Director: Jean Negulesco
Cast: Ida Lupino, Richard Widmark, Cornel Wilde, Celeste Holm
Katie recently said that she was at a Borders trying to find Richard Widmark dvds. She mentioned Road House but I believe she opted for another choice. That was a mistake. This twisted film noir love triangle is excellent. Widmark plays a sociopath for the last time and he really goes all out. I don’t ever remember Lupino being this sexy before but she was a film noir staple indeed.
Jefty (Widmark) is the owner of a combination nightclub/bowling alley in a Midwestern rural town somewhere just south of the Canadian border. His best friend Pete — played by Cornel Wilde — is the manager. Friends since childhood, the boys did a tour in WWII together and when they returned, Jefty inherited the watering hole from his father. Pete has always been grateful for the job Widmark’s character gave him. One night Jefty returns from Chicago with a new performer named Lily Stevens (Lupino). Pete’s initial encounter w/ Lily is less than auspicious as he sees her in his office making herself at home in his chair like she owns the place. Any hope the manager has of being rid of her is dashed the first time the torch singer performs. She is a big hit and Jefty can’t keep all the customers away.
Everything Lily does gets under Pete’s skin. She leaves lit cigarettes everywhere, dresses too provocatively, and Lily has a superior attitude. For his part, Jefty seems to be clueless and insists that his two favorite people spend time together. The first time we see an inkling that the proprietor might be off his nut is when he adamantly demands that the manager give his new star bowling lessons. One of the supporting characters that resents the presence of Lily is Susie — played by Celeste Holm. She’s the cashier @ the Road House and she’s had an unrequited crush on Pete forever. As the picture progresses, it’s obvious to her that Pete and Lily are falling in love, even if they don’t realize it.
When Jefty returns from a hunting trip, he brags to his friend that he plans to marry Lily. All the quality time spent with the singer has evolved into a romance for Cornel’s character and he contradicts Jefty, claiming that he will be the one to marry her. Jefty’s love for his friend turns into bitter vitriol at the betrayal and he threatens repercussions. Widmark’s character sets up Pete for grand theft and our hero is found guilty. For whatever reason, the judge agrees to release Pete into Jefty’s custody for a probationary period. It becomes apparent to the viewer just how far gone the nightclub owner is when he forces Lily, Pete, and Susie to join him at his cabin in Canada for a holiday. Nothing good can come of this.
One of the things that struck me is how thankless Holm’s part is. She plays a heroic role in the ending but you’d expect someone who had just won an Oscar to get juicier opportunities than Susie. Negulesco does some fantastic things with Lily. I already mentioned the cigarettes which leave burn marks all over the piano like battle scars. He also has some fantastic costume ideas for her as well. She shows up for bowling in one of the most inappropriate, skimpy outfits I’ve ever seen. When Susie, Lily, and Pete have a picnic at the lake, the singer shows up without a bathing suit. Not to worry. One minute behind a bush and she emerges with one she fashioned out of scarves.
Probably my favorite aspect of this disc is the fabulous commentary given by Eddie Muller and Kim Morgan. Muller is one of the best film noir experts in the business and Morgan is a film historian who really knows her stuff. The commentary was recorded the week of Widmark’s death so that just adds to the reverence they have for the great actor. Muller’s fondness for Lupino knows no bounds and the two really do a good job of fleshing out all the actors backgrounds. At one point in celebration of Widmark the performer, Muller whips out a hip flask and he and Morgan drink a toast. Pretty cool. See Road House for the deliciousness of Lupino and the zaniness of a legendary actor. It’s a great film noir experience.
By James White