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A minor classic of forties film noir with major pleasures, Road House (1948) is an unusual, and unusually fascinating, variation on the genre. Instead of the usual urban jungle, this road house is decidedly rural, a bar and bowling alley in the thick forest outside of a small town near the Canadian border. Ida Lupino is Lily, the big city chanteuse who sashays into the joint, all scuffed cynicism and brassy attitude. She's the new "discovery" of the hopelessly smitten owner Jefty (Richard Widmark), who has discarded a string of similar sexy discoveries over the years. Cornel Wilde, at his most brawny beefcake and stolid, is the tree trunk of a manager Pete, who instantly clashes with this sassy dame. The antagonism is instant, the attraction a matter of time and the showdown with the explosively jealous and possessive Jefty inevitable, but the method of his madness (and it does indeed turn into full blown madness) is genuinely pathological. Even in the realm of film noir, a genre rife with unstable personalities and violent reactions to emotional betrayals, Jefty's obsessively plotted vengeance is unusual to say the least.
Road House may sound tawdry, with a title that evokes a rowdy juke joint (the design suggests a rural nightclub bar with an aggressively rustic design), a romantic triangle that turns pathological and a performance from Widmark that evolves from immature hothead to dangerously erratic sadist. But for all its urban toughness in a back country town setting, it's a handsomely made film with adult banter and a tough cookie with a tender center in British-born but thoroughly Americanized and streetwise Ida Lupino. It was her first film since leaving Warner Bros., where she had been under contract for years, fighting her way out of ingnue roles for tougher, stronger parts. She wanted more control over her roles and her films and made it happen with her first project as an independent agent. She discovered the original unpublished story (then called The Dark Love), bought and developed the property, and sold it to Darryl Zanuck at 20th Century Fox as a package with herself attached as star.
Lupino stage manages her introduction beautifully, found sitting presumptively behind the desk of club manager Pete, her long legs stretched out with a casual sense of arrogance and disdain that instantly antagonizes him. Being the newest "discovery" from Jefty, who has a history of being a pushover for good looks and no ear for talent, no one expects much from Lily, especially when she debuts 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. Sitting at the piano, she places her ever-present cigarette on the instrument (where it inevitably burns a groove into the wood) and starts performing for the crowd. Lupino didn't just take up the challenge of doing her own singing in her own untrained, husky voice, she staked her debut performance on an iconic saloon song of lost love and late night regret: "One For My Baby (And One More For the Road)." As Susie (Celeste Holm), the cashier, observes with amazement and appreciation, "She does more without a voice than anyone I ever heard." Lupinio's voice is indeed weak and not particularly musical, but her smoky delivery is evocative, filled with understanding and regret as if she's lived the Johnny Mercer's lyrics of wounded hearts and bruised romanticism. Lupino sings four songs in all, including "Again," a tune penned especially for the film which went on to top the Hit Parade.
While Lupino holds the center, Richard Widmark steals the rest of the film as Jefty, the impulsive owner of the road house. It was only Widmark's third film (he's fourth billed in the credits) but he had made a striking debut in Kiss of Death (1947) as giggling psychopath Tommy Udo, a sadistic killer who (in the film's most memorable scene) pushes an old lady in a wheelchair down a staircase. The part of Jefty was originally developed for an older man (Lee J. Cobb was considered), but Widmark's volatility and edgy menace in Kiss of Death and The Street with No Name (1948) inspired Lupino and Zanuck to rework the part. Making Jefty the same age as Pete had the added bonus of giving the romantic rivalry a more competitive edge and personal grounding. Zanuck described Widmark's presence in the role as "like sitting on a volcano." The threat not just of violence but mad menace is always under the surface. Jefty is a more shaded character than Tommy Udo, an emotionally immature man whose attraction to Lily increases the more aloof she becomes, and Widmark fills him out with a convincing balance of swagger and anger and a terrifying drive of self-righteous revenge in the face of betrayal.
Like Ida Lupino, director Jean Negulesco had just left a long career at Warner Bros., where he had made such handsome crime thrillers as The Mask of Dimitrios (1944) and Nobody Lives Forever (1946) as well as the elegant melodramas Humoresque (1946) and Johnny Belinda (1948, for which he received his only Oscar® nomination as Best Director). He sculpts the world of Road House almost entirely in the studio, from the self-consciously countrified road house itself (with its mounted deer heads adorning the walls) to the slices of Jefty's cabin in the woods, the picnic at the lake and the escape into the forest. Shrouded in fog and mist, there's nothing realistic about them, more primordial symbol than naturalistic location, but they have the same oppressive, claustrophobic feel of the shadowy city sets of conventional noir and they set the atmosphere of the film off nicely.
Producer: Edward Chodorov
Director: Jean Negulesco
Screenplay: Edward Chodorov, story by Margaret Gruen & Oscar Saul
Cinematography: Joseph LaShelle
Art Direction: Maurice Ransford, Lyle R. Wheeler
Music: Cyril J. Mockridge
Film Editing: James B. Clark
Cast: Ida Lupino (Lily Stevens), Cornel Wilde (Pete Morgan), Celeste Holm (Susie Smith), Richard Widmark (Jefty Robbins), O.Z. Whitehead (Arthur), Robert Karnes (Mike).
by Sean Axmaker