An Ida Lupino Primer


Ida Lupino

Ida Lupino’s on-screen career stretched from early’-30s ingénue roles in her native England to a 1977 Charlie’s Angels guest shot, so it’s inevitable that MOMA’s retrospective of her films (which begins today) is selective, even leaving out some defining performances (High Sierra, Out of the Fog) from her noir-centric 1940s peak at Warner Bros. The upside is that the omissions make room for all six of her features as one of the only female directors (along with Dorothy Arzner) in “classical” Hollywood. On the off chance you don’t have the time to take in the entire fourteen-film series, here’s a six-pack of its highlights (most also on DVD) – some from each side of the camera, and one that finds Lupino at top form on both.

They Drive By Night (1940, Raoul Walsh)

Billed above a not-yet-iconic Bogart (The Maltese Falcon was still a year away), Lupino is crucial to Walsh’s well-observed trucking drama. Husky voice aside, Lupino’s persona was more matter-of-fact than dishy, but here, she’s at her most seductive and covetous as the grasping wife and eventual murderess of Alan Hale (the father of Gilligan Island’s Skipper). To watch her disorientation and hysteria in the film’s courtroom scene is to see the template for hundreds of witness-stand breakdowns since. It’s technical, flashy acting, but it made an impact: For years afterwards, fans and party hosts would ask, “Ida, go crazy.”

Lust for Gold (1949, S. Sylvan Simon)

Another studio (Columbia), another schemer, as Lupino strives to vamp none-too-bright prospector Glenn Ford out of his big strike at the legendary “Lost Dutchman” mine. Set in 1880s Arizona, the film is money’s-what-matters noir in all but its costuming, with Lupino shifting by degrees from a well-coiffed shopkeeper to a disheveled, mad-eyed gold-digger. (Literally so, in this case – and no prizes for guessing how fate deals with her in the mineshaft.) Offscreen, according to biographer William Donati, Lupino lingered on set even when she wasn’t needed, learning the rigors of location shooting and planning her next career move.

Never Fear (1950, Ida Lupino)

In 1949, Lupino and second husband Collier Young formed Emerald Productions (soon re-organized as Filmmakers), an independent company specializing in modestly-cast and –budgeted “social problem” movies. An uncredited Lupino took the reins on their first project, Not Wanted, when director Elmer Clifton fell ill; by the next year, she was the director of record on its follow-up, a documentary-flavored tale of a nightclub dance team whose female half (Lupino discovery Sally Forest) contracts polio. If this sounds a bit somber and worthy, well, it is, but the unflinching rehab hospital sequences bear comparison to The Men (Marlon Brando’s film debut as a wounded veteran, released the same year), making this one of the few films of the period in which a woman struggles with something other than romance.

Beware My Lovely (1952, Harry Horner)

Lupino also appeared in several Filmmakers productions she didn’t direct. Despite obvious budgetary limitations, the best may be this period suspense yarn, essentially a two-hander for Lupino as a pre-mature spinster and reliably unbalanced Robert Ryan as an itinerant handyman who can’t recall from minute to minute whether he’s in her house to oil her doorjambs or kill her. First-time director Harry Horner’s previous experience was as a production designer, and the star’s hand is evident in more than her tightly-wound performance: In its inventively claustrophobic use of a single Victorian house as its sole setting, the film’s mise en scene owes a good deal to Dorothy Arzner’s Craig’s Wife (1936), a favorite of Lupino’s.

The Hitchhiker (1953, Ida Lupino)

Most of Lupino’s directorial credits can be broadly classed as “women’s problem” pictures, but her best-known is anything but – in fact, the only female voice you’ll hear is a scream over the opening credits. Wartime buddies Frank Lovejoy and Edmond O’Brien head off on a drive to Mexicali to shake off the domestic blahs, only to be terrorized by roadside pick-up William Talman (Perry Mason’s eternally losing district attorney), an escaped con on an interstate killing spree. It’s a by-now conventional set-up, but the execution couldn’t be tighter, between Talman’s convincing volatility (enhanced by a droopy eyelid borrowed from real-life multiple murderer Billy Cook) and Lupino’s economical use of the numbing desert landscape.

The Bigamist (1953, Ida Lupino)

Lupino directs herself as the mousier of freezer salesman Edmond O’Brien’s two wives (the other being emasculating, business-minded Joan Fontaine), though the best performance might be by Edmund Gwynne, Miracle on 34th Street’s Santa, as the owlish adoption agent who uncovers O’Brien’s secret. Though illicit matrimony replaces the expected murder, the double-life theme links the film to noir, and to Lupino’s multiple roles in the industry. Though hardly a comedy, The Bigamist is thick with Hollywood meta-humor: O’Brien picks up Lupino on a tour of stars’ homes, and one scene features a prominent cameo by producer Collier Young, by that time Lupino’s ex-husband – and Fontaine’s current one. Reviewers at the time balked at the lack of a pat ending, but its very ambivalence toward the possibilities of post-war marriages (including the director’s own) now make it look like Lupino’s richest film.