The powers that be have been unusually miserly with their classic film DVD releases in the last five or so months, but this week we at least get some really good, weird film noirs, MOONTIDE and the incomparable ROAD HOUSE. A fine showcase for Ida Lupino (she gets to croak out a bunch of numbers in her frail, smoke ravaged voice, and you understand why she packs the house and everyone stays quiet, almost nervous lest they break the spell of her world-weary reverie), ROAD HOUSE is slam bang quality “rustic noir” – the hybrid of guns and fatalistic romance with the big outdoorsy cabins and lakes that American audiences seemed obsessed with in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The big show stopping performance here isn’t from Lupino, though, it’s Widmark–who slowly burns his way from lovable swine to full-on homicidal lunatic, sneering and cackling like his KISS OF DEATH killer cranked to 11. Never before has craven sniveling been made so damned sexy.
I’d never seen ROAD HOUSE–not even the Patrick Swayze remake–until last night and I’m fairly blown away. It’s rich in atmospheric detail, with the titular house–a bowling alley/tavern deep in the Northern moose country along the Canadian border–brought to detailed, thriving life. Twenty minutes into the film and we feel like we’ve been working there; we know the playboy boss, Jefty (Richard Widmark), his Rock Hudson-ish fall guy (Cornell Wilde), the bartender, the waitress (Celeste Holm), the newly arrived torch singer (Ida Lupino), their good and bad sides, the way you can only know someone by working with them. The road house itself feels lived in, cozy. The plot runs along the same lines as Douglas Sirk’s WRITTEN ON THE WIND, with Wilde’s poor but virile right hand man (a very good bowler) falling in love with the torch singer, whom Widmark has imported for himself. Widmark doesn’t take well to the news, and begins a rapid descent into giggling homicidal rage, would you really want it any other way?
Adding DVD lustre is a great commentary track from noir czar Eddie Mueller and my favorite, Kim Morgan. Morgan sounds great, keeping the energy raised with her patented quick talking brilliance. More than once I was stunned by her ability to convey elaborate, detailed insights concisely and eloquently–such as the myriad meanings of Widmark’s crooked smile–at the speed of normal urban conversation. Mueller is also good; slower to get his points across, as befits, perhaps, his czar status, but a veritable fountain of pertinent information. Together they’re an ideal commentary team and one hopes to hear them share more tracks such as this.
The picture quality throughout is very good, though a disclaimer at the beginning assures us humbly it was made “with the best materials available.” I didn’t notice any flaws, but then again I was too riveted by the intensity of Widmark’s performance as Jefty. As I lay in bed trying to sleep I was overcome by Jeftiness, his slimy relish for the hatred he’s generating. Widmark here gives us the same grandiosity and sociopath wit that we find in the best of our complex movie bad men – Brando’s Stanley Kowalski for example. Widmark wears the evil of Jefty like a lived-in favorite set of pajamas, like he’s having a high old time. Waving a gun around in a drunken display of marksmanship, he’s magnetic and believable – you know you should think of an excuse to get away from him before you get hurt, but you just can’t; you risk your life just to watch what he does next.
By comparison, we might look at Robert Stack in WRITTEN ON THE WIND. Stack’s genius as the rich kid there was in showing us the squirming worm of infant neediness underneath the rock of male bravado; you pitied him but still wanted to step on him, squish him back down to your Freudian root cellar. Widmark’s Jefty on the other hand, keeps the bravado rock unlifted. He’s a hunter, a dead shot even when dead drunk, and he laughs uproariously at his own absurdity; when he tries to show a vulnerable side it’s too foreign, too out of character, even to himself, and he quickly covers it back up. But that’s part of why we like him. Instead of showing us the void of his naked soul, he shows us the way out of our own, he makes sadistic glee contagious; we come away not just glad the lovers are united and the sun is coming up, but still infected by Widmark’s charismatic violence. He gets under our skin and when the movie’s over he’s still there, driving the Widmark hook deeper and deeper into our voyeur muscle.