Road House (1948) (Blu-ray Review)26 Sep, 2016 By: Mike Clark
Stars Ida Lupino, Cornel Wilde, Richard Widmark, Celeste Holm.
This is not, of course, the regretfully better-known Road House — that tolerable Patrick Swayze gutter trash from 1989 during which someone in my theater yelled out “bun shot” during one of its more specific moving images. Instead, this is the 1948 20th Century-Fox Road House with a notably name cast for its day — the one that starts out as an unlikely feminist drama (at least for a film with stuffed heads of antlered creatures on the walls of its production design) and then turns noir-ish around the time Richard Widmark’s character begins to go over the brink and eventually even letting go a couple times with the actor’s patented Kiss of Death maniacal laugh. I’ll always go for this Swayze-unrelated alternative in part for Widmark’s casting — but even more because of Ida Lupino and a couple of the costumes she wears once she decides to seduce Cornel Wilde’s “Pete” and not Widmark’s “Jefti” (a memorable moniker for a guy who owns the memorably constructed pleasure joint).
But first, a correction. Sometime within the last half-year here in another context, I claimed that this Blu-ray’s now carried-over DVD commentary was by Alan Rode and Kim Morgan when its “guy” component instead comes courtesy of Eddie Muller. Rode is a funny guy, and this voiceover is a stitch, which explains my brain freeze. But for all of his noir expertise, is Muller is a chuckle-maker as well, so I really need to give credit after a recent re-listen. And this is because if I had to name the home release bonus commentary where I laughed out loud the most (leaving “MST3K” hi-jinks aside), the two that immediately come to mind would be Mike Nichols on the Catch-22 DVD and this one. In discussing the garb Lupino wears when she elects to practice her bowling early on a Sunday morning (so much for Scriptures), Morgan characterizes Lupino’s sexy top to Muller as one the latter might see on the “babysitter of his dreams.” In a supplementary Lupino-Widmark featurette and secondary bonus, the description is modified to “slutty babysitter” — and she means this as a compliment, which, agreed, is the only way to go.
Conceived in its early scripting stages as a Postman Always Ring Twice kind of knockoff in which Lee J. Cobb would have been a cuckolded older husband, the project evolved into something far more capable of attracting the attention of Lupino in her first freelance picture after the expiration of her Warner Bros. contract. Two years earlier, she had played a chanteuse there in Raoul Walsh’s fairly sublime The Man I Love, but her vocals were dubbed. This time, she managed her own singing — and not ineffectively, for one with a muted nicotine voice — even introducing a pop tune ("Again") that engendered six different charters on the Billboard top-10 (the Columbia Doris Day and Decca Gordon Jenkins versions, both on my pop-archives-history iPod, made it to No. 2).
Muller and Morgan note that it’s Lupino with the “guy” role, in that she’s the “been around” who gets off a bus in a rustic Midwest burg near the Canadian border — whereupon she proceeds to come between the road house owner (callow rich kid Widmark) and his longtime pal/establishment manager (Wilde) after the impulsive boss hires her to sing. At a time when Fox was going out on location a little more for noir (think Elia Kazan’s Boomerang!), the studio helped pull off the film’s dreamy effect by shooting even the outdoor lake scenes on a set. With a monster neon sign outside and a combo bar-nightclub-bowling alley inside, the roadhouse itself is a little too good to be literally true (not that this is as a knock). On the other hand, two Wisconsin friends once took me to a combination bowling alley/rock joint where the musicians (in screaming red blazers) took a break from rocking every six numbers or so and broke into a polka that naturally modified the dance-floor response into a Frankie Yankovic hallucination.
But I digress. Widmark begins to think he’s in love around the time that the initially resistant Wilde becomes more maturely certain of his own feelings, and at this point (somewhere between the halfway and two-thirds mark), the drama loses some of its steam because the play-out suddenly starts to feel more familiar. Muller and Morgan hint a little at this without specifically conceding it, and I think it’s because the picture becomes a little less about Lupino’s character (Lily) and more a standard melodrama even when underrated director Jean Negulesco’s staging continues to impress. When I think of Lupino (one of my favorite actresses), the performances that come to mind are from High Sierra, The Hard Way, The Man I Love, Deep Valley, On Dangerous Ground and Junior Bonner. This time around, I’d have to put Road House on the same list — though ironically (and as Muller keeps pointing out), third-billed Celeste Holm has one of the most thankless femme roles of the era in what was, insult to injury, her first film after winning the supporting Oscar for Gentleman’s Agreement. Though the perennially sexless Holm does make a little bit out of nothing here, she’s saddled with playing the establishment’s all-purpose assistant, tough-luck Wilde admirer and resident doormat; there’s even a line of dialogue about her weight.
Joseph LaShelle shot Road House four years after winning the Oscar for Laura, and I wish the Kino transfer here had the same luster on Blu-ray that Gene Tierney all-timer displays (I’m always struck by how many Fox pictures won cinematography Oscars in the 1940s). The extras, however, make this a solid package, with Morgan and Muller making gender-specific observations about the characters; Muller can usually tell you how many fillings the 17th-billed actor had, but here the concentration is on Lily-Jetsi-Pete motivations. It’s also worth the price of admission to hear Morgan being semi-coerced into relating how she once broke into an ex-boyfriend’s apartment to retrieve noir VHS’s of hers that he still had, including one of Jacques Tourneur’s Nightfall. I wonder if Aldo Ray ever knew about the power he obviously had over some people.