Ida, Sweet as Apple Cider…Vinegar

One of the best box sets out on Blu-Ray, Kino-Lorber Studio Classics’ (in concert with Paramount Home Entertainment) IDA LUPINO: FILMMAKER COLLECTION takes us cineastes on a dark journey that not only celebrates the actress’ formidable acting, writing, and producing abilities – but underlines (and concentrates on) her superb directorial skills.  The set, containing four Ida triumphs (NOT WANTED, NEVER FEAR, THE HITCH-HIKER and THE BIGAMIST), reveals a female look at the underbelly of noir, with its protagonists perilously treading Hollywood taboo uncharted waters (a rape victim, a young dancer facing paralysis, two average guys terrorized by a psychopath and an examination of a philandering husband that offers a triad of sympathy for all concerned).  Don’t let the “woman” tag prejudice ya.  These are often brutal, uncompromising exercises in mean-streetology that would give Anthony Mann and Nicholas Ray a run for their money.  In fact, he said, segueing into an anecdote, when I was Ray’s assistant sound editor on You Can’t Go Home Again, he told me how much he loved Lupino.  They were doing a little pic called On Dangerous Ground (one of my favorite Ray titles), and Nick became ill; he asked Ida to take over the direction for a couple of days until he recovered (they were on location in Granby, CO); this was 1950, so Ida had already been working behind-the-camera for about a year.  He told me that he was delighted with her work, that it bore her mark, but totally kept in style with what he had in mind, not an easy duality to achieve.  While at least two of these titles in this collection have been familiar public domain fare (THE HITCH-HIKER, THE BIGAMIST), none have EVER looked this good.  While not pristine, all four of these entries come from the best 35MM elements available.  In addition, the slipcovered set contains an excellent illustrated book on Lupino the auteur by Ronnie Schieb. 

Lupino, born on February 4 (my birthday!), 1918 to a show biz couple (Connie Emerald, Lupino Lane), arrived in Hollywood from her native UK in 1933, as a fresh-faced starlet, to be groomed at the Paramount stable.  Then blonde, she lingered on in several standard parts until wowing them as the sadistic model who destroys an artist’s painting in 1939’s The Light That Failed (didn’t help that he was going blind).  By this point, Lupino was checking her options and bolted from Paramount to Warners – the most lucrative acting portion of her career.  She hit the ground running as the psycho-nympho wife in 1940’s They Drive by Night, followed by High Sierra (1941), The Man I Love (1946), and others.  By the late 1940’s, wanderlust again pushed her to change courses – this time, not merely studios, but as the head of her own production company (with husband Collier Young).

Their first outing, 1949’s NOT WANTED, chronicled the physical and psychological trauma of an innocent girl who discovers that she’s carrying her older experienced lover’s/seducer-predator’s child.  This would be a rough contemporary narrative, so imagine how it was received in 1949?  When not being harassed by the righteous Breen Office, the young filmmaker (as she preferred to regard herself; Lupino’s and Young’s company was, in fact, called The Filmmakers) had a more serious problem.  The director, Elmer Clifton, suffered a fatal heart attack as production unwound.  To save the pic, Lupino stepped in and finished the movie – and brilliantly so. A rarity in the post-talkie Hollywood era, a woman directing successful movies that she also cowrote, coproduced and would even (on occasion) costar in, Ida Lupino remains a beacon to every lady taking the motion picture reins.  To those fans of Kathryn Bigelow, Jennifer Kent, and the increasingly welcome scores of other talented female artists, hail to Ida Lupino – she helped make it possible!

1949’s NOT WANTED is a dynamic indictment of the treatment and torment suffered by unwed mothers (while the opposite end of the “two to tango” duo gets the free pass).  Sally Kelton is a young, blossoming healthy female from a typical small town American home (yep, THAT bad!); her burgeoning womanhood is playing tricks on her body, and the attraction to smooth musician Steve Ryan pretty much seals the deal.  He up and vanishes just as she realizes their “urge to merge” will be resulting in a little bundle of joy.  Devastated, abandoned, and with her mental health now in jeopardy, Sally wanders the streets of post-war America into the world of noir, a territory that Lupino knew only all too well.

A difficult tale to tackle in 1949 (the Code was still in effect), the movie proved no exception to the rule.  Lupino saw it as a challenge.  NOT WANTED was a perfect controversial subject for the novice director, the title itself being a dual sword – referring to both the baby and the mother.  Cowritting the script (from a story by Malvin Ward) with Paul Jerrico (The Search, All Night Long) and coproducing through her recently-formed company, Lupino found herself in a jam when, as indicated, the veteran pedestrian director she hired, Elmer Clifton, succumbed to a coronary shortly before filming began.  Yearning to move down that artistic avenue anyway, Lupino grabbed the reins and beautifully completed the project that ignited her new career.  Most relevantly, while gritty and even nasty, NOT WANTED does present the narrative’s viewpoint as it really MUST be told – from the woman’s point of view.  Tragedy aside, Clifton’s departure was probably the best thing that could have occurred on the project.  Lupino gave the subject power, style and truth (Clifton retains full directorial credit).

The cast is excellent, beginning with soon-to-be Lupino stock lead actress, the diminutive Sally Forrest.  Great at playing innocents or angel-faced harpies, Forrest is one of our underrated thesps of the late 1940’s-mid 1950’s.  Keefe Brasselle, also a soon-to-be Lupino regular, has become the butt of many comedian puns (usually because of his name).  That said, he’s not a bad actor, and, in fact, could be quite touching.  Off-camera, it was another story.  He was a veritable thug, involved with the mob and even a murder. His Hollywood demise wasn’t helped by his misogyny, filling a rap sheet with multiple wife beatings and death threats.  Brasselle had the dubious honor of being the only person Jack Benny ever publicly trashed (Brasselle scored the lead role in the very awful bio-pic of Benny’s pal Eddie Cantor).  Leo Penn as the callous love ’em and leave ’em horn player is excellent as well.  His heinous procreation acts in the movie rivaled a terrible real life aberration: siring Sean Penn. Also of note in the pic are Dorothy Adams, Wheaton Chambers, Ruth Clifford, Lawrence Dobkin, and Lupino’s kid sister Rita.

NOT WANTED is starkly photographed on-location throughout L.A. by Henry Freulich.  A music score by Leith Stevens, whose career was on the rise, appends the visuals (he, too, would become a Lupino regular).  Extras in the Kino-Lorber Blu-Ray include audio commentary by Barbara Scharres.  It’s astounding that this movie isn’t better known, hopefully an error that will be corrected by this release.

1949’s NEVER FEAR is another daring drama with noir overtones.  Carol Williams and Guy Richards, an attractive dance team, are about to make the big time when Carol is struck by polio.  The sweet, forgiving nature of the young woman degrades into sneering, angry psychosis as she lashes out at everyone who attempts to help her in rehab.  Remember, this is 1949, and the institute where she is to be rehabilitated stresses the physical, not the mental – a point progressively approached by cowriter (with then-husband Collier Young)/director Lupino.

Once again, Sally Forrest plays the lead and does an excellent job – as does Brasselle as her on-and-off stage partner, who likewise undergoes a psychological metamorphosis.

Previously rarely seen, NEVER FEAR, thanks to Kino-Lorber and BFI-Forever, this new 2K restoration will (as in the case of NOT WANTED) hopefully remedy that unfair situation.  It’s an important picture not only for women, but for sensational movie-making.  Archie Stout, a John Ford favorite, photographed the documentary-like black-and-white imagery and Leith Stevens provides the suitable score.  A nice supporting cast rounds out the proceedings, headed by newcomer Hugh O’Brian, Eve Miller, Lawrence Dobkin, Jerry Hausner, and (once again) Rita Lupino.

No mere disease-of-the-month weepie, NEVER FEAR tackles the then-common affliction as any noir would a villain, a stunning and original approach.  And with great results.

Paving the way for Kathryn Bigelow, Karyn Kusama, Julia Ducournau, The Soska Sisters and others, Lupino’s 1953 masterpiece THE HITCH-HIKER is likely (up till then) the roughest, most vicious movie ever directed and cowritten by a woman.  It’s an unrelenting suspense thriller, filled with nightmarish images and electrifying moments.  For her basically three-man cast, Lupino wisely chose three strong presence males, indicative of the era: Edmond O’Brien, Frank Lovejoy, and William Talman.

Roy Collins and Gilbert Bowen (O’Brien and Lovejoy) are two BFFs whose annual get-away-from-the-family time is their ultimate bonding journey.  They drive out into the desert dividing the California/Mexican border for an outdoor man-cave camping excursion.  Big mistake.

Emmett Myers (Talman), a psycho killer, has escaped from captivity, and has already chalked up new victims, as he maps (and slaughters) his way to Mexico.  He comes across Collins and Bowen, and sadistically holds them hostage, forcing them to drive him to safety.  Myer’s mind games drive the two friends to the edge, as they wonder if and when they can make a play, knowing all too well that they will be killed once they reach their destination.

The performances of the three leads are phenomenal, particularly Talman in his first villain role.  To his dying day, he told interviewers that because of this movie, drivers on the freeway would roll down their windows at traffic stops and give him the finger.

O’Brien, in particular, learned much from Lupino, whom he respected as a fellow thesp; encouraged by what he saw her do as a director, prompted him to take the behind-the-camera plunge.  Post-HITCH-HIKER, he directed a pair of excellent noirs, 1954’s Shield for Murder and 1961’s Man-Trap).

The script by Lupino and Collier Young is tight as a vice cranked to the extreme.  One bit, giving the Talman character a lazy eye, proved to be a brilliant stroke.  A), it adds an additional monstrous touch to his already grotesque appearance, and B), it taunts Collins and Bowen when he sleeps (the eye never closes properly); they don’t know if he’s watching them, waiting for the pair to make a play, or if he’s actually asleep.  It’s one of the creepiest sequences in movie history.

Moved up a notch production-wise from small indy Eagle-Lion (who handled earlier Lupino-directed efforts), THE HITCH-HIKER was distributed by RKO.  The picture deservedly delivered excellent reviews and box-office.  The one negative aspect of the movie is that it fell into public domain during the 1980s.  This resulted in a trash bin of awful prints, video tapes, laserdiscs, etc.  What a relief to finally see a decent 35MM transfer from the Library of Congress, where THE HITCH-HIKER was preserved as an important American work.  Thank you, Kino-Lorber (once again) for being able to appreciate Nicholas Musuraca’s fine cinematography and crackle-free audio (to enjoy the tense background audio design and score by Leith Stevens).  The Blu-Ray includes also includes a supplemental track featuring motion-picture historian Imogen Sara Smith.

Oh, yeah, this frightening odyssey is based on a true story!

Yet another difficult topic, spilling over with noirish overtones, 1953’s THE BIGAMIST hits all the promises in the smarmy ads…and then some.  The man with two hot women scenario is quickly shot down by director (and uncredited cowriter, Collier Young) Lupino.  It’s a supposed male fantasy from a woman’s point-of-view.  And probably the most honest depiction of an emotive and ultimately disastrous situation.

Super successful traveling salesman Harry Graham has been happily married to loving wife Eve for over eight years.  The one thing missing from their union is a child.  So they begin to seek out adoption agencies.  This puts them under the radar of meticulous child adoption investigator Mr. Jordan (a very Kris Kringle-ly Edmund Gwenn, who seems to also be a relative of Eddie Robinson’s “Keyes” in Double Indemnity).  The Grahams appear to be the perfect couple for raising a child – with one exception.  Harry has another wife on his West Coast route.

The “other woman” is a total opposite from demure Eve; Phyllis (a terrific performance by the director) is a saucy, lovable, sexually unbridled dynamo.  Having met Harry earlier, they respectively engaged in conversation, then coffee, then dinner, then…What on the surface looks like pure lust was actually genuine blossoming of love.  Harry realizes he should have told her he was married, then questions whether it is possible to truly love more than one person.  A law, after all, is merely words on paper.  This changes drastically when Phyllis becomes pregnant; so Harry does the right/wrong thing.

As Jordan gets closer to the facts, the walls and the world start closing in on Graham.  While his lonely fling/cowardice was initially self-serving, he has now ruined a trio of lives (more, if one counts the baby).

THE BIGAMIST is a powerful movie, sensitively acted, scripted (from Lawrence B. Marcus’ and Lou Schlor’s story) and masterfully directed.  Gwenn may speak for a number of us when he delivers his final denouement upon Harry:  “I despise you. I pity you. I don’t even want to shake your hand, but I almost want to wish you luck.”

Like THE HITCH-HIKER, THE BIGAMIST, distributed by RKO, fell into public domain.  The decades of lousy PD prints, VHS tapes, and DVDs never did the movie – particularly George E. Diskant’s excellent cinematography – justice.  Until now.  This new remaster, from 35mm elements, and, at last, in its essential widescreen dimensions (probably for the first time since 1953), gives the pic the edition it deserves.  A nice Leith Stevens score accompanies the now-worthy visuals.

Also featuring Kenneth Tobey, Jane Darwell, Peggy Maley, and Lilian Fontaine (costar Joan’s mom), this Blu-Ray also contains audio commentary by Kat Ellinger. 

All in all, a superb box set, honoring an important artist and deserving a spot on any classic collector’s shelf.

IDA LUPINO FILMMAKER COLLECTION. Black and White.  Full frame [1.37:1 for the first three titles; Widescreen [1.66:1, for The Bigamist; 1080p High Definition]. 2.0 DTA-HD MA. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/Paramount Home Entertainment.  CAT # K23818.  SRP: $79.95.

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