexual dialogue and double entendres.
The second act plays as sordid melodrama. The film devotes it’s screentime to establishing Pete and Lily’s love affair. It needs the time as well, because of their extreme antagonism in the opening. Their attraction grows naturally – rare for a high speed genre film - and by the time Pete is framed we desperately want the two loverbirds to get away and live in bliss.
The elephant in the room is the character of Susie Smith (Celeste Holmes). She appears to have a relationship with Pete at the beginning, but when he starts courting Lily, she voluntarily steps aside. Maybe it was platonic all along – either way it is unclear. Susie continues to get in the middle of the love triangle, and I assumed her participation and relevance will be revealed later on. It never comes and so she remains the fifth wheel throughout the entire film.
“Road House” is Ida Lupino’s film, a Brit working in Hollywood. Her strange attractive quality causes the fight between friends – an indirect femme fatal. A central and strongly developed female character is a rare commodity in modern Hollywood, but back in the hey-day of film noir, the female lead was the engine which drove all drama and conflict. Enjoy.
“Road House” is available on DVD from 20th Century Fox on Sept 2.