Director Jean Negulesco and I have a contentious cinematic relationship. His patented blend of noirish melodrama doesn’t always sit right with me, yet I’ve seen so many of his features because he always cast the best people in them. Or at least the people I love the most (*cough*Humoresque*cough*). Prior to TCMFF I’d assumed I’d never seen Road House. Cut to me in the Egyptian Theatre realizing Road House was the movie I’d infamously seen over an hour of the year prior, but the Fox Noir disc I’d rented from the library was scratched and I couldn’t play the rest of it! Thankfully I was able to experience it all the way through on the big screen and it’s a sheer delight. Negulesco blends relationship drama with noirish characterization to create a devilish feature about love and obsession with Ida Lupino at her career best.
Lily Stevens (Ida Lupino) is the new singing chanteuse at Jefty’s Road House. Lily immediately buts heads with the bar’s manager, Pete (Cornel Wilde), who is confident that owner Jefty (Richard Widmark) will tire of her. Eventually though Pete and Lily fall for each other, leaving the obsessive Jefty to do whatever it takes to keep Lily for himself.
Nearly an hour of Road House’s runtime plays like a slow-burn soap opera, with Lily and Pete circling each other but refusing to submit. Lupino said Lily Stevens was the character she loved the most, the one closest to her nature and she sizzles on the screen. Her first introduction situates her as the alpha of Jefty’s, laying back in Pete’s office chair with her legs on the desk. She runs things, right down to letting her cigarettes burn on the piano; she leaves her mark everywhere, but most prominently on the hearts of the men at Jefty’s. Cornel Wilde and Richard Widmark were successful in their own right, but both are completely overshadowed by Lupino, whose throaty renditions of “One For My Baby” and “Again” are plaintive laments of a woman who’s been used and abused her whole life.
I’ve never understood Cornel Wilde’s appeal and Road House didn’t change my opinion. He’s certainly a good looking guy, the perfect man for Lupino’s Lily to fall for, but it’s hard to see him as an interesting character if she didn’t make him so. Negulesco certainly knows how to frame his leading men for maximum machismo, but Wilde plays a man perfectly suited to his environment. Much like his character in Leave Her to Heaven (1945), there’s an earthiness to Wilde’s Pete. He enjoys bowling and generally isn’t a man of glamour. When it comes to his relationship with Jefty it’s impossible not to read it as homoerotic, right down to Pete offering to pay for Lily to leave town in order to keep his friend from going flibbertigibbit over her.
But considering said friend is played by Richard Widmark you have to expect a fair amount of insanity inherent in the character. Widmark’s performance as Jefty isn’t anything new, but it is great to see his brand of obsession and terror translated to a movie that plays as little more than a noirish soap opera. His wide-eyed obsession with Lily is terrifying and the movie plays it as such. There’s no “rough wooing” in his pursuit of her, just pure ownership. She’s worth as much to him as the bar she works in. And when Jefty frames Pete for embezzlement there is, again, an unmistakable way of interpreting this as Jefty’s love for Pete himself.
Road House is a must-watch for fans of Ida Lupino’s. Compared to other works by Negulesco, there’s a grittiness to the movie hidden by a beautifully composed facade of glamour. The entire affair is the epitome of sultry with a beautifully composed noir vibe.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.