By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 13, 2008)
This week, I wanted to spotlight a pair of lesser-known, underappreciated and previously hard-to-find films noirs from the 1940s that have finally seen the light of day on DVD. Moontide and Road House are two of the latest reissues in the ongoing Fox Film Noir Series, and both happen to feature the woman of my darkest dreams, Ida Lupino.
The British-born Lupino (who died in 1995 at age 81) was a staple of the classic American noir cycle from the early 40s through the late 50s. Although it wasn’t the only movie genre she worked in during her long career, it’s the one she was born to inhabit. She had a sexy, slinky, waif-like appearance that was intriguingly contrapuntal to her husky voice and tough-as-nails countenance.
Whether portraying a victim of fate or a femme fatale, Lupino imbued all of her characters with an authentic, “lived-in” quality that gave her a compelling screen presence. It’s also worth noting her fine work as a writer, director and producer, in an era of film making when few women wore those hats.
Back in 1941, director Archie Mayo (The Petrified Forest, Charley’s Aunt, A Night in Casablanca) faced the unenviable task of stepping in to rescue a 20th Century Fox film project called Moontide, which had been abandoned by the great Fritz Lang not too long after shooting had begun. As one of the pioneering German expressionists, Lang was a key developer of the visual style that eventually morphed into a defining noir “look” (some of his pre-1940s classics like M, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse and Fury are generally considered seminal proto-noirs).
Moontide was also to be the American debut for Frenchman Jean Gabin, already a major star in Europe (Pepe le Moko, La Grande Illusion, La Bete humaine). Needless to say, the pressure was on for Mayo to deliver. And “deliver” he did, with this moody and highly stylistic sleeper, ripe for rediscovery.
Gabin stars as Bobo, an itinerate odd-jobber (the type of character Steve Martin might call a “ramblin’ guy”) who blows into a coastal California fishing community with a parasitic sidekick named Tiny (Thomas Mitchell) in tow. Adhering to time-honored longshoreman tradition, Bobo and Tiny make a wharf side pub crawl the first order of business when they hit port. It is quickly established that the handsome, likable and free-spirited Bobo loves to party, as we watch him go merrily careening into an all-night boning and grogging fest.
The next morning, Bobo appears to be suffering from a classic blackout, not quite sure why or how he ended up sacked out on an unfamiliar barge, wearing a hat that belongs to a man who has met a mysterious demise sometime during the previous evening.
Taking a stroll along the beach in an attempt to clear his head, he happens upon a distraught young woman named Anna (Lupino) who is attempting to drown herself in the surf. Anyone who has screened a noir or two knows what’s coming next. Before we know it, Bobo and Anna are playing house in a cozy love shack (well, bait shop, technically). Of course, there is still that certain unresolved matter of Did He Or Didn’t He, which provides the requisite dramatic tension for the rest of the narrative.
John O’Hara’s screenplay (adapted from Willard Robertson’s novel) borders on trite at times and could have done more damage to the film’s rep, if it had not been for Gabin and Lupino’s formidable charisma, as well as the beautifully atmospheric chiaroscuro photography (by Charles G. Clarke and Lucien Ballard) and assured direction from Mayo.
There are several brilliant directorial flourishes; the montage depicting Bobo’s fateful night of revelry is a particular standout. The surreal touches in that sequence were “inspired” by some original sketches submitted on spec by Salvatore Dali, who was slated to contribute art direction, but ended up dropping out for one reason or another.
Great supporting performances abound, particularly from a nearly unrecognizable Claude Rains as a paternal waterfront philosopher who could have easily strolled off the pages of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. Moontide would make an interesting double bill with Clash by Night, another character-driven “cannery noir” set in a California fishing town milieu.
And now we come to a particularly delicious sleaze-noir from 1948 called Road House (not to be confused with the trashy 1989 Patrick Swayze mullet fest that shares the same title). This was the fourth and final genre pic from director Jean Nugulesco, who had previously helmed The Mask of Dimitrios, Nobody Lives Forever and Johnny Belinda.
Noir icon Richard Widmark stars as the mercurial Jefty Robbins, who owns a road house called (wait for it…) “Jefty’s”. He has hired his longtime pal Pete Morgan (noir beefcake Cornel Wilde) to help with day-to-day management. The fussy, protective Pete feels that his main function is to be the voice of reason and steer the frequently impulsive Jefty away from making potentially reckless business decisions.
When Pete is dispatched to the train station to pick up Jefty’s “new equipment” Lily Stevens (Lupino), a hardened chanteuse who starts cracking wise from the moment they meet, he becomes convinced that this is one of Jefty’s potentially reckless business decisions. The tough, self-assured Lily laughs off his attempt to offer up the advance money “for her trouble” and then steer her onto the next train heading back to Chicago. Now, you and I know that these two are obviously destined to rip each other’s clothes off at some point; the fun is in getting there.
Although the setup may give the impression that this is going to be a standard romantic triangle melodrama, the film segues into noir territory from the moment that the Widmark Stare first appears. For those not familiar with the Widmark Stare, it goes thusly:
Suffice it to say-when you see the Widmark Stare, it is very likely that trouble lies ahead. As his character becomes more and more unhinged, Widmark eventually employs all his “greatest hits” (including, of course, The Demented Cackle). His performance builds to an operatic crescendo of psychopathic batshit craziness in the film’s final act that plays like a precursor to Ben Kingsley’s raging, sexual jealously-fueled meltdown in Sexy Beast.
Widmark and Lupino are both in top form here. Wilde is overshadowed a bit, but then again his “boy toy” role isn’t as showy as the others. Celeste Holm is wonderfully droll as one of Jefty’s long-suffering employees. Lupino insisted on doing her own singing in the film; while she was not a technically accomplished crooner, she actually wasn’t half bad in a husky-voiced “song stylist” vein (she really tears it up on “One For My Baby”).
Both films sport excellent DVD transfers and insightful commentary from noir experts.