Arts Review

Ida Lupino: Independent Woman, A Review by Marc Glassman

Ida Lupino: Independent Woman, A Review by Marc Glassman featured image

Ida Lupino: Independent WomanTIFF Cinematheque Retrospective
Reitman Square, 350 King Street West
Ida Lupino’s retrospective runs from:
August 4 to September 2
Films include: The Bigamist; Outrage; Road House; The Big Knife; They Drive By Night; High Sierra

August 4 Film Review by Marc Glassman

Ida Lupino had one of the most fascinating careers of any of the stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age. One of the premier actresses of the 1940s, she was such an effective lead in popular Warner Brothers films like High Sierra (opposite Humphrey Bogart) and They Drive By Night (with George Raft), that she was often called “the poor man’s Bette Davis.” There was no doubt that she could act up a storm. Her epic unraveling in the courtroom scene in They Drive By Night must be seen to be believed: it’s remarkably intense and riveting. After quitting Warner’s, she became a major independent star in such films as Road House (1948), On Dangerous Ground (1952) and The Big Knife (1955). But it wasn’t Lupino’s acting alone that makes her career more relevant than ever. Beginning in 1949, she decided to pursue a second career behind the camera and became the only female director in Hollywood in the Fifties.

That’s right: the only one. There were literally no feature films directed by a woman from the time Dorothy Arzner retired in 1943 until Lupino made the appropriate Never Fear in 1949. Jesse Wente has created a noteworthy retrospective of Lupino’s work behind and in front of the camera in Ida Lupino: Independent Woman, which begins tonight at TIFF’s Cinematheque.

The films to be screened include some of Lupino’s finest efforts as an actress. In Road House, she wows a noisy crowd of Minnesota’s backwoods folk with a bluesy rendition of “One for My Baby (and one more for the road.” And it’s Lupino’s low and husky voice you hear; she refused to be dubbed. At the time the film was released, some critics praised her as an effective femme fatale because she breaks up the friendship between a nightclub owner played by a charismatic Richard Widmark and his best pal and manager (Cornel Wilde in relatively effective form). Viewing it now, Lupino’s Lily Stevens is simply a woman who has made a choice—and it’s the men who can be blamed for the histrionics that overwhelm the final third of the film.

She’s just as good as the idealistic wife in The Big Knife, a scandalously ignored adaptation of playwright Clifford Odets’ screed against Hollywood and the conformity of the Fifties. Playing off Jack Palance, who gives a surprisingly nuanced performance as a Hollywood star abandoning his principles, she is forceful, high tempered and sensual: a woman who is playing for keeps to hold onto her husband provided he remembers his populist roots.

Ida Lupino was born in England to a theatrical family that hearkened back to Renaissance Italy. One of her uncles, Lupino Lane, was an English stage legend between the two World Wars. She began starring in “B” budget British films when she was 14 and easily made the transition to Hollywood when Warners signed her in 1939. More striking than conventionally beautiful, she exuded a charisma that was monumentally effective in many films. And while her star faded by the late Fifties, she continued to act in film and TV until the late Seventies. (Perhaps her last major role was the mother of Steve McQueen’s Junior Bonner (1972) in Sam Peckinpah’s sympathetic modern day Western.)

But it is as a director that Lupino was a genuine pioneer. With her-then husband Collier Young, she formed The Filmakers in the late Forties. As an independent company, Filmakers made their own films and generally sold them to distributors or created one-off partnerships with a studio. That was how Lupino was able to become a director. The films made by the company were low budget (generally in the $200,000 range) and dealt with controversial topics.

In The Bigamist (1953), she sympathetically presents the lead, played by character actor Edmond O’Brien, as someone who has fallen in love with two good women and doesn’t want to disappoint them. O’Brien’s successful refrigerator salesman is so good at what he does because he understands people—and he sympathizes with his wife and business partner (Joan Fontaine) and the waitress he meets on a road trip (Lupino) all too well. An ambiguous ending allows modern viewers to enjoy a premise that could have gone south into moral goo all too easily.

Lupino’s masterpiece as a director is Outrage (1950), a film about rape and its consequences. The young and beautiful Anne (Mala Powers) is brutally raped—the camera pulls discreetly back during the act—and can’t recover her psychological equilibrium. She abruptly leaves her sympathetic fiancée and parents and flees to a small Western town, where no one knows her. There, she begins to get her spirit back together until an unwitting advance by a man provokes a savage response. Outrage depends on an unspecified good-will Christian spirit and a naïve Fifties belief in psychology to create a context where Anne can begin to become whole again. Though the film is dated, Mala Powers (never recognized as a fine actor) is wonderful as the damaged protagonist and Outrage remains a key early feminist work.

Immensely talented and a courageous maverick, Ida Lupino is deserving of the growing reputation she is garnering in recent years. Go to Ida Lupino: Independent Woman; you won’t regret it.

Click here for more film reviews from Marc Glassman.

Written by Marc Glassman
Adjunct Professor, Ryerson University
Director, Pages UnBound: the festival and series
Editor, POV Magazine
Editor, Montage Magazine
Film Critic, The New Classical FM
Film programmer, Planet in Focus

Tune in to hear Marc Glassman’s Art Reviews
Friday’s at 9:07am on Classical Mornings with Mike and Jean.

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