“Road House” is one of those films that could possibly be classified as a noir or a melodrama ,still the look, the style, especially in the second half of the film makes it hard to deny its film noir lineage. This is especially due to cinematographer Joseph LaShelle’s (Laura, Fallen Angel, Where the Sidewalk Ends, Psycho) ominous lighting crammed with and fog and darkness in the climatic final scenes. The plot is a ménage a trios right from hell, two men in love with a beautiful woman. A tawdry tale filled with booze, smokes and unrequited desires. Jefty Robbins (Richard Widmark) has just hired Lily Stevens, bringing her in from Chicago, to sing at his roadhouse located a couple of miles from the Canadian border. Jefty’s long time friend, Pete Morgan (Cornel Wilde) manages the place for him and sees Lily as just another in a long line of babes Jefty has hired and Pete has to fire after Jefty gets tired of them.
Jefty inherited the roadhouse from his father. While he may not be a spoiled rich kid, he seems to be someone who has had everything handed to him without much effort on his part and when he tires of any possession they get disposed of, women included. For Jefty, Lily though is different, he wants to marry her though she has displayed no interest or given any encouragement to him on her part.
Pete takes an instant dislike to Lily; however after Jefty goes off with some friends for a few days on a hunting trip they get to spend time together and fall in love. When Jefty returns with a marriage license all set to marry Lily he is instead confronted by Pete who tells him he and Lily are in love. Jefty, who up to this point in the film has been a regular guy, suddenly metamorphoses’ into Tommy Udo, Widmark’s psychotic gangster in “Kiss of Death.” Jefty frames Pete for a robbery at the roadhouse, getting him convicted and facing a two to ten year stretch in prison, only to convince the Judge just before sentencing, to suspend the sentence on the condition that Pete serves two years on probation in Jefty’s charge. Jefty’s maniacal games attempting to control Pete and Lily’s lives eventually leads to a deadly and decisive chase through the woods as they approach the Canadian border.
Ida Lupino has top billing and earns it! She is smart, tough, sexy, vulnerable and all shades in between, a no-nonsense, hard bitten, tough woman whose backstory one must assume is filled with a pocketbook full of bad dreams. Our first shot of her is in Pete Morgan’s office, her bare leg up on his desk, a cigarette dangling from her sensuous lips as she plays solitaire. Lupino even does her own singing and frankly her voice is limited though if you have ever been in a similar small town joint like Jefty’s you have probably seen worst. Give her credit for not insisting on a voice dubbing. Among her four or five songs is the classic “One for My Baby, One More for the Road.” My only complaint with Lupino is her Princess Leia hairdo that she wore throughout the film. It reminds me of another noir hair disaster, the Barbara Stanwcyk blonde wig in the otherwise magnificent “Double Indemnity.” One has to wonder in both cases, what the filmmakers were they thinking. As for Cornel Wilde, the best that can be said is that he is stiff.
In only his third film Widmark who had fourth billing battles Lupino for who is going to steal the show. I would say Lupino owns the first half of the film but once Widmark releases his inner Tommy Udo in the second half, it is all Richard. Celeste Holms is the fourth member of the cast. As Susie, she works for Jefty at the roadhouse and has had a crush on Pete. She also has some of the best lines in the early part of the film. When Sam the bartender (Jack G. Lee), after hearing Lily sing for the first time says, “Hey, Susie, What do you think of this one? She something, isn’t she? Susie’ sarcastically responds “If you like the sound of gravel” She also tells Jefty “She does more without a voice than anybody I ever heard.” The screenplay is courtesy of Edward Chodorov based on a story called “Dark Love” by Margaret Gruen and Oscar Saul which was originally commissioned by Lupino.
If anything hinders “Road House” it is the artificial setting which today stand out as typical movie sets. Coming from a studio that in the past year or so prior to this film released realistic location shot films like “Boomerang!”, “The Naked City” and “Call Northside 777” makes it a bit disappointing . Still the film’s storyline leads to a good climax and the performances by Lupino and Widmark along the some nice photography make this a film well worth seeing.
[…] Prolific John Greco, who recently retired, but is as tireless as ever on the film front, has another one of his excellent essays up at “24 Frames” on a celebrated Jean Negulesco film: https://twentyfourframes.wordpress.com/2010/04/11/road-house-1948-jean-negulesco/ […]
This sounds great from your review – I’m trying not to leave endless comments saying, wow, I haven’t seen this but must do so… but, that is exactly what I want to say about this one! I want to see more Lupino films, and am intrigued by your description of her doing her own singing, and I also like Negulesco.
I have been watching a lot of Lupino’s films lately and she is such a fantastic actress. She would have never made a career as a singer but her voice kind of fits the ambiance of a small local out of the way place like the one in this film. thanks Judy!
Definitely a solid Negulesco noir here, with a great performance from Lupino. Aside from Lupino (and Widmark, although there are certainly a number of better performances from him) the one who stands out most to me is Joseph LaShelle. Yes, the film is set bound and it shows, particularly toward the end, but LaShalle does some magnificent things in filming the roadhouse and really capture the claustrophobic feel of everything.
Great piece here, John, of an underrated film.
Thanks Dave, I know this film figured prominently in your countdown. The road house had a country quality to that your think would be counter the noir sensibility but it works and I think you can credit that to LaShelIe’s claustrophobic (as you point out) camerawork more than to art direction.
“This is especially due to cinematographer Joseph LaShelle’s (Laura, Fallen Angel, Where the Sidewalk Ends, Psycho) ominous lighting crammed with and fog and darkness in the climatic final scenes.”
I quite agree John is this noir clarification, which does move the film from melodrama, though of course as you assert it can be argued otherwise. It’s study of paranoid men also place it within the parameters. It’s also true that Lupino dominates early, while Widmark, an always explosive, charismatic presence, moves into his own in the latter half. But yes, it’s rather a flawed film, and Lyle Wheeler’s sets are superficial, registering “movie space” than on location photography. In the end I’d say this is a conventional film, boosted by the performances. As such it’s fun. As always your magnifying glass treatment is enlightening.
Thanks as always Sam for your excellent thoughts.
Love Widmark’s performance to bits!
Widmark is always great! Have you seen KISS OF DEATH?