Bright Lights Film Journal

Ida Lupino: Demon Mother Night

Ida Lupino, one of Hollywood’s most intriguing artists, died on this day in 1995, aged 77. We honor her by reposting Dan Callahan’s powerful portrait, first published in 2009.

 * * *

“[H]er favorite expression of strained intensity would be less quickly relieved by a merciful death than by Ex-Lax.”

* * *

Critic E. Arnot Robertson felt that Bette Davis would have been burned as a witch had she lived two or three hundred years ago, but surely it was Ida Lupino, the self-described “poor man’s Bette Davis,” who had the Evil Eye. Several actors have committed murder on screen in such an intensely imagined manner that you can only worry after their mental health — I’m thinking particularly of Christian Bale in American Psycho (2000) and Judy Davis in A Little Thing Called Murder (2006). But the way Ida Lupino creeps up on her employer with a rope in Ladies in Retirement (1941) is probably the scariest approach to murder that I’ve ever seen in a film, and it’s particularly disturbing because Lupino taps into this killer instinct with no showiness, no fuss. She lets her flat, pretty face slowly flood with venom behind her stark blue, cobra-like eyes, and you can only feel that this is a woman deeply in touch with murderous impulses. Lupino was a strange person, to put it mildly; she fervently believed in the occult, and was self-aware enough to admit, “There is a little black devil inside me. Sometimes I must fight that devil.” And sometimes she had to give in to it.

Lupino has been celebrated as one of the first female directors in Hollywood, and the films she directed in the fifties are good, rough-and-ready B pictures that tackle social issues like unwed mothers, polio, rape, criminal sadism, and bigamy; they set small goals and fulfill them admirably. And surely Lupino must be thanked for the extremely watchable The Trouble with Angels (1966), where Hayley Mills causes mischief at a Catholic girls’ school. I’m particularly fond of the scene in Angels where Mother Superior Rosalind Russell wistfully admits that she once wanted to be a fashion designer, which somehow comes across as the highest of high camp; surely that’s due to Lupino, whose style of directing on set was very campy: “Honey, could you help old Mother here,” she’d say, or “Mum’s in a bad spot, I want to get the camera over there.” She surrendered fully to television in the sixties, acting on The Twilight Zone and Batman and directing most of the major TV shows of the time (including the pilot of Gilligan’s Island!). All this wasteful directorial and acting work buried her real achievement as an actress at Warner Brothers in the forties, where she dominated a raft of fine films before claiming her director’s chair.

The English Lupino came from a famous theatrical family that went back several centuries. At the age of seven, she put on rags, went door to door, and pretended to be a poor waif who was beaten at home; everything had to be dramatic for Ida. She wrote plays for herself as a very young girl, and her comedian father Stanley directed her in a showcase production at home when she was ten years old. For the next three years, Stanley trained Ida to enter the family profession; he had her play Marguerite in Camille and other adult roles rather than have her waste her time on child or even ingénue parts. From the ages of 13 to 15 she dominated the British film industry in a series of temptress parts (!), starting with Allan Dwan’s Her First Affaire (1932). Paramount signed her up with the intention of starring her as Alice in Wonderland, but she balked at the role: “You can’t play naïve if you’re not,” she said. “I never had any childhood.” Instead, at 16, she was bleached, plucked, and thrust into Search for Beauty (1934), an incredibly sleazy film that celebrates “the body beautiful” with lots of exercise scenes and bare asses.

Lupino looks demoralized, and justifiably irritable, in most of the Paramount films that followed; like Bette Davis in her early Warner Brother’s movies, she seems impatient and jumpy, refusing to do any of her comic roles with any true lightness. “There was no variety to it at all,” she said later of this frustrating first experience in Hollywood, “and boredom sets in, which is a bad thing.” She had a fragrant small part in Henry Hathaway’s romantic Peter Ibbetson (1935), but for most of the thirties she had to smile as Bing Crosby sang at her or punch a time clock for the lowest Paramount programmers. By the time something like The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt (1939) came along, her attempts at humor are pretty gruesome, but she finally found deliverance in a classic Bette Davis-type part, the spiteful Cockney Bessie Broke in William Wellman’s The Light That Failed (1939, below).

It’s impossible to avoid comparing Lupino with Davis most of the time because many of her best roles so closely follow a template that Davis had laid out. Bessie is a retread of Davis’ first success as Mildred in Of Human Bondage (1934), even to the point of being up against a soporific English star (Leslie Howard for Davis, Ronald Colman for Lupino). Lupino’s Bessie doesn’t have the size or complexity of Davis’ Mildred, but she’s uncommonly vivid and ravaged; whereas Davis has flashes of demon-like energy, Lupino channels a pure demonic manner. She lets us see that Bessie has been abused in every way possible and gives ample hints of how this abuse has made her what she is. Like Davis, Lupino certainly had a way with her consonants: “I hope it splits yer skull,” she hisses at Colman, when he has a headache, attacking “k’s” and “t’s” and “s” sounds like they’re kittens she’s strangling. When Bessie narrows her eyes and destroys a portrait with turpentine, Lupino lets us see that this is an act of vengeance but also an act of self-destruction. The film has no sympathy for Bessie, but Lupino does, making what could have been a plot device into a three-dimensional girl, pitifully ignorant, irreparably wounded.

The next year, Lupino was given a second Bette Davis test to pass at Warner Brothers: Raoul Walsh’s They Drive by Night starts out as a movie-movie, but when Lupino enters it halfway through, the film experiences a kind of psychotic break. Asked to play Davis’ old part in Bordertown (1935), Lupino has a curt way of delivering clichéd lines so that they come out as unadulterated camp, but when she decides to asphyxiate her boorish husband (Alan Hale), she taps into her uncanny murderous instinct. After she puts one over on the cops, Lupino’s satisfied, witch-like face fills the entire screen, and we could be seeing something out of Day of Wrath (1943) or The Exorcist (1973), Pure Evil in the raw. Those hissed consonants knock you back in your seat when she zeroes in on an uninterested George Raft; she’s not quite as electric as Davis was in this role, but she’s electric enough. Davis’ courtroom mad scene in Bordertown was daringly flat, an interesting choice, whereas Lupino simply shoots the works in the accepted “madwoman” manner. “What’s the dame hittin’ high C for?” asks a prison worker, after seeing Lupino’s hysterics; the answer, of course, is a Warner Brothers contract, and the heady years when Lupino came into her own as an actress.

She was a big star now, and Warners cemented her new status by giving her top billing over Humphrey Bogart in Walsh’s High Sierra (1941), probably the best movie she ever made. As Marie, a refugee from a “dime a dance” joint, Lupino is ideal with the fatalistic Bogart, slowly creating a connection with his criminal “Mad Dog” Earle; her hair has light patches that almost look grey in black and white, which gives Lupino an old-before-her-time aspect to go along with her watchful, adult attitudes. When discussing her abusive father, her Marie has an almost good-humored manner; this is a resilient, smart girl, and she takes only a split second to see who the real tramp is when confronting a romantic rival (Joan Leslie). Lupino hits her marks and takes her moments simply here, but she goes all-out for her last scene, making her face haggard and ruined as she weeps over Bogart, then opening it up to the sun and turning it young and hopeful, a perfectly calibrated, touching transition. (She had trouble with this scene at first, until Bogart told her to think of something sad from her own life; she took a moment away, then came back and nailed it.)

There were no real women’s melodramas for Lupino; she seemed to thrive best in the masculine atmosphere of Hathaway, Wellman, Walsh, and Michael Curtiz. At times she could be forced, as in Out of the Fog (1941), where she has a pushy explosion of emotion in her very first scene. But she could also underplay to great effect, as in Moontide (1942), where she quietly undergoes a physical and spiritual regeneration. Leaving the docks and dime-a-dance joints, Lupino found herself mired in a coal-town in the first scenes of The Hard Way (1943), a film that gave her probably her most difficult role (she won the New York Film Critics award for it). This is another of her demon parts: Helen Chernen (Helen = Hell), a disappointed woman who puts all her energy behind promoting her kid sister (Joan Leslie again) in show business. Helen is a very hard person; as she gets a has-been (Gladys George) drunk so that her sister can take over the woman’s musical number, she has an abstracted, distant look on her face, almost mournful but not quite. When she snubs a low-level manager and he says, “I thought we were good friends,” Lupino’s Helen swiftly replies, “I’m my only good friend, Max, you know that.” That fast, stiletto-like moment is the key to her brusque, unlikable performance; Lupino had a breakdown midway through the shoot when her father died, and she hated herself in the movie, but the contained vitriol of Helen Chernen is difficult to shake off once you’ve seen it.

She was miscast in a Joan Fontaine-style part in In Our Time (1944), where you can tell she’s bored, and she was still too starchy for comedy in Pillow to Post (1945). After a trashy Bronte sisters biopic with Olivia de Havilland (Devotion, 1945), she held together an enjoyable Raoul Walsh stew, The Man I Love (1947), by playing the whole movie at restless, almost comic top speed (Lupino was a high-energy insomniac who could go for days without sleep). By this point, her voice is starting to sound singed, like a burnt piece of toast or a wet cigarette; it’s not quite a croak, and not quite a rasp, and it’s unmistakable. She had plenty of chemistry with Errol Flynn in Escape Me Never (1947), but was all at sea as a stuttering “nature girl” in Deep Valley (1947), and that film effectively ended her productive years at Warners. Whereupon she went over to Fox to play Lily Stevens in Road House (1948), a big hit that put a capper on her best performing years.

From her first introductory shot in Road House (right), where we see her shapely leg and then her tough broad “well?” face, it’s clear that Lupino is going to play this role in a highly unusual register. Her hair is blondish here, with too-short bangs, and it gives her just the right incongruous look; her voice is much lower, and for the only time, we don’t hear her attempting to smother her British accent, which seems to have been definitively killed for this picture. Lupino doesn’t try to hide her essential weirdness in Road House, and every moment she’s on screen is bizarre, precise, and funny; it’s less a performance and more a whole complex, unfathomable sensibility in action. In Lily’s shorts and low-cut gowns, Lupino’s skinniness is somehow intimidating; after she slaps Cornel Wilde, she says, “Silly boy,” in such a dry, absent way that she makes it into one of the all-time great kiss-offs. Even the evil of a young Richard Widmark doesn’t faze Lily much; she absorbs his advances and simply mutters, “Mmm,” like a distracted, indulgent mother. Lily is a singer by trade, and Lupino herself doles out “One for My Baby” and “Again,” effortlessly taking a crowd’s attention with her ghostly, off-key delivery.

Lily is from Chicago; her father had wanted her to become an opera singer, just as Lupino’s father wanted her to be a major actress, but Lily lost her voice, and it’s clear by this point that Lupino is disillusioned with her career. (“I’ve never really liked acting,” she admitted later on, in the fifties. “It’s a torturous profession, and it plays havoc with your private life.”) For forty-five minutes or so of Road House, Lupino does her most distinctive, most confident, most elemental work, until Widmark’s giggling sadism takes over, leaving Lily/Lupino stranded in plot, when all she really needs is some sour dialogue, a piano, and a light for her cigarettes. She was only thirty in 1948, and should have just been coming into her own, but she retreated to make her mark as a director. There were a few more good performances, like her vulnerable blind woman in Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (1951), and she goes for broke with the climactic speech in Robert Aldrich’s The Big Knife (1955), but she eventually took on too many campy prison wardens and faded actress roles for TV. Her stormy third marriage to Howard Duff led to them starring in a fifties sitcom, Mr. Adams and Eve, where she suddenly showed that she could be quite adept at comic “business” (Lupino said that this period was the happiest of her life).

The marriage to Duff dissolved in the seventies, and Lupino had a few final moments on screen: as Steve McQueen’s weathered mother in Sam Peckinpah’s Junior Bonner (1972), she carves out a space for herself in a male universe as surely as she did when she played Marie in High Sierra. She hadn’t done the Grand Guignol roles that Davis, Joan Crawford, and others feasted on in the sixties, but she took two unlikely plunges into full-on drive-in horror: The Devil’s Rain (1975), where she is asked to play most of the film with blacked-out eyes, and The Food of the Gods (1976, above), where she contends with giant rats and worms. Feeling that the jig was up, Lupino turned to drink and became quite reclusive in her last fifteen years. It’s more than a little frightening to consider what she mulled over during this period, and what impulses continued to bedevil her. One day, toward the end, Lupino shook her fist at one of her few close friends. “See this?” she asked, raising the fist to his face. “This is what makes the world go round.”