Blu-ray Review - Ida Lupino: Filmmaker Collection [Not Wanted / Never Fear / The Hitch-Hiker / The Bigamist] | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Sunday, May 24th, 2020  

Ida Lupino: Filmmaker Collection [Not Wanted / Never Fear / The Hitch-Hiker / The Bigamist]

Studio: Kino Lorber Studio Classics

Oct 29, 2019 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Ida Lupino rose to prominence in the early 1940s as a contract player for Warner Brothers, starting opposite tough leading men like Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson in films like High Sierra, They Live By Night and The Sea Wolf. Once referring to herself as “the poor man’s Bette Davis”, Lupino’s self-deprecation and self-awareness served her well as a performer; she had the hardness and anger to go toe-to-toe with violent male protagonists played by Bogart and Robert Ryan, but also possessed a weary naturalism that made her as believable playing an over-worked waitress as she was playing a gangster’s moll. Lupino’s acting career never reached the heights of similarly tough actresses like Davis or Barbara Stanwyck, but she left a mark on Hollywood history all her own. Over the course of seven feature films - all but one made between 1949 and 1953 - Lupino became one of the only women to direct films under the old Hollywood studio system.

Following an acrimonious split with Warner Brothers in 1947, Lupino founded an independent production company - in keeping with Lupino’s direct and to-the-point style, it was called The Filmmakers - with her co-writer/co-producer/husband Collier Young. Lupino’s first directing gig came about by accident when director Elmer Clifton suffered a heart attack during production on Not Wanted, the first film produced by The Filmmakers. Released in 1949, Not Wanted became a template for Lupino’s filmography: low-budget films with a heavy focus on the female point of view, often addressing hot-button or taboo issues ripped from contemporary headlines.

Not Wanted stars Sally Forrest as a recent high school graduate who falls in love with a traveling musician and runs away from home to follow him to the big city. After he abandons her, she attempts to begin a relationship with her co-worker, only to discover she is pregnant. Lupino’s take on the material feels rooted in a prescient fascination with the burgeoning youth culture that would explode into theaters in the mid-1950s via films like Rebel Without a Cause. But instead of focusing on angry, disaffected young men, Lupino explores the perspective of a directionless, sheltered young woman, raised in the relative comfort of the suburbs by parents who cannot connect with her. The easy out would have been to make Forrest’s character - also named Sally - a straight-A go-getter whose life was ruined by an uncharacteristic mistake. Instead, Sally is a forgetful, unambitious naif easily seduced by a guy who is very obviously bad news. Lupino makes the point that Sally is no more deserving of the struggles that follow - abandonment, living in a hospital for unwed mothers, being arrested for trying to steal a baby after putting her own up for adoption - for not being a paragon of virtue and femininity.

Although Lupino made Not Wanted without traditional studio oversight, it was still bound by the moral and social strictures of its time. Abortion is never presented as one of Sally’s options and at no point does she ever appear visibly pregnant. Nonetheless, Forrest’s heartbreaking lead performance and Lupino’s surreal visual flourishes - the atonal piano music and swirling visuals as Sally is wheeled into the delivery room feel closer to a horror film than a melodrama - keep the film firmly grounded in its sympathy for the plight of an unwed woman in a world that only wants to blame and punish them.

Lupino followed Not Wanted with Never Fear, also released in 1949 and also featuring leads Sally Forrest and Keefe Brasselle. They story of a young dancer who falls into despair after she’s stricken with polio, the film is based on Lupino’s own experience contracting the disease when she was a teenager. Released during the height of the polio epidemic in the United States, Never Fear shares much with its predecessor beyond the two leads and a mind for social justice. Both films feel like precursors to the “TV movies of the week” that would become popular in later decades, both in their didacticism and their low budgets and functional filmmaking style. But whereas later films of this nature were often moralistic and accusatory, Lupino’s work always comes from a place of sympathy and understanding, while still being blunt and forthright in terms of both filmmaking and storytelling. Forrest shows impressive range as Carol Williams, who is far more worldly and self-confident than Sally of Not Wanted, but nonetheless collapses into self-loathing and despair following her diagnosis. Brasselle reprises his role as the ‘supportive via relentless negging’ love interest from the previous film.

Never Fear feels particularly rickety as a production with missing frames and scenes where the lighting seems far darker than the filmmakers intended, even accounting for it being made at the height of the film noir movement when dark visuals were in vogue. It’s the least interesting by far of the four films in the set - and possibly the least relevant to modern audiences given the eradication of polio -  but still feels valuable for its early depiction of the struggles of disabled individuals existing in a society that does not cater to them. The film also further reveals Lupino’s sympathy for people engaging in pre-marital or extra-marital relationships, laying the groundwork for the final film in the set.

The Hitch-Hiker is probably the best known of the four films in this box set, but also feels like the greatest outlier. Although it features a ripped-from-the-headlines plot - in this case the story of Billy Cook, who murdered six people while hitching from Missouri to California in 1950 - the film is more overtly concerned with being a thriller than a socially aware drama. It’s also the only film in the set to feature virtually no female speaking parts, with the three leads and most of the supporting cast being men. Retroactively billed as the only classic film noir directed by a woman, The Hitch-Hiker falls into the noir subcategory defined by Imogen Sara Smith in her book In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City, bringing the moral rot and visual starkness of the genre to the sun-blasted highways and deserts of the American Southwest and Mexico. William Talman plays the titular antagonist, introduced only via his boots as he murders a couple and exits their car. He kidnaps a pair of blue-collar guys played by Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy and forces them to drive him south of the border, with the America and Mexican police in hot pursuit.

Episodic and rambling even at 71 minutes, The Hitch-Hiker often feels more like a grimmer, longer episode of a television show than a feature film. This is in part due to the sequences of the cops painstakingly detailing their tactics and plans, a contemporary fascination that was prominent in the films and television of the late 40s and early 50s, continuing through to the CSI shows of today. The sequences involving the three leads take on a grim fatalism via Lupino’s blunt directing and scripting style. Talman’s Emmett Myers berates and brutalizes his captives to the point of repetitiveness, although Lupino is able to wring tension out of a number of brief, tense set pieces, including one involving a broken car horn, one involving a forced shooting contest, and another predicated on Myer’s ability to literally sleep with one eye open.

Vicious by the standards of the 1950s, The Hitch-Hiker never quite coheres as much more than a straight-forward thriller. O’Brien and Lovejoy never find room to give their characters much depth beyond the sympathy that anyone would feel for a hostage to a madman. As the titular character, Talman is a peevish, barking psychopath with no redeeming qualities. The make-up effects that provide him with a lazy eye look cheap in a 2k restoration, but nicely accent his other eye - naturally bulging and wide - and his sallow cheeks to give him a memorably gruesome visage. He feels miscast in terms of age - the character is 28 and Talman was a rough-looking 38 at the time of shooting - with Myers leather jacket and sneering nihilism announcing him as a worst-case scenario version of the characters being played by Marlon Brando and James Dean at the time. Casting someone half his age would have surfaced the topicality that Lupino was striving for in a more convincing way.

The final film in the box set is the most interesting and fully formed version of Lupino’s attempts to imbue real social issues with dramatic life. Perhaps it feels so vital because it’s the only film she directed that she also starred in, alongside Edmond O’Brien and Joan Fontaine. The Bigamist centers on O’Brien’s character of Harry Graham, a San Francisco salesman who is attempting to adopt child with his wife Eve, played by Fontaine. A background check conducted by an especially through adoption agent uncovers that Harry is also married to Phyllis Martin in Los Angeles, where he travels regularly for business, and that he has a child with her. Much of the film unfolds via flashback, as Harry details how he grew distant from his wife and fell in love with a very different woman.

Extra-marital affairs and divorce were treated one of two ways in the Golden Age of Hollywood; they were either comedic fodder for screwball comedies or ways to indicate a character was morally dubious in a drama. The Bigamist approaches these issues with a great deal of nuance, especially by the standards of the 1950s when the sanctity of the nuclear family was at its zenith. Harry’s love for Eve is unwavering in his mind and even though her name and her position as a woman with her own career and goals would mark her as an unfit wife by the social standards of the era, you don’t hire Joan Fontaine to play a character if you want the audience to see her as anything other than loving and sympathetic. While the distance between Eve and Harry is genuine, she is never portrayed as withholding or unloving, driving him into the arms of another woman.

Phyllis, as played by Lupino herself, is treated with equal specificity and kindness. Although Lupino finds some room for her trademark self-deprecation - O’Brien’s character initially describes her as “a funny little mouse” - Phyllis is never depicted as a seductress or a home wrecker. A lonely waitress who received a reverse Dear John letter from her husband during the war, Phyllis is looking for a connection but doesn’t try to control Harry or ask him for anything beyond what he’s able to give. It’s a terrific performance from Lupino, restrained and melancholic, strong but tragic.

It would be easy to argue that both women are over-idealized, but that seems like a justified overcorrection given the tendency for both character archetypes to be demonized, as well as the thoughtful performances by Fontaine and Lupino. O’Brien plays Harry with a sense of pent-up exhaustion, tortured by his double life but unable to commit one way or the other. The film’s extreme sympathy toward his plight is likely inspired by Lupino herself, who had divorced her producing partner Collier Young several years earlier after getting pregnant with the child of her subsequent husband. That she and Young continued to work together after this speaks the mindset of the film, which is understanding and honest even in ways not related to affairs or bigamy. Anyone who watches a lot of old movies will be struck by the simple scene in which O’Brien and Fontaine are both sitting on a bed - with neither actor’s feet touching the ground - as he sweetly unbuttons the back of her blouse. Even that relatively chaste scene would have violated multiple aspects of the Hays Code.

While Not Wanted, Never Fear and The Hitch-Hiker all end on notes of hard-won optimism, The Bigamist leaves the audience with a sense of tragic inevitability. The film ends with a devastating courtroom scene in which a judge states that Harry has likely lost both of the women he loves and that the suffering he has inflicted on himself is likely greater than any punishment the judge could hand down. It makes for a powerful cap on an impressive boxset, and a testament to the unflinching honesty and emotional reality that Lupino spent her career trying to bring to the American cinema. 



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