Saturday, March 7, 2009

ROADHOUSE (2oth Century-Fox 1948) Fox Home Video

Jean Negulesco’s Roadhouse (1948) is a curiosity within the respected canon of film noir. The first third of the picture is a benign lover’s triangle between Ida Lupino, Cornel Wilde and Richard Widmark, the latter cast as Jefty Robbins – a fly by the seat of his pants kind of guy who nevertheless manages a rather stately watering hole/bowling alley in a small border town.

Midway through the second third, the illicit affair between Lupino’s torch singer, Lily Stevens and Wilde’s high, wide and hunky Pete Morgan sends the relatively congenial Jefty into a tailspin. He becomes slightly deranged and out for personal revenge. In the final third, the screenplay by Edward Chodorov veers into vintage noir with Jefty driven to murder and madness in his unrelenting jealousy.

The problem is that as a cohesive film noir, Roadhouse is more claptrap than structured – its characters having complete conversions in type that do not and cannot gel with the traits they first present to the audience. For example; the story opens with Lily’s shapely barefoot leg propped across the top of Pete’s desk. He enters his office at the roadhouse to find Lily bored, smoking like a fiend and playing solitaire.

She’s rude, belligerent and not particularly likeable; so far – par for the course of a hard bitten noir heroine. Pete’s a world weary guy who’s all too familiar with Jefty’s knack for picking up ‘impossible’ women. So, after Lil’ and Pete spar with a few well timed barbs, Pete takes her to the train station with a wad of cash, instructing her to go back to Chicago. She slaps his face, calls him a silly boy and promptly installs herself in the upper room of a local hotel.

Lil’s first night at the roadhouse is a colossal hit; another curiosity, since Lupino can’t warble her way out of a paper bag. Her voice is deflated, thin and off key. Nevertheless, the hick crowd at the roadhouse takes to her musical...uh...‘styling’ like ducks to water, forcing Pete to admit to Jefty that his first hunch about Lily was wrong. Even Pete’s pure hearted gal, Suzie Smith (Celeste Holm) finds Lil’s singing an inspiration.

So far, so good. However, what happens from this point on in the film is a dismantling of all that we’ve just learned about these characters. Lily’s not a hard knock gal after all. In fact, she melts like butter when big strong Pete comes to her rescue after a roadhouse patron gets a little too fresh and starts a barroom brawl.

Pete doesn’t hate Lily. He’s actually hot for her bleached tresses and starkly aged visage. And Jefty? – he isn’t really the nice, level-headed guy that Widmark colors in for us right up until the point when Pete goes to Jefty’s house to explain that he and Lil’ are eloping. Instead, Jefty emotional psyche snaps like a twig.

He plots incessantly to destroy Pete – the only best friend he’s ever had; first, by framing him for the theft of $2600.00, then by forcing a judge’s hand to remand Pete to his custody after a jury finds him guilty of grand larceny and sentences him to 10 years. Lily and Pete become trapped in a cabin in the woods with Jefty hunting them down like animals, determined to kill both or die trying.

Viewed today, Roadhouse isn’t quite the “sordid, slashing melodrama” that the L.A. Times proclaimed in 1948. For one thing, the roadhouse itself is designed more in the décor of a stylish hunting lodge with spacious public lounges and snazzy living quarters located directly above for Pete and Lil’ to carouse in. Hence, the atmosphere for most of the film isn't foreboding, but comforting.

Lupino, an actress known for her hard living off camera is miscast as the torch singer that two men would kill each other over. Not only can she not sing, but all the years of private abuse behind the scenes show on her face – a veritable and very unattractive death mask, despite heavy makeup and a somewhat matronly haircut. As the audience, we wonder why Pete cannot resist Lily when the ever so much more attractive and faithful Susie is so near.

As beefcake eye candy, there’s nothing particularly wrong with Cornel Wilde’s performance; his brooding chin, squared off shoulders and rugged virility in stark contrast to the more mousy features of Richard Widmark. Of the three principles, Wilde’s performance remains the most stable and consistent. We can relate to his character’s spiral into ‘out of control’ lust, even if the object of that infatuation is unworthy of his desire. The same cannot be said of Widmark’s wild dichotomy as Jefty. He begins the film as a good time Charlie but closes it caricaturing Tommy Udo, the psychopath he played in Kiss of Death (1947).

It’s hard for this reviewer to condemn the film outright. Despite its shortcomings, there is something compelling and unsettling about the mood of the piece as a whole. Inconsistencies aside, the noir style casts a sinister pall over the proceedings that make for a genuinely disturbing excursion. In the final analysis, Roadhouse is an anomaly, rather than a stellar example of the movement’s capabilities.

Fox Home Video’s DVD transfer is no great shakes. We are warned up front that the studio has brought the film to home video using the best possible surviving elements. Contrast levels are stark with the mid-register of gray tones almost entirely absent. Fine detail in character’s faces all but disappears in medium and long shots. Film grain is prevalent, but age related artifacts are remarkably subdued.

What is quite unacceptable for a DVD transfer of this recent vintage is all the instances of edge enhancement; obvious and distracting. The audio is mono as originally intended and represented at an adequate listening level. Extras include a very informative audio commentary by Kim Morgan and Eddie Muller, as well as the equally fascinating featurette; Killer Instinct: Richard Widmark and Ida Lupino at Twentieth Century Fox.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
3

VIDEO/AUDIO
2.5

EXTRAS
3

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