Saturday Night Spotlight #2: Ida Lupino

Ida Lupino (1918-1995) occupies a unique corner of film history. In the field of acting her first starring role in her native England was in Her First Affaire (1932) and her American debut was in the risqué pre-Code comedy Search for Beauty (1934). From that point on she was a popular young actress, making her mark in noirish crime dramas like They Drive by Night (1940), High Sierra (1941), Moontide (1942), The Man I Love (1947) and Road House (1948), as well as the Sherlock Holmes thriller The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939), the adventure film The Sea Wolf (1941), the musical drama The Hard Way (1943), the wartime romantic comedy Pillow to Post (1945), the Brontë sisters biopic Devotion (1946) and the Western drama Lust for Gold (1949).

While director Elmer Clifton was making the B-movie Not Wanted (1949) for Emerald Productions, he had a serious heart attack. Lupino took over directing duties. Although her work went uncredited, her efforts on the picture did not go unnoticed. That same year saw the release of her official directorial debut, Never Fear (aka The Young Lovers). Until 1968, Lupino would continue to direct for film and television, making her a real trailblazer in a wide variety of genres.

Outrage (1950) – Lupino tackled the taboo subject of rape with this powerful melodrama. After Mala Powers’ character is assaulted on her way home from work she is tormented by memories of the attack and even after time passes she cannot deal with her pain around her family or her fiancé, instead shutting them out. In a delirious moment Powers runs away to another California town and finds herself drawn to a kind young preacher (Tod Andrews) who helps her come to terms with the aftereffects of her trauma. The inspiration of German Expressionism is apparent in Archie Stout’s cinematography during the lead-up to when Powers is assaulted, particularly noticeable in the shadowy walls and floors of the factory docks that she runs across in her attempts to escape her attacker. The sound design, done by John L. Cass and Clem Portman, is impressive in an early scene when Powers tries to have a normal day at work, post-rape, but the patterns of clicking staplers and other office supply noises grow progressively louder inside her head. Lupino followed Outrage with another female-oriented melodrama, Hard, Fast and Beautiful (1951), which you should also check out if you’re a fan of Claire Trevor, who plays the overambitious mother of young tennis star Sally Forrest.

The Hitch-Hiker (1953) – With this short, taut film, Lupino became the first female director to make an entry into the American film noir genre. (In the late 1940s and 50s, Norwegian director Edith Carlmar also made films in the noir style.) Most of the film’s 71-minute running time is spent on the road – a sort of “desert noir” – wherein two vacationing pals (Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy) have their car hijacked by hitch-hiking murderer Emmett Myers (William Talman). Psychotic Myers terrorizes the two men across the Southwest and the US-Mexico border in his frenzy to escape the cops. Photographed by noir master Nicholas Musuraca, just about every image is soaked in nervous sweat. Lupino proved that she could make a suspenseful, male-driven film as well as anyone in the Hollywood boys’ club could.

The Bigamist (1953) – The same year as The Hitch-Hiker, Lupino directed herself, Joan Fontaine and Edmond O’Brien in this tale of a husband leading two lives. The film also features Joan Fontaine’s mother, Lillian Fontaine, as a landlady, as well as noted Oscar-winning character actors Edmund Gwenn (Miracle on 34th Street, 1947) and Jane Darwell (The Grapes of Wrath, 1940). The Bigamist is a drama about one man’s complicated domestic affairs but it is also about the effects that those choices have on the two women in his life both at home and in their careers (Fontaine’s character has a job, contrary to the usual image of American women of the 1950s as suburban housewives). Trivia: Lupino’s ex-husband, Collier Young, who split from Lupino in October 1951, served as screenwriter and producer and the woman he married in November 1952 was… Joan Fontaine.

The Trouble with Angels (1966) – This comedy stars Rosalind Russell (who had worked with pioneering director Dorothy Arzner in Craig’s Wife thirty years earlier) as a nun who tries to keep her young charges (including Hayley Mills) in line at her Catholic girls’ school. It’s a family-friendly film, but Lupino slyly cast one of the roles, Mrs. Phipps, with famed stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. Although this is the last film that Lupino directed, she had a steady career in TV in the 1950s and 60s, working on shows like “Screen Directors Playhouse,” “The Donna Reed Show,” “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” “Have Gun – Will Travel,” “The Rifleman,” “Thriller,” “The Untouchables,” “The Fugitive,” “The Twilight Zone,” “Bewitched,” “Honey West” and “Gilligan’s Island.” It would have been nice to see some more film work from Lupino, but there’s no doubt that she helped open the doors in Hollywood for the female filmmakers of the 1970s, 80s and beyond.

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