Sunday, February 5, 2017

Noir Watch: Road House (1948)




Before all of you get excited, I did not watch the Patrick Swayze movie of the same name.  So settle the hell down.

Instead, I spent part of my Saturday watching the Ida Lupino starring noir, Road House (1948).  And, coincidentally, I finished the movie, looked at facebook and the Film Noir Foundation informed me that it was Lupino's birthday.  So, happy birthday, Ida.

I'd heard some good things about Road House, and I'm becoming a bit of a fan of Lupino.  Add in that the cast included Richard Widmark in crazy-villain mode, and it was one of my two rentals from Vulcan Video on Friday night.


Lupino arrives at a road house, a concept I'm mostly just familiar with from movies and a few mid-century books that take it for granted that you know what they're talking about.  But, basically, out in the sticks I guess they had (or have) what's essentially an all-purpose restaurant/ bar/ music hall just a bit outside of town.  As the only game in town for this sort of thing, I guess they were pretty lucrative.  In our case here, "Jefty's Road House" is doing well and has a bowling alley, to boot.  Lupino is a performer recruited from Chicago by the actual Jefty (Widmark), who seems to have a habit of bringing in entertainers and then believing that they're his girlfriend for the duration of their stay.

Jefty inherited the place from his father, and so it's his pal Peter Morgan (Cornel Wilde) who really runs the operation.  Looking to head off trouble, he tries to pay off Lupino's lounge singer and put her on a train back to Chicago, but she's Ida Lupino and is tough as hell, so no dice, mister.

Despite Jefty's stated infatuation (utterly unreciprocated by Lupino), sparks start to flare between Pete and Lupino, and in a curiously eroticized scene involving bowling, we realize these two are gonna go for each other.

In short, then tension of the film is centered around the age-old problem of dudes thinking they can call dibs on a woman when she enters the scene.

SPOILERS

Unfortunately, the part of the movie that lost me was the big set up that causes the tension going on in the back half of the movie.  Jefty, who never heard of a woman's agency, has decided he's going to marry Lupino and Pete, being an old pal, let's him know that they're actually in love and planning to marry.

Jefty decides he'll frame Pete for stealing $2000 (roughly $19K today), whom he just fired and who is leaving with everything he owns in two suitcases, to go with Lupino back to Chicago.  But...  the cops and court just take Jefty's word and circumstantial evidence over Pete's word.  And for reasons that make no sense, Pete never tells the court about their romantic rivalry nor points to the marriage license Jefty had secured himself to at least raise doubt.  Instead, he's put on probation in Jefty's custody for two years.

I mean, even a court appointed attorney for Pete with no reason to care would probably bring this stuff up at trial.

END SPOILERS

And, of course, a lot of tension grows.

At the end of the day, the movie is about the actual lack of agency of Lupino's character.  She's a noir dame, so she's been kicked around by life, had some bad luck.  She's a singer who wanted to do opera but her voice ground down to a sort of smokey Kathleen Turner-esque crooning, which works well in the bar scene.  But as a woman dependent on the goodwill of men employing her, she's got to put up with a lot.  And, boy howdy, does Jefty ask a lot of her.  Never even really dating her before deciding they're to get married.

Pete at least seems curious as to what she wants (even if he's utterly dismissive of Susie from the road house, who's sort of a talking doormat).

The movie does end with Lupino's final statement on what she thinks of Jefty - I'll leave you to see that.

If you can ignore the incredibly weak legal set up of poor Pete's frame-up, it's not all bad, so far as these sorts of movies go.  Lupino is great, Widmark is as despicable as ever, and I thought Cornel Wilde was a good latter-era John Garfield stand-in.

It may not be one of my favorite new movies, but it does have some interesting character stuff to offer, some good performances and a unique plot point to lock up our characters into a noirish-trap.  And, if you wanted to see a movie that dares to make bowling sexy, I've got your film.

Ida Lupino something something clunky bowling double entendre


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