This is a strange film. It has flaws, especially in the script, and never seems quite sure what kind of film it is. Nonetheless it entertains and pleases audiences, mainly I think because of the performances of its four leading players. Top of the bill is Ida Lupino and she holds it all together with Richard Widmark at his most manic and Cornel Wilde and Celeste Holm in more conventional roles. William Donati, Lupino’s biographer, tells us that the project was taken to 20th Century Fox by Lupino’s new agent Charles K. Feldman who had bought the rights to the story ‘Dark Love’ for her. He successfully sold the project to Fox with a significant fee for Lupino as the lead.
This was a crucial period in 30 year-old Ida Lupino’s career. She’d left Warner Bros. in 1947 after a seven year contract during which time she’d often been suspended and loaned out to other studios, but had appeared in leading roles opposite Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, John Garfield and Errol Flynn. Now she was a freelance trying to arrange her own work. She was also about to re-marry and Donati notes that both she and Collier Young, her new love, had thought that ‘Dark Love’ was the right story. I haven’t managed to find the original ‘Dark Love’ story. I’ve read elsewhere that it was a short story rather than a novel and it isn’t mentioned in IMDb’s credit list. Instead there are six writers listed with Edward Chodorov as producer and solo writer of the actual screenplay. So, I guess he’s responsible. The film was directed by Jean Negulesco, another refugee from Warners who had worked with Lupino on Deep Valley, her last Warners picture in 1947. Donati suggests that Lupino had asked for Richard Widmark who had been a sensation, nominated for an Oscar, in his first screen role as ‘Tommy Udo’ in Kiss of Death (1947). Widmark was under contract at Fox and the other two leads were the studio’s choices.
As the title implies, Road House features an out of town venue comprising a bar lounge and a ten-pin bowling alley owned by ‘Jefty’, Jefferson T. Robbins (Richard Widmark). The setting is somewhere in the North of the US, close to the Canadian border. The film opens with an almost documentary sequence of the venue’s operations behind the credits and then cuts to the manager, Pete Morgan (Cornel Wilde) opening the door to find a strange woman in his office. She’s playing solitaire and smoking with one stockinged leg draped over the edge of Pete’s desk. This is Lily (Ida Lupino) – a seemingly sharp ‘broad’ who isn’t very impressed with Pete. He eventually discovers that Jefty found her in Chicago and offered her a six week stint singing in the bar. It’s a great opening and despite a strange and not very attractive hairstyle, Lupino commands the picture from the start. She’s the star and her performance proclaims the fact. All the other three leads in Road House are older than Lupino but she exudes maturity and presence in her performance and Widmark and Holm were relative newcomers to film work (both were experienced stage actors). Cornel Wilde was more experienced after several years as a lead player, playing opposite Ida Lupino in Life Begins at Eight-Thirty (1942) and opposite other female stars such as Ginger Rogers, Maureen O’Hara, Gene Tierney and Linda Darnell. But in this opening sequence he seems slightly awed by Lupino.
The innovation in this film is that Ida sings. She’s a jazzy, bluesy singer with a low gravelly voice. She’s called ‘no voice’ both by the characters in the film and commentators on the film but somehow she ‘performs’ the songs in a darkened room with her cigarette smouldering on the piano (and burning it!). (See the clip below.) The piano playing could be dubbed (but I know Ida composed music, presumably she could play the piano). However, it’s quite believable that the audience in the bar is mesmerised. Two songs were released as singles I think – ‘One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)’ by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer and ‘Again’, specially written by Lionel Newman for the film. Lupino sings four in all. Lily is a hit with the punters and with both Jefty and Pete. In her earlier Warners film The Man I Love (1946), Ida was dubbed as a nightclub singer, so her singing here is a clear benefit of being a freelance – though I guess it might have had to be negotiated.
The film has three main sections. I’m not keen on the idea that Hollywood narratives always have three ‘acts’ – usually they have more in my readings. But in this film once Lily is established she becomes a softer character and it seems clear that we are heading into a classic triangular mating ritual in which both men will eventually want to marry her. Celeste Holm’s Susie, the cashier at Jefty’s, is the character squeezed out by Lily’s arrival. Lily seems to change quite dramatically once she has established herself. I believe in Lupino’s performance but I found the change abrupt. Much worse though is the plotting of the events which lead to the film’s climax, which don’t make too much sense, although I suppose they work on a kind of symbolic level. Perhaps if the film’s generic identities were a bit clearer it would be easier to understand.
Road House is often discussed as a film noir. Ida Lupino is also often described as a star of film noir, as well as the first woman to direct a film noir (The Hitch-Hiker, 1953). 1948 is certainly ‘peak noir’ in terms of the numbers of films with noir lighting and mise en scène and doomed characters trying to deal with the immediate post-war world. However, I’m not sure that Ida was ever a femme fatale as such in her studio pictures. Road House was photographed by Joseph LaShelle who had worked at Paramount on two classic Otto Preminger pictures, Laura (1944) and Fallen Angel (1945), both of which have noirish elements. ‘Jefty’s’ operates mainly at night and the latter part of the film is shot on what appears to be an extensive studio set of a forest at night. The film is certainly plausible as a noir in terms of lighting. The main problem for me is that the story assumes Jefty and Pete have been friends for a long time. Jefty comes from a wealthy family and has the capital whereas Pete lives above the bar. There is no attempt to invoke the war so the typical film noir scenario of men returning from war with problems doesn’t enter into the discussion. On the other hand, Lily is an ‘independent woman’ who could be in a film noir narrative. I think this is really a romance melodrama that eventually morphs into an action drama. Rather than the usual ‘significant objects’ of a film noir mise en scène, the predominant images of the final section are concerned with an over-determined masculinity as Jefty and and Pete battle over Lily. This is introduced in the early scenes of the film when Lily notes the stags heads in the bar and the office of Jefty’s. She even stays at the only hotel in town, which is called ‘The Antlers’.
Whatever genre categorisation is appropriate, Road House proved to be a popular film (Monthly Film Bulletin called it ‘slick entertainment’) with over $2.3 million in distributor rentals for 20th Century-Fox, the second most successful studio of the year in the US. 74 years later the film still has its fans and for many of them this is a film noir classic. It’s also a film in which Ida Lupino revels in being at the centre of the story. It does make you wonder what would have happened if Warner Bros. had put her in a similar film back in 1942. Here’s that first scene at the piano: