Monday, October 06, 2008

Road House (1948)

Road House, the fifth and last of the noirs directed by Jean Negulesco is unquestionably his best effort in the genre. That is, if we are in fact comfortable with the film itself taking a spot upon the shelves with other more hard-boiled offerings. So the first question for this reviewer is; is Road House film noir or your typical love triangle drama?

A number of the quintessential elements of noir are missing from Road House. Perhaps the most noticeable being the absence of the gritty urban landscape we generally associate with noir. The closest we ever get to a big city is the mention, on more than one occasion, of Chicago which we’re told is to the east and which the protagonist Jefty (Richard Widmark) makes frequent trips to for the purpose of acquiring “talent” for his bar/bowling alley located in the north woods of Michigan (or Minnesota) not far from the Canadian border.

Along with the absence of a cityscape comes the absence of those outer trappings we’ve grown accustomed to in film noir; fedoras, trench coats, double breasted suits and gowns of every shape and style. In our story Hart, Schaffer & Marx and London Fog are replaced by Abercrombie & Fitch. We’re not talking the A&F of the raging hormone and pimply face youth of today but the original “outfitter of the Presidents” which translates into flannel and wool shirts and clothing designed to be worn while communicating with nature.

Second we have no femme fatale. Yes we have a lovely candidate for the job, Lily Stevens (Ida Lupino) who’s hard as nails but has none of the traits we usually associate with the typical femme fatale; scheming, conniving, or double crossing. Basically all we know is she’s had a hard past but isn’t looking for a hand out or seeking a means to beat the system via the use of her charms.

While a couple of thematic elements may be missing, the style director Negulesco and cinematographer Joseph LaShelle bring to Road House leaves no doubt as to it’s placement along side their other noirs; Where the Sidewalk Ends, Laura, Fallen Angel, and Nobody Lives Forever.

The story itself has been told many times in film and literature; the lovers triangle. Only this time let’s call it the Ménage à trois from hell. As mentioned, the film takes place in the outer reaches of the back woods primarily in the bowling alley owned by Jefty but ran by his life-long pal Pete (Cornel Wilde). Seems Pete not only runs the business end of the business but also serves as the go to guy when Jefty tires of his “talent” and needs to break off the arrangement.

The story opens with a shot of Lily’s bare leg perched upon Pete’s desk as he enters his living quarters located above the bowling alley. This is the first of many shots of Lily’s gams but needless to say it’s a real attention grabber right out of the stating gate. After the obligatory repartee, the result which immediately leaves a bad impression of Lily with Pete, in strolls Jefty. It’s interesting to note that seeming protruding from his head are antlers, or horns if you prefer and offer a precursor to his devilish plan that unfolds during the last third of the film.

Jefty proceeds to inform Pete while on his most recent trip (think in terms of “hunting”) to Chicago he found Lily and she’s to be the new performer at the bar and at double what the going price as been in the past. This should be a tip that Jefty has absolutely no head for business.

It’s most interesting to note the walls of Jefty’s Road House are adorned with the heads and antlers of many animals and can easily be a metaphor for Jefty’s constant quest and bagging of talent of the female kind for the road house. That Jefty had it easy in life and never grew up is made apparent several times; his always referring to everyone as “kid,” and by his own admission he knows nothing of the weekly monetary take of the road house or how much simple provisions cost. As in turns out, Jefty’s father had owned the business and it became his upon his father’s passing. We’re also lead to believe Jefty still occupies the home of this youth for the one scene played inside his house reveals a home much more suited to a bygone era and much older inhabitants.

Road House could almost qualify as a “musical noir,” in that rather than having the one excruciating obligatory musical number most noirs have, there are several. This is of course necessary in keeping with the story line and giving Lily ample time to display her singing talents. Actually her singing is the source of a couple of well placed verbal jabs by the last major member of the cast Susie (Celeste Holm). For example, when Sam the bartender asks Susie if she likes the singing she replies “If you like sound of gravel.” Another time she remarks Lily “Does more without a voice than any one I’ve ever heard.” Later on Lily takes a shot at herself by refusing a drink on the house because it’s “bad for my voice’ all the while puffing away on a cigarette.

While “gravel” may be Susie’s description I compare in more to water running down the street gutter. It’s not the stuff of nails on the blackboard but close and it bears noting Ms Lupino to her credit did her own singing rather than having it dubbed.

While on the subject of Ms Lupino you’re also got to wonder who came up with the hair do she sports? My first thought was Boris Karloff as the Frankenstein monster must have been the inspiration with the flat-head look.

All this aside, Jefty is nevertheless smitten by Lily much to her displeasure. Again his lack of being able to act in a grown up world is revealed by his constant pawing her and his telling Pete “All girls want the same thing, a guy to take care of them.” He has no clue how to run a business, treat a friend or a woman. He’s like a child throwing a tantrum and bent on having his way regardless of the consequents.

While Richard Widmark only gets fourth billing in Road House (his third screen appearance) he owns the film. After the first 15 minutes with a little Tommy Udo sandwiched in here and there you know his character is a time bomb waiting to explode. And while he won’t get the girl he’ll grab the audience and not let go till the final credits roll. It makes no matter that we all know who’ll end up with girl at the end as the journey is worth far more than the destination.

Written by Raven


David Cranmer said...

I saw this film years ago and enjoyed it quite a bit. I've always admired Lupino. She was a great actress and possibly a better director. Thanks for reminding us of this one.

Ginger Ingenue said...

Wonderful write-up! :)

I actually haven't seen one yet, but it's on my list.

As for Ida's hair: I kinda like it...interesting, anyway. ;)

Ginger Ingenue said...

"I haven't seen THIS one yet..." I meant to say.

And Steve-O: I like the (fairly) new layout you've got here! Dana's reading along with me in the sidebar... ;)

Anonymous said...

Great review. I'm a big fan of this one. I'll have to get the DVD

Steve-O said...
This post has been removed by the author.
m.saravana said...
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HeathCliff said...

I've always noticed that Ida Lupino had the worst hairdos in every movie she was in. And often wore a wig. Wonder why. Also, her voice is almost astonishly thin in this movie.

Anonymous said...

The song "Again" was written especially for this movie by Fox music director Lionel Newman. Words by the quirky Dorcas Cochran. Ida Lupino sung the song for the first time of any performer. She faked her piano accompaniment. The song has become an all-time great standard and IMHO the only good thing about the film. :)

Jack Davidson

Anonymous said...

Having never seen "Road House" I was truly blown away by the whole concept and execution of the story. A powerful movie, indeed.

Unfortunately, I felt that the review of "Road House" gave it short shrift in some respects. Yes, as described it falls short of the “rules” of noir, but it certainly is noir-informed or heavily noir-inflected. Without the noir influence it would have been a different film indeed. Too, if one got too doctrinaire in the matter of “what must constitute noir,” one would miss a lot of really excellent films allied with the core genre.

As to Ida Lupino's singing, Celeste Holm's appraisal as doing more without a voice, etc... is, in reality, a positive appraisal. Lupino's delivery gives more drama and feeling to the songs than had she had a pro overdub the singing. It is very affecting and says much about her character. Think of Rex Harrison singing in "My Fair Lady." Talk about no voice. But his delivery speaks volumes in context. Would we rather have Gordon MacRae play Henry Higgins?

As to the is unusual but fits the period. And it makes Lupino stand out as an outsider. She certainly wouldn't want to have appeared wearing Holm's girl-next-door hairdo. Not the Chicago chanteuse character at all.

Finally, the rural setting. "Out of the Past" spent a lot of time in the healthy environs of the California mountains. True, we go to San Francisco, but the successful fly fishing expedition on the bouldered creek was much more dramatic than having the proverbial fall off the building death scene.

Noir is where you find it.

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