Saturday, November 28, 2009

Road House (20th Century-Fox, 1948)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last Wednesday night Charles and I watched two movies, one from a recent DVD purchase and one I’d recorded off TCM the same night. The new recording was Road House, a pretty good 1948 film noir about the rivalry between long-time friends Jefty (the odd first name is short for “Jefferson T.”) Robbins (Richard Widmark) and Pete Morgan (Cornel Wilde), co-owners of Jefty’s Road House, an odd establishment in a small town called Elton, 15 miles from the Canadian border (screenwriter/producer Edward Chodorov, adapting an “original” story by Margaret Gruen and Oscar Saul, carefully tells us Elton is 15 miles from the Canadian border but omits what U.S. state it’s in), and the falling-out between these old friends — not only have they known each other literally since boyhood, but Jefty actually took Pete in after they served together in World War II and allowed him to live in the road house as well as co-own and co-manage it. All that changes when Jefty hires singer/pianist Lily Stevens (Ida Lupino, top-billed and so hard-boiled one suspects you could strike a match on her face) for $250 a week for six weeks — twice her usual going rate — with the obvious intention of getting into her pants.

The first half-hour of Road House, directed by Jean Negulesco at 20th Century-Fox just after he had been fired by Jack Warner (ironically after having had the biggest success of his career to that time, Johnny Belinda — just as Warner fired John Huston after The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Key Largo; those films may have made money, but Warners’ number one grosser in 1948 was Doris Day’s film debut, Romance on the High Seas, and Warner decided that melodrama and noir were out and staked the future of his studio on more musical vehicles for Day) and with two other Warners refugees involved, studio head Darryl F. Zanuck and star Ida Lupino.

In his interview with Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg for the 1969 book The Celluloid Muse, Negulesco recalled that when he handed him the script for Road House, Zanuck told him, “This is a bad script. Three directors have refused it. They don’t know what they’re doing, because it’s quite good. Remember those pictures we used to make at Warner Bros., with Pat O’Brien and Jimmy Cagney, in which every time the action flagged we staged a fight and every time a man passed a girl she’d adjust her stocking or something, trying to be sexy? That’s the kind of picture we have to have with Road House. Now take it and do it like that.” Negulesco didn’t quite catch the insouciance of the Cagney-O’Brien buddy pictures (though Zanuck’s remark is indicative that he saw Widmark as another Cagney type, able to imbue psychopathology with a fascinating overlay of charm and a bad-guy actor who could also be used as a good-guy action hero, as he’d be in Panic in the Streets two years later), mainly because it was 1948 instead of the mid-1930’s and the moment for such high-spirited male-bonding pictures had passed and the Zeitgeist had got darker, at least in the movie world.

For the first half-hour Road House shines, mainly on the strength of Chodorov’s hard-boiled dialogue (especially for Lupino), and while it sags a bit in the middle it picks up again in the final third, when Jefty finds out just when he’s about to propose to Lily that she’s really in love with Pete, and he wreaks an unusual revenge on Pete: he frames him for stealing $2,600 from the road house’s weekly receipts (he admits to taking the $600 he was owed as a partner, but no more) and gets Pete paroled into his custody, thereby turning Pete into a virtual slave — and as the final reels progress Jefty gallops towards total psychopathology and threatens the lives of both Pete and Lily until Lily steals his pistol and shoots him in self-defense just as Jefty is about to crush her with a boulder.

Among the interesting attractions of Road House are Ida Lupino’s non-vocals — she can’t sing in the usual sense but she can croak out songs like “One for My Baby” and “Again” (written by the film’s musical director, Lionel Newman, with lyrics by one Dorcas Cochran, and like “The Four Winds and the Seven Seas” it was a hit for Vic Damone but was sung far better by Mel Tormé) with just the right sort of world-weariness and borderline competence one would expect from a singer at the level of talent and status in the business the script tells us she is — even though Celeste Holm had the second female lead (Susan, who works at the road house and has an unrequited crush on Pete even though she’s enough of a good sport to help Pete and Lily get together at the end) and I could readily imagine her thinking, “I was in Oklahoma!, one of the most successful musicals of all time, and I have to listen to Ida Lupino get all the songs?” I was also amused by one particularly imaginative use of music; in one scene Lily and Pete are hanging out in a boat on the lake near the road house, and as they listen to the radio Lily recalls that her mom wanted her to be an opera singer and that ambition got dashed when she suddenly lost her voice — and the piece on the soundtrack is “Elsa’s Dream” (“Einsam in trüben Tagen”) from Wagner’s Lohengrin, appropriate because like Elsa, Lily is hoping for a knight-like figure who will love her and get her out of her virtual enslavement to the bad guy.

About the only real weakness in Road House is the casting of Cornel Wilde — he’s a boring actor who never took to film noir and the incandescence of Richard Widmark (oddly billed fourth, even after his great success in Kiss of Death) and Ida Lupino makes him seem even worse by comparison. I can’t help wishing they could have got someone more to the noir manner born — someone like Robert Mitchum, Alan Ladd or even Dick Powell — instead of Wilde, who seemed to have used up all his great moments when he played Chopin.