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Road House

Road House(1948)

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"She does more without a voice than anyone I ever heard," someone says of torch singer Ida Lupino in Road House (1948). It's a smart line in a smart film, for by having the movie acknowledge that Lupino doesn't have a great voice, we are kept from criticizing Lupino or the movie for this reason ourselves. There's clearly something else about Lupino that mesmerizes her audiences (both in the movie and in us watching the movie). It's a mixture of her smoky, sultry voice, her ever-present cigarette, her seen-it-all toughness mixed with lingering vulnerability, and the emotion she clearly feels while singing. It's one of Lupino's all-around sexiest, and best, performances.

Road House, beautifully directed by Jean Negulesco, is certainly one of the more underrated movies of the 1940s. A melodrama in the film noir style, it stars, in addition to Lupino, the dynamic Richard Widmark in only his third film, the solid and usually underappreciated Cornel Wilde, and Celeste Holm in a thankless role she handles with ease. The story is essentially a love triangle (or quadrangle if you count Holm) which develops after road house owner Widmark hires Lupino to sing and play piano for his customers. He also falls hard for her, but Lupino is clearly out of his league as far as maturity levels go. Instead, she and road house manager Wilde gradually fall in love after a rocky start. When Widmark finds out, he exacts revenge in a deliciously psychopathic manner.

Widmark's performance, in fact, eventually turns into a revisiting of his famous debut as Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death (1947); even Udo's giggle comes back. By the final section of Road House, where Widmark is basically keeping the other characters hostage in a cabin, he is simply terrifying. One feels as if Widmark could explode at any moment, and that's really where much of the picture's noir feeling comes from. Even though Widmark was still new to movie audiences, his persona had already been so strongly established with Tommy Udo that Widmark's mere presence brought a sense of menace and doom. That said, Widmark still shades his character with underpinnings of loneliness; one feels for the guy when he learns that Lupino truly doesn't love him back, and that makes him a lot more interesting than he otherwise might have been. (On the DVD's commentary track, Eddie Muller intriguingly suggests that Widmark's character may even be a virgin.)

All four main players have a field day with the razor-sharp dialogue by screenwriter Edward Chodorov (who also produced); Road House is positively brimming with sarcastic, witty one-liners. And while Widmark is memorable, it's really Ida Lupino's movie. Not only does she get a meaty role, she clearly revels in wearing one stunning '40s outfit after another; at one point, she even fashions a sexy, makeshift bikini out of two scarves and proceeds to dive into a lake. Lupino also enjoyed the chance to sing on screen. While she had played singers before, notably in The Man I Love (1947), her voice had always been dubbed - but not here. Lupino's renditions of "One For My Baby" and "Again" proved very popular at the time and are still quite evocative. Helping Lupino out are excellent musical arrangements and orchestrations by Earle Hagen. As if all that isn't enough, Road House even offers up an outstandingly well-staged bar fight, with another satisfying fistfight at movie's end.

Fox Home Entertainment's DVD of Road House shows off cinematographer Joseph LaShelle's crisp visuals and hard angles extremely well, and his silky night photography looks especially fine. Fox has included nice extras on this disc. A 19-minute documentary, "Killer Instincts: Richard Widmark and Ida Lupino at Twentieth Century Fox," features good clips and talking-head comments by film historians who are familiar from other Fox Film Noir releases. There's also a commentary track from Eddie Muller and Kim Morgan, an interactive pressbook and a superb selection of still photos.

Fox has done away with the packaging design of its previous noir releases. Gone are the printed inserts and the spine numbering system, which is too bad for collectors. On the other hand, the design still uses original artwork and taglines, which are much appreciated.

Also receiving a new Fox Film Noir release are Moontide (1942), starring Ida Lupino and Jean Gabin, and Elia Kazan's first-rate, much-delayed Boomerang! (1947), starring Dana Andrews as a D.A. who switches sides mid-case to defend the man he had been prosecuting.

For more information about Road House, visit Fox Home Entertainment.To order Road House, go to TCM Shopping.

by Jeremy Arnold