The Crime-Movie Mastery of Ida Lupino
Toronto filmmaker Simon Ennis on the risk-taking greatness of the remarkable actor-director
Ida Lupino in ROAD HOUSE
Crime movies, film noirs in particular, have always spoken to me deeply. Likely as an outgrowth of my childhood obsession with Sherlock Holmes (especially the 1940s Fox/Universal series starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce), watching stories of violence, intrigue, and moral ambiguity in stylish black and white has always been a source of both comfort and inspiration to me. Give me Out of the Past (1947) or Double Indemnity (1944), or anything by Anthony Mann, Raoul Walsh, John Huston, Otto Preminger, and Sam Fuller, and I couldn’t be happier.
I lose myself in the worlds these movies create, more than I ever could in those of sci-fi or fantasy. They let me dream, but also set my brain on fire. Within the atmosphere of stylized menace, existential dread, greed, lust, and love gone wrong, inside the shadows and smoke-filled rooms, and, especially, in the rhythms of the taut, snappy and razor-sharp dialogue, I feel a profound connection to something more real than whatever is supposed to pass for realism in cinema.
It’s the alchemy that’s created when heavy artifice and style meet emotional truth that I’m drawn to most. When it works, there’s nothing more powerful, but getting there means walking a very fine edge. And nobody ever walked that edge better than Ida Lupino. In fact, she danced on it.
I first discovered Lupino while working at Revue Video (the long-lost east-end emporium of art-house VHS that employed a cadre of TIFF-associated folks — Kaz Radwanski, Stacey Donen, and yours truly, to name a few). I was chasing the noir dragon down a Richard Widmark-sized rabbit hole, following the actor’s patented brand of towheaded psychopathy from Fuller’s Pickup on South Street (1953) through Henry Hathaway’s Kiss of Death (1947) to Jean Negulesco’s Road House (1948), in which he plays a sadistic nightclub proprietor (memorably named “Jefty”) who’s holding a serious torch for sultry singer Lily Stevens, played by Ida Lupino.
As I popped in the tape of the latter, my manager, Derek — a lovably misanthropic skinhead who rarely had a kind word to say about anyone not named Powell or Pressburger — pooh-poohed my Widmarkian enthusiasm with a wave of the hand, a theatrical scoff, and the dismissive exclamation “Ugh… that old queen!”
But then he looked up from his computer and said, quite sincerely, “But Ida… Ida is a goddess!”
He was not wrong. It’s immediately apparent from her introduction in the film, playing solitaire in Widmark’s office and cracking wise to the straight-arrow club manager played by Cornel Wilde, that Lupino is something truly special — a smart, complicated, talented, vulnerable, brash, sexy, charismatic, and powerful presence. When she gets her second intro, as Lily gets behind the piano to croon a number to the road-house audience, the film stops, literally and figuratively shining a spotlight on her as she performs “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road).” It’s a nearly hoarse, deeply emotive, and quietly flamboyant performance, an entirely unexpected and absolutely captivating rendition of the Sinatra standard.
“She does more without a voice than anyone I’ve ever seen,” a character comments. It’s a neat line (and one that’s often quoted in articles about Lupino), but it’s also incorrect: Lupino’s Lily has a voice, one that pulls us into its space rather than coming out to get us. And within that space, there’s a phenomenal amount of control and virtuosity.
The same can be said about Lupino’s acting, in Road House and beyond. J. Hoberman called Lupino the most complex actress associated with film noir, and while that doesn’t begin to capture the precision, daring and many layers of nuance that make up her best noir performances, it’s a start. In looking at Lupino’s work, as both an actor and a director, for inspiration — something that I have been doing more than ever these days as I develop a noir-inspired feature-film project of my own — it’s the level of complexity and emotional depth that she reaches within the confines of the genre’s tropes that feels most vital.
An insight into where this comes from can perhaps be gleaned from her biography. Lupino was born in England to a theatrical family that had been working on stages since the Italian Renaissance. As a child, after appearing in one or two bit parts in movies, she was discovered while accompanying her mother to an audition. Young Ida was offered the part, a vampy seductress, instead. As she put it later in life, “at the tender age of 13 I set upon the path of playing nothing but hookers.”
Lupino made her way to Hollywood, where she signed with Warner Brothers and was primarily assigned Bette Davis cast-off parts for a number of frustrating years; often, she would turn these down and be put on suspension for her insolence. The combination of free time, lack of creative fulfillment, and a mind that was described by peers as both forever inquiring and bursting with ideas, led to Ida hanging around sets and learning everything she could about how to tell stories on film.
By the time she appeared in her first noir — Raoul Walsh’s They Drive by Night (1940), opposite George Raft and Humphrey Bogart — Lupino had dispensed with the ingénue parts she had played in the ’30s (including the female lead in the second Rathbone/Bruce Sherlock Holmes outing, 1939’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes) and established the screen persona that would become her trademark: fiercely independent, world-weary, and possessed of an unshakable gravitas. You can see that powerful combination in every frame of her performances through the ’40s and ’50s, in such films as Walsh’s High Sierra (1941), Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (on which Lupino reportedly helmed a few scenes herself), Road House, Don Siegel’s Private Hell 36 (the last feature that Lupino produced through her company The Filmakers), and Robert Aldrich’s The Big Knife (1955).
On the surface, many of these parts seem rote — a gangster’s moll, a lounge singer, a lounge singer who’s also a gangster’s moll — but they never come across that way because Lupino fills them with so much. She’s like a great blues musician, working within a simple, well-defined structure and scale but playing with such technical dexterity, taste, sophistication and (when it gets to the solo) abandon that she leaves you in awe. Pay close attention to any scene from Road House or High Sierra and you begin to marvel at all of her minute, perfectly calibrated choices, even as they come at you rapid fire. Every subtle eyebrow raise, half-grin, twist of a shoulder or pointed look says something. She’s constantly revealing a new shade of her character’s inner life: how she feels, what she wants, how she’s trying to be perceived, and the tiny check-ins to see whether it’s all working. Lupino the actor had a keen sense of what the world wanted from her, and the characters she portrays use that same knowledge, playing into it or else subverting it for their own gain, but also flashing glimpses of sensitivity and vulnerability that belie a deep understanding that nothing’s ever a sure thing. And remarkably for such a meticulously controlled performer, Lupino’s performances get very raw: when she breaks, she leaves it all on the table.
Her films as a director are just as thoughtful, stylish, empathic and bursting with ideas. Her one true noir, The Hitch-Hiker (1953), is, for my money, up there with Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945) as one of the bleakest, most terrifying, and most brutal examples of the genre. The masterful way Lupino uses the sun-drenched desert landscape is of particular inspiration to me, as my forthcoming film, West Locust, takes place on the badlands of Alberta, a similarly stark, cracked-earth expanse.
Writing (and ultimately directing) characters that live inside a stylized crime-movie world means trying to walk that fine edge and create the alchemy I mentioned above. It’s a dangerous thing to attempt, because you want to honour the genre without simply rehashing old tropes, indulging in nostalgia for its own sake or, at worst, playing an embarrassing kind of dress-up with style when you don’t have any substance to back it up. (Thankfully, there are no fedoras in my script.) You have to be thoughtful and meticulous about which conventions you uphold and which ones you subvert.
My approach has been to try to both discover and also leave room for layers of emotional complexity, depth and, ultimately, surprising truths within the main characters. Inside my story of grifts, guns, sex, phony religion, desperate double crosses and daring escapes, I’m trying to examine and elicit feelings that are unexpected, raw and nuanced.
For Derek at Revue, “Ida” might have been a goddess. For me, she’s more like a teacher — or maybe a patron saint.
Simon Ennis is the writer-director of the feature films Lunarcy! and You Might As Well Live. He is currently in development on the colour crime movie West Locust, which he is currently workshopping through TIFF Studio.