“It’s lousy, depressing, sordid and stupid! You pull for nothing; all morbid or weak or vicious. A bunch of low class morons. No romance. No sex. No interest in the outcome. What is the excuse for telling this story? It’s not even entertainment. If it’s low, it must have sex, excitement, a chase or a moral to compensate.”
- Darryl F. Zanuck
So much for Zanuck’s snap assessment of the original treatment and coverage submitted for his approval on a story first written by Margaret Gruen and Oscar Saul; ultimately to emerge as Jean Negulesco’s Road House (1948), and, heavily rewritten by Edward Chodorov to accommodate virtually all of Zanuck’s uncompromisingly harsh ‘suggestions’. Road House – never to be confused with Rowdy Harrington’s 1989 human demolition derby of the same name, possessing virtually no other similarity to this classic noir melodrama other than its namesake, is a juicily dark, studio-bound tale, predictably centered around an implausible ‘lover’s triangle’ involving the proprietor of an ‘out of the way’ road house on the U.S./Canadian border, his beefcake of a manager and the throaty, somewhat over-the-hump chanteuse with an attitude they both come to prefer over their tenuous friendship of some established years. Road House ought not to have worked on this premise alone, except with Zanuck’s careful revisions and a killer cast featuring Ida Lupino, Richard Widmark, Cornel Wilde, and, Celeste Holm, the picture sizzles as an bar nothing tug-o-war, battle of the sexes potboiler with better than average performances and some good solid production values to boot. Shot on the Fox lot, Road House infrequently exhibits a sort of claustrophobic atmosphere that bodes well for the forecast firestorm of sexually-charged resentfulness about to burst forth from this rather tawdry assortment of devil-may-cares. In later years, Widmark would come to regard Road House as a particular favorite; the last of his moodily unhinged villains; an obvious riff on Tommy Udo, the monstrous psychotic he played the year before for Zanuck in Fox’s Kiss of Death.
Road House is the beneficiary of Widmark’s skills as a better actor than he is oft given credit, arguably, forever to be undermined by his renown for playing the aforementioned sadist. Widmark would shy away from this typecasting. Indeed, his career illustrates a considerable girth as well as variety in his proficiencies. “How weird,” Widmark once said, “…that after a whole career I’m remembered for ‘the laugh’.” – actually, more of a sinister and thoroughly creepy giggle. But Widmark resisted being pigeonholed as the deranged mama’s boy. He was afforded by Zanuck the part of the hero in 1950’s Panic in the Streets; in hindsight a very wise decision that allowed Widmark to steadily improve and diversify his prospects in subsequent pictures. But by the late 1970’s Widmark had become quite outspoken in his condemnation of then modern Hollywood, completely losing interest in movie-making and contented to curtail his output and participation in them as the industry steadily eroded its stylized iconography into the sort of Babylon dreck it thus remains to this very day. Widmark’s role as the proprietor of Jefty’s road house; Jefferson T. Robinson – abbreviated to Jefty (a part originally created for Lee J. Cobb) is a very queer incarnation indeed.
Edward Chodorov’s screenplay repeatedly attempts to brand Jefty as a sort of romantic rogue, indiscriminately picking up naïve women to whom he initially promises a job as a singer at his rather swank establishment; all of who inevitably wind up as his disposable playthings for a brief wrinkle in time before Jefty tires of them and moves on to the next best thing. The grave difficulty in accepting this at face value is Jefty’s right-hand man is Pete Morgan (played with infinite more ‘stud’ appeal by the uber-muscular, Cornel Wilde; in real life, a retired Olympic fencer in prime physical form, whose taut body positively ripples with that certain irresistible air of athletic masculinity most any woman would prefer at a glance to Widmark’s more shifty-eyed, if slightly impish, and infinitely less conventional ‘good looks’. Then again, the woman in question here is no lady; Lily Stevens, played with shades of Lauren Bacall’s careworn insolence reconstituted as all her own, by recently departed Warner Bros. contract player, Ida Lupino. Many will forget Brit-born Lupino, who began her career playing unconventional Sweet Polly Purebreds to the likes of Bogie in They Drive By Night (1940) and High Sierra (1941), had, by 1948, taken the proverbial bull by the horns; contract player no more, and, was as eager as a freelancer to prove she could do the types of roles she wanted to better than anyone might have first suspected. In hindsight, there appears to have been no subterfuge to Lupino’s aggressive campaigning for the part of Lily Stevens in Road House; her go-getter’s thrust, unvarnished and telescopically focused, greatly appealing to Zanuck. Lupino, who even before her Warner contract days, had had the bloom of adolescence wiped clean by a lengthy tenure on the rough n’ tumble stage, arrived in Hollywood fully formed, heartily prepared to smoke like a chimney and carouse until dawn: ‘just one of the boys’. She literally could - and frequently did - drink most of her male costars under the table at social gatherings while still keeping her wits and personal integrity about her; a testament, earning props from her colleagues.
Lupino’s Lily Stevens is a hard one to be sure; giving Cornel Wilde’s butch cock-of-the-walk an unanticipated welt across his square-jawed cheek after he attempts to dictate to her the way things are going to be, keeping Jefty’s octopus-like tentacles at bay with ice-priestess precision, maintaining an unusually mutual, if slightly catty, ‘respect’ for Suzie Smith – the bar wench who pines for Pete, but will settle for Jefty…or any man who wants her on any terms – and ultimately, calling the shots all the way – literally. After enduring the indignation of being dubbed in other movies, Lupino emphatically insisted doing her own vocals in Road House. Alas, Lupino, like her alter-ego in the movie, cannot sing! But that does not prevent her from mesmerizing the patrons of Jefty’s establishment, and, in fact, the audience, with her dense, slightly off key and thoroughly whisky-voiced renditions of Johnny Mercer’s ‘One For My Baby’, ‘The Right Kind’, ‘They’ll Be Some Changes Made’, and, Lionel Newman’s ‘Again’ – the latter, expressly written for Road House and becoming something of a sizable hit for all concerned.
If Road House does commit an unforgivable sin, it is in the casting of Celeste Holm in the utterly thankless part of Suzie, a role any of Zanuck’s disposable protégées – infamously known around the backlot as his ‘five o’clock girls’ – could have covered with ease. Lest we forget, Celeste Holm had only just won the Golden Globe and Best Supporting Academy Award as the forthright and uber-glamorous publisher, Anne Dettry in 1947’s Best Picture, Gentleman’s Agreement. And, once disentangled from her Fox studio contract she would continue to find work as everyone’s favorite supporting gal pal for decades to follow. But for years, rumors have swirled Zanuck’s amorous proclivity for ‘bright young things’ extended to Celeste – who did not share this passion and thus shortly thereafter was made to pay professional penitence for the refusal by being absent from the screen, or featured only in middling efforts otherwise. Whatever the case, Holm acquits herself rather valiantly of this dowdy, sweater and pants-wearing/marginally butch – and woefully self-sacrificing – outdoorsy gal, given one of the most idiotic farewells in screen history. After having been wounded by Jefty’s stray bullet, Suzie is hoisted up and into Pete’s bicep-bulging arms; Holm forewarning Cornel Wilde, “I’m heavy” before being taken away to safety.
Road House immensely benefits from several unsung heroes toiling behind the scenes. First, to Maurice Ransford and Lyle R. Wheeler’s immense contributions as Art Directors; their eclectic and stylish visualization of Jefty’s road house, part contemporary chic – via its adjacent bowling alley and sleek pseudo-deco upstairs offices and apartments where Pete lives, and, bucolic ‘lodge/nightclub atmosphere downstairs, complete with wood-burning fireplaces, deer’s head mounted on the wall, and vaulted pinewood ceilings, an exquisite set design that makes one sincerely want to spend several hours within this escapist retreat nestled somewhere along the outskirts. Next, we tip our hats to cinematographer, Joseph LaShelle, whose moodily lit interiors are a miracle of noir lighting; using harsh, dissecting shadows and light to frame the action, and, during the climactic/frantic chase in the woods (also shot on a soundstage) creates a marsh-like atmosphere with spookily filtered fog effects. A nod should also be afforded costume designer, Kay Nelson whose eclectic ensembles for Ida Lupino have, for the most part, not dated one iota since 1948. Herein, I am instantly reminded of the striped halter top Lupino sports while feigning her inability to learn how to bowl like a pro – code, at least in this movie, for heartily felt sexual foreplay with all sorts of Freudian subtext built into the scene; Cornel Wilde’s Pete, dispassionately wailing his balls down a waxy lane, parting hourglass pins with murderous frustration; Lupino, pretending she cannot master his technique until finally she assumes the ‘masculine’ authority, and incurs a ‘strike’ for her efforts, but also, on her own terms, as daylight begins to flicker inside Pete’s head. Yep, he has been had. He knows it. She knows it. ‘Silly boy!’ Interestingly, Joseph Breen’s Censorship Office stressed to Zanuck that Nelson’s outfits must not amplify or draw undue attention to Lupino’s bosom. Ironically, Lupino was not built with much of a bust to normally draw attention. And yet, in Road House, Nelson repeatedly does the utmost to give our star some necessary oomph in her cleavage, and this, despite the censor’s wishes.
Road House opens with a lay of the land – Jefty’s establishment seen in all its glory under the main titles. Here is a place where the young go to mingle, dance, bowl, eat, drink and find…no, not romance. Think of a shorter word that begins with ‘S’ and ends in ‘X’. Entering his office to check the accounts, manager, Pete Morgan is met with the sight of an extended, barefoot shapely leg draped over the side of his desk; his eyes following its contours to the owner, Lily Stevens, smoking and shuffling a deck of cards. Lil’s tired, bored and in search of a place to hang her hat for the night. In short order, Pete realizes she has come to their no-nothing town on Jefty’s invitation; billed as a new singer for his club. Jefty makes the formal introductions and instructs Pete to set Lily up at the Antler Hotel. Instead, Pete drives her back to the railroad station, suggesting she has been lured with no genuine prospect of being anything more than Jefty’s momentary diversion; his flavor of the month. But Lil’ is not like some of the others who have gone before her. She informs Pete not only will she not wind up between the sheets of Jefty’s bed, she also intends to collect every last penny for ‘services’ she intends to perform. When Pete tries to make his position more clear, Lily belts him one, but good – a blow to his conceit, but also a distinct surprise. Oh yeah…we just know these two are meant to wind up together.
A pity Jefty does not see things Pete’s way before Lily’s vim has poisoned both their vigor and pitted each against the other for her affections. Jefty wants Pete and Lil’ to get along. He also wants to win Lil’s heart, carrying a breakfast tray up to her rented room, cooing about his big plans for her singing career and making just about every false assumption a thoroughly delusional bloke blindsided by love can. Love…how quickly it will turn to hate, though not just yet. Jefty encourages Pete to teach Lil’ how to bowl. She feigns a prissy gal’s ineptitude in grasping the basic concept, lobbing balls into the gutter and hoping, against hope, Pete will just take her in hand – literally – so she can make her big passion play for him. It doesn’t happen; partly because Pete’s no fool and has an ego to match the girth of his muscly bod. So, Lil’ teaches Pete a thing or two about a woman scorned, hurling the next ball down the lane to a perfect strike without so much as a blink of an eye. Pete’s impressed; just not enough to allow Lily her invitation to go for a picnic lunch. Instead, Pete brings along Suzie; the pair diving into the ole fishing hole while goading Lily to partake. She refuses, at first; then, ducks behind some bushes, transforming a pair of scarves into an impromptu bikini. Suzie does more than envy Lily. Actually, there is mutual respect between these polar opposites in the female class; Suzie openly admitting, “She can do more without a voice than anyone I ever saw” and Lily actually having a modicum of sympathy for Suzie, who still has some of the bloom left to impress the right kind man. Pete and Suzie really ought to get together. Without question, Suzie would prefer it.
But before long, Pete has fallen for Lil’ and she for him. This leaves Jefty’s daydreams of their life together out in the cold; a hard fact revealed to him by Pete on the eve he and Lily have made plans to elope and leave town. Instead, Jefty removes the $26,000 night deposit from the safe; then, pretends to suspect Pete of the crime of theft. Despite his admission of innocence, and virtually zero evidence to prove otherwise, Pete is arrested and bound over for trial; found guilty and almost sentenced to two years in prison. Jefty intercedes, imploring the judge (Grandon Rhodes) to suspend the sentence, placing Pete under his care for the duration of his probation. The catch: if Pete ‘violates’ the terms of this probation he will go to prison for the full ten years. Pete cannot leave town. Moreover, he cannot marry Lily; the couple now always under Jefty’s watchful eye. Jefty plans a weekend retreat to his cabin in the wood, taking Lily, Pete and Suzie along. But there is a more insidious plot afoot. Perhaps, Jefty can either convince Pete to head for the border, thus ensuring he breaks the terms of his probation. Or, even better, maybe he can insight a fight to result in his having to kill Pete and claim ‘self-defense’. Jefty goads Pete into a confrontation. But Pete is not about to play into Jefty’s hand. And so, Jefty decides maybe he can sucker Lily into committing a crime. Jefty presents Lil’ with his rifle and badgers her into taking dead aim at his hat. Instead, she aims both barrels at Jefty; thwarted from pulling the trigger by Pete who, too late, discovers the chambers empty – Jefty, merely testing the extent to which either is willing to go to take back their freedom.
Pete and Jefty get into a fight; Pete subduing Jefty, leaving him badly bloodied and unconscious in the cabin under Suzie’s care while he and Lily make for the Canadian border aboard Jefty’s outboard boat. Jefty stirs and makes chase through the woods; Suzie, hurrying ahead to forewarn the couple Jefty will never stop in his plans to either see them parted or dead. Suzie is wounded in the shoulder by one of Jefty’s stray bullets. Pete rigs the boat’s gas peddle, sending it empty into the lagoon. Assuming Pete and Lily are aboard, Jefty takes dead aim from the shore and manages to blow up the outboard motor with a well-placed rifle shot; the vessel bursting into flames. Now, Pete leaps into action from the underbrush. But this time Jefty gets the upper hand. He subdues Pete, who has wrestled Jefty’s pistol into the sand. Lily picks it up, ordering Jefty to put down the log he intended to use to bash in Pete’s brains. Jefty complies, but then steadily approaches Lil’ with hands outstretched, begging for her to reconsider. Tearfully, she almost does. But when Jefty seizes a nearby bolder, intent on crushing her to death, Lily instead fires the fatal shot that brings him down. Awakening to find their ordeal at an end, Pete crawls over to Suzie; wounded but nevertheless alive. He raises her up in his arms and carries her off, presumably to safety, leaving Lily to face the burgeoning dawn; possibly alone, or perhaps, with Pete, who will eventually return to her side.
Road House’s conclusion is a little too open-ended and ambiguous to suggest the proverbial happy ending all Hollywood movies of this particular ilk and era always subscribed; Joseph LeShelle’s camera coming to rest on the filtered early dawn illuminating Ida Lupino’s hopeful visage. Perhaps brighter years are still ahead, though conceivably without Pete. Enough is not known or readily written about director, Jean Negulesco, the Romanian-born, seemingly workaday warhorse, who nevertheless managed to handcraft a considerable roster of popular entertainments during his forty plus years in showbiz; with such legendary movies as Humoresque (1946), Johnny Belinda (released the same year as Road House), Titanic, and, How To Marry A Millionaire (both in 1953), and Three Coins in the Fountain (1954), Daddy Long Legs (1955) and The Best of Everything (1959) in his repertoire. At least in hindsight, Negulesco’s style is mostly unobtrusive or rather, invisible. This may account for his absence from the generally prescribed list of ‘all-time greatest directors’; the critics, erroneously assuming that if no perceptible technique can be quantified it also stands to reason one does not exist.
However, almost instinctual Negulesco – a painter by trade – knows when to punctuate a moment or a scene with a powerful close-up. His B&W non-scope movies, Road House being a prime example, are all about framing action within the context of a relatively stationary cinema space, using scenery, props, mood-lighting and plenty of atmosphere to help to tell his stories; a complete contradiction to the chop-shop way movies are re-assembled in the editing process today through a series of quick cuts belying the fact virtually none of the talent working in front of the camera can sustain a scene without the skillful scissors of an editor. While it is nevertheless certain in Negulesco’s era a scene was made in performance, later to be augmented by the editorial decisions made, Negulesco’s in Road House bear the hallmark of a master craftsman and remarkable storyteller. He uses, as example, an innocuous game – bowling – to illustrate, a more insidious one: a cloak and dagger scheme of sexual frustrations felt by all three principals; Cornel Wilde’s muscular assault, as he pummels the lanes with an assault of balls consistently cast, followed by Lily’s staged clumsiness, meant to soften her sex appeal for him, making it more palpable, and finally, Jefty’s virtual inability to even play, inferring a deeper emasculation. Such subtext has led to multiple interpretations in film scholarship of a bro-mantic chemistry brewing between Jefty and Pete; perhaps, even a subliminal homoerotic strain of jealousy as Pete readily proves his manhood to Lil’ while Jefty cowers and becomes increasingly dissatisfied with his own inadequacies as a real man.
It makes for some interesting contemplations a la a classic James M. Caine archetypal hero/antihero counterbalance; Jefty, vicariously stirred by Pete’s lust for Lily. While the screenplay readily suggests Jefty as the sex-crazed master seducer, with various references scattered throughout, about the many women he has reeled in with the promise of bigger and better things to come, it is Pete’s responsibility for taking care of ‘these incidents’ once the initial heat in Jefty’s hanker has cooled and he has moved on to some new bright young plaything on the horizon. Noir historian, Eddie Muller’s interpretation of Jefty’s callow and crazed obsession with Lil’ as that of a closeted virgin whose lifelong pent-up sexual energy is about to explode in self-destructive ways, does not really hold up under close scrutiny. But the linchpin that makes the adversarial male bonding between Jefty and Pete click is undeniably Ida Lupino’s sordid gal from parts unknown. At barely a hundred pounds, Lupino’s screen presence is towering and mercilessly felt in virtually every scene, even the few in which she does not appear. Her impressions as a no nonsense tough baby gone sour on the lack of the milk of human kindness, are not altogether fitting to the prototype of noir’s prescribed assets afforded the conventional femme fatale. Even so, they add immeasurably to Lupino’s appeal herein.
Stunt coordinator, John Indrisano’s execution of two ruthless ‘fight sequences’ – the first, staged for maximum effect inside the road house’s bar after a drunken mountain man of a patron decides to tear the place apart; the latter, a fight to the finish between Jefty and Pete, fought outdoors – came under censor, Joseph Breen’s close scrutiny, particularly a stunt where Cornel Wilde subdues Jefty by pivoting his two feet into Jefty’s crotch, sending his adversary sailing to the other side of the set. The stunt, meticulously choreographed and expertly executed by Wilde and Widmark, remains in the film, and, in viewing it today, one sincerely wonders what all the fuss was about in the first place. There are far more violent moments in Road House. Ultimately, Zanuck got what he wanted out of Road House; a good solid, sordid tale with plenty of action and a few unexpected twists along the way. The picture is something of an oddity, however, owing to its various incarnations along the way. Jean Negulesco’s ability to maintain edginess throughout, ironically, helps to smooth over the inconsistencies in plot development; Negulesco far more interested in Road House as a character study and mood piece than a narrative-driven ‘chase’ movie. And it is for the performances that Road House remains justly famous and memorable today; chiefly, Ida Lupino’s tart but tasty hard knocks gal. Easily looking ten years older than her own thirty, Lupino exudes a primal, almost feral sexuality; a self-possessed, hedonistic magnetism matched by Cornel Wilde’s taut brawn and Richard Widmark’s viperous instability as a man on the edge of succumbing to his own inner demons. On the surface, Road House remains a superficial noir thriller about the evil men may do to satisfy their own lust. But probing more deeply beneath the surface, one immediately discovers far more intriguing subtexts to explore; a damned woman’s careworn and brooding soul, another’s dispassionate desperation to be loved whatever the circumstances, and two male ‘friends’ contemptuous of each other’s virtues and vices.
Road House on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber looks marginally better than it did via Fox Home Video’s retired DVD. For one thing, the excessive edge effects and shimmering of fine details persist and are, at intervals, very distracting. This isn't a new scan but an old one merely bumped to a 1080p signal with virtually no additional clean-up. The old DVD also appears to have suffered from slightly boosted contrast; levels brought more into balance for advanced image clarity and a more naturally-based grain structure on this Blu-ray. Blacks are deep, but never crush and there appears to be a tad more tonality in the gray scale. So, kudos here. While fine detail is more noticeable in close-ups – some, looking very good indeed – long shots still look marginally softer and, in a few instances, quite blurry by comparison. I suspect no archival elements of more discerning quality exist and, apart from the occasional blip, scratch or dot crawl, this is the absolute best Road House will ever look on home video. Pity that, because this is not a perfect presentation; merely an adequate one that improves on some of the unforgivable sins committed on the ole DVD. The DTS 2.0 mono is well-modulated; dialogue, crisp and easy on the ears; Cyril Mockridge’s underscore given its due.
Virtually all of the extras have been ported over from Fox’s 2008 DVD release, an audio commentary from noir historians, Eddie Muller and Kim Morgan, who have more fun poking fun at some of the clichés than actually relating a lot of textual back story about the making of the film. It’s not a bad commentary; just not a very informative one. We also get ‘Killer Instincts: Richard Widmark and Ida Lupino at Twentieth Century Fox’ an underwhelming featurette flooded with snippets and sound bites from a host of noted historians who are not really allowed to wax all that much about the movie. Personally, I have never understood the point of getting a lot of ‘experts’ together for this sort of puff piece. I mean, it is so obvious all have mountains more of information to provide, but are denied the opportunity to do so, due to ‘time constraints’ or perhaps, just a tightening of the purse strings that refuses to pay more for the privilege of their expertise. Disappointing! We get an animated image gallery – three minutes of B&W behind-the-scenes stills accompanied to Mockridge’s score; plus, trailers for ‘Cry of the City’, ‘Deadline U.S.A.’ and ‘99 River Street’ though curiously, not one for Road House. Huh?!? Bottom line: recommended with caveats.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)