Road House (1948)


The character setup in this classy noir potboiler couldn’t be better, with Ida Lupino a sensation as the mountain lodge chanteuse who knows her way around men. For its first two acts the show is all but perfect.

Road House
KL Studio Classics
1948 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 95 min. / Street Date September 13, 2016 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring Ida Lupino, Cornel Wilde, Celeste Holm, Richard Widmark, O.Z. Whitehead, Robert Karnes, George Beranger, Ian MacDonald, Ray Teal.
Joseph LaShelle
Film Editor James B. Clark
Original Music Cyril J. Mokridge
Written by Edward Chodorov, Margaret Gruen, Oscar Saul
Produced by Edward Chodorov
Directed by Jean Negulesco

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

For the first two-thirds of Jean Negulesco’s Road House I thought I was seeing one of the best films noirs of the late 1940s, and even when it sagged at the end it came up with a pretty good score. Thanks to the disc commentary, I learned that Margaret Gruen and Oscar Saul’s original script went through a major rewrite by Edward Chodorov, who pulled back on the sordid details overall, and held off on the violent action until the last reel. The object was to make the story palatable for the Production Code, but the effect was to allow a terrific cast to inject interesting subtleties into their roles. We’re told that Fox chief Darryl Zanuck oversaw the overhaul; but the character dynamics are boosted by Ida Lupino’s sterling performance. Want to see an ’40s woman character that isn’t a femme fatale or romantic pawn?  Ida’s your gal.

Road House’s almost casual story flow leaves room for some great character detail. Near the Canadian border, Peter Morgan (Cornel Wilde) manages the nightclub / bowling alley / bar / lodge for his boss Jefty Robbins (Richard Widmark), a snappy dresser who makes frequent trips to Chicago to hire entertainers. Singer-pianist Lily Stevens (Ida Lupino) shows up and must immediately establish her independence. Jefty has wrongly assumed that she’s interested in him, while Pete treats her as if she’s just another girl Jefty’s brought by for purposes other than work. To their surprise, and to the dismay of cashier Susie Smith (Celeste Holm), who loves Pete from afar, Pete and Lily overcome their tough-act introduction and fall for each other. There’s only one problem: the possessive and manipulative Jefty is enraged by his friends’ perceived treachery. He takes steps to force them to doing his bidding — by having Pete arrested for grand larceny.

Face it, a lot of our favorite noirs started with a trick plot, or a gimmick, or a clever writer’s new twist for a crime angle. Road House was originally about unsympathetic hardboiled characters betraying each other in a sordid situation. We’re told that Susie and Jefty were supposed to be married, which would have pushed the film strongly in the direction of The Postman Always Rings Twice. Writer Chodorov instead discards the stereotypes and gives us people we have to figure out for ourselves. Jefty Robbins is an optimistic glad-hander and apparent womanizer. His relationship with his manager Pete seems a tiny bit strained, as if Jefty’s previous hirings have led to awkward or expensive problems. Pete sizes up Lily too quickly, and thinks he can put her on a bus out of town. He receives a slap for his trouble, and realizes that Lily isn’t what he thought she was.

All this happens in a great atmosphere; Jefty’s Lodge is an impressively designed showcase that somehow has a bowling alley adjacent to the piano room. Somehow we don’t worry that the solo singer and her piano will be drowned out by the noise. The pecking order among the club’s workers is made apparent by the old-fashioned pinsetters that seemingly live behind the alleys, returning balls and manually resetting the pins. The bartender clams up when Pete approaches Lily, tipping us to a work atmosphere in which the employees stay clear of friction with their bosses. In films noir we usually take for granted the fact that any actress introduced as a singer will sound great, even if she must be dubbed by somebody else. Road House takes the time to let Lily be a little unsure of herself. Her voice turns out to be unusually low, almost raspy, but it sounds good. The patrons appreciate her, Pete is impressed, and Susie realizes that Lily has one more thing she can’t compete with. Jefty congratulates himself on his good judgment, and makes a unilateral promise that Lily is going to become his girl.

The dialogue is good, and not stylized to the point that everybody speaks as if coached by Raymond Chandler. Reactions are more natural. Ignoring Jefty’s overtures, at an early stage Lily decides that Pete is the man for her, and pours it on as only a determined woman can. It’s one of the noir style’s most potentially healthy relationships – it feels honest and mature.

When the lovers decide to go off on their own Road House becomes a conventional noir, presumably returning to the original script. Jefty frames Pete for theft and then manages to get the court to parole Pete, but assign his custody to Jefty. It’s a unique situation, but it strains credibility. Flawless at projecting strength, Cornel Wilde doesn’t convey the vulnerability of a man forced into a humiliating situation by a romantic rival. We wonder why no legal appeal is possible — it would seem that any casual observer could be persuaded that Jefty’s motives aren’t so pure. The police chief seems honest – has he no knowledge of Jefty’s personality?

Control freaks like Jefty can’t hide their maladjustment — he’s the kind of guy forever insisting that other people keep their side of his imagined bargains. In a more measured conclusion, we might get a chance to ponder a frequent male syndrome: when does self-confidence and high self-esteem make one insensitive to the feelings of other people? When Jefty’s anger reveals him as a (less interesting) fiendish madman, tormenting his camping guests with the idea that somebody will be murdered, Road House becomes the same as any number of strained noir ordeals, with a small group of people fighting to survive in the woods.

The damage is not so bad as to sink the movie – this is still an entertaining winner. But the buildup was much more than that. When the script was rearranged nobody seems to have made an effort to give the remarkable Celeste Holm anything to do besides watch from the sidelines – either than, or perhaps something has been cut out. Her Susie and Ida’s Lily are interesting women, too classy to carry on a standard jealous competition. If Road House included scene or sidebar in which Lily and Susie leveled with each other about life and men, it could have put Road House over the top, into greatness.

Jean Negulesco’s slick direction elicits the best from his actors, making it seem as if the drama stemmed from their personalities, not a screenplay. Ida Lupino is marvelously smooth and natural, Cornel Wilde is quite good and Richard Widmark spot-on with his character, almost selling Jefty’s contradictions. Widmark seems to have been instructed to give the finale everything, including his Tommy Udo chortling laugh. That sick laugh turns Jefty into a cartoon character, when Road House instead wants to continue in a more adult vein.

The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Road House is a polished HD scan of this beautifully shot studio production — Joe LaShelle makes that elaborate Lodge set look terrific, inviting, a showcase for what America wanted in the late 1940s. Ida Lupino receives most of the adoring close-ups, and the showcase to warble a quartet of standards in fine form. Arlen and Mercer’s “One for My Baby and One More for the Road” is a winner, and we’re told that Lionel Newman and Dorcas Cochran’s familiar “Again” was actually introduced by the movie.

Road House is the only old Fox Film Noir release that I missed on DVD, which means that this is my first time auditing the entertaining commentary by Eddie Muller and Kim Morgan. They not only have the writing and production history of the film down, they generate a friendly byplay and palaver that will make any film fan feel at home. Muller combines scholarship with slick host-emcee qualities. He has also survived commentaries with the insane James Ellroy, and thus should be awarded the commentary equivalent of a Purple Heart. Best of all, Muller celebrates the noir style without trying to colonize it, and make it his personal territory. I certainly look to his example as a class act.

An overlong featurette from 2008 gathers quite a few spokespeople to talk about Richard Widmark and Ida Lupino. If one knows nothing about the actors, it’s a good show. A trailer gallery is included as well.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Road House Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Very Good +
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary by Kim Morgan and Eddie Muller; featurette Killer Instincts: Richard Widmark and Ida Lupino at Twentieth Century Fox, trailers.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 14, 2016

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