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Take Three: Ida Lupino

Craig (from Dark Eye Socket) here with Take Three. This week actress and director  Ida Lupino

Ida Lupino a "sensation" circa 1941

Take One: The Bigamist (1953)
The Bigamist probes unseemly marital behaviour and stews on moral sorrows. At its centre is Edmond O’Brien toing and froing between two wives. But behind the camera as director, and in a supporting role as O’Brien’s second, San Francisco wife Phyllis Martin, is Ida Lupino. Her unfussy direction creates lean drama and her performance beautifully matches it, with nary an unnecessary furtive glance or superfluous line spoken. She’s a woman bored on a bus tour of Hollywood stars’ homes, chatted up by O’Brien’s depressed bigamist Harry Graham. 


Edmond as Harry: Haven’t you any interest in how the other half lives?
Ida as Phyllis: No, not particularly. I’m just crazy about bus rides – gives me a chance to get off my feet.”

Phyllis is smart, practical and wryly humorous. She’s world-weary enough to spot a chancer, but curious enough to give him his chance. Yet, she’s not someone to be taken advantage of. She’s part good-time gal, hired by a failing Chinese restaurant to perk up business that she herself acknowledges she’s failed to do, and part susceptible single girl. It’s clear she wants companionship, so she involves herself unknowingly in an already-married man’s emotions. Lupino deftly conveys just the right levels of guarded vulnerability and earthy pluckiness.

Lupino directed herself twice on screen prior to The Bigamist in Outrage (1950) and Hard, Fast and Beautiful  (1951) – but only in unnamed, uncredited cameos. Here she creates for herself a memorable emotionally driven character which she nails with snap and skill. With the cheeky shrewdness of a Hollywood pro, the perfectly cast Lupino gives herself the film’s best part.  As a director she clearly knows what kind of performance style the part requires; as an actress she fulfils the role with elegant yet slightly spiky precision. 

Two more takes after the jump...

Take Two: On Dangerous Ground (1952)
Despite directing several scenes over a few days when Nicholas Ray fell ill during production, Lupino didn’t receive any directorial credit on On Dangerous Ground. And though she's credited first, it's really co-star Robert Ryan’s film. His Detective Jim Wilson is the protagonist troubled by violent tendencies and in need of some time out. We follow him from the city to the snowy peaks of Colorado on the trail of a cop killer. At the film's halfway point he meets the suspect's blind sister Mary Malden played by Lupino. Alone in her cabin, and both curious and dubious about the detective, she cautiously welcomes him. They strike up a furtive friendship speckled with doubt, and talk about trust. (“If only I could see you, I could be sure,” She says to him.) Lupino makes Mary a fiercely independent woman in her own inimitable style. But Mary’s also a slave to her own company. No sooner does she talk about not wanting to be alone then Bernard Herrmann’s lush, plaintive score backs up her words. Lupino translates the sorrow of her role with a lovely intuition. Mary doesn’t get much of a backstory, but none is required; a great deal of what her life is like is translated through Lupino’s thoughtful, touching gestures. Trust, loneliness, tenderness: On Dangerous Ground weaves all these aspects into its hard-boiled noir plot thanks to her casting. Her essential on (and off) screen contribution marks the film out as a particularly uncommon and good-natured variant of the 1950s crime picture. Her unique ability to get to the heart of characters is greatly felt.

Take Three: Jennifer (1953)
Dark mysterious shadows bookend Joel Newton’s Jennifer. In between there’s Ida Lupino, as caretaker Agnes Langley. She rattles around a vast, empty mansion like a dazed spirit, her heels echoing off the floors and into the night. Agnes has taken this job after the mysterious disappearance of the estate's former caretaker: the Jennifer of the title. With mutterings of missing money, blackmail and suicide surrounding Jennifer’s legacy – along with some nosy locals and several spooky housebound occurrences – it’s no surprise that Agnes doesn’t have a grand time of it. The care she takes of the house is minimal; she’s too busy snooping into cellars and through Jennifer’s belongings in an attempt to solve her whereabouts. Newton often films Lupino’s despairing face in stark close-up as she vacantly gazes somewhere out of shot and James Wong Howe’s vibrant black and white photography accentuates the fear accumulating in her eyes.

We learn late in the film that Agnes is a 32-year-old unmarried secretary, born in Ventura and used to the idea of disappearance and abandonment: her beau left her with no explanation. Perhaps this is why she’s so desperate to find out where Jennifer went. Secrets inhabit Agnes the way she herself inhabits the bleak house. Lupino embodies all the psychological aspects of her character and deftly lets them seep out over the course of Jennifer’s brisk running time. It’s a restrained performance, carefully considered and beautifully conveyed. Part of Lupino’s skill in playing B-movie roles is that she approached them as if they were grand A-grade dramas. Respect for genre was a key attribute in making her performance in Jennifer a success. It’s here that we can see why Lupino jokingly described herself as the "poor man's Bette Davis."

Three more films for the taking: High Sierra (1940), The Hard Way (1943), While the City Sleeps (1956)

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Reader Comments (5)

On dangerous Ground is such a masterpiece. I didn't know Lupino directed parts of the movie, maybe because it is very specifically Ray-ish in every aspect. Anyway, it shows thet Lupico was an accomplished director, capaple of emulating a director's style and worldview. Love it.

June 5, 2012 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

As a small child my mom took me to movies ... and that is why I have adored and been interested in movies all my life .. Ida Lupino was my first crush at age 5.

The movie I remember most is "Ladies in Retirement" I must have seen that movie 50 times through the years.

June 5, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterrick

I've only seen Ida in The Sixteen Millimeter Shrine episode of the Twilight Zone and adored her. Shades of Norma Desmond in her character.

June 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTim B.

Love Ida Lupino! She is easily in my top ten favorite performers and I have seen most of what she has directed. On Dangerous Ground and The Bigamist were both fine films although I wasn't crazy about Jennifer, I found it rather obvious but Ida was good per usual.
The Hard Way provided her with a great opportunity and amazingly was the only film she ever won a major award, the New York Film Critics, for. She was never nominated for an Oscar!! Criminal considering some of the people who have won them.
I prefer her work in the great undervalued noir Road House and the moody noir with comic overtones The Man I Love where she suffers but is nobody's fool and bitch slaps the gun out of someone's hands while dressed in an evening gown!
Rick, I agree about Ladies in Retirement its wonderfully atmospheric with Ida a tightly wound spring and Elsa Lanchester & Edith Barrett terrific as her batty sisters.
She's also wonderful in They Drive by Night and The Light That Failed and terrific in her latter day perfomance as Steve McQueen's mother in Junior Bonner.
That's just scratching the surface of course she was always interesting, sometimes riveting, even if the script was beneath her. And her work behind the camera had a unique vision especially at a time when she was the only woman director registered with the directors guild. She deserves to be far more well known.

June 5, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

I just realised I've never properly been blown away by Lupino but every time I see her name in the opening titles - whether as star or director - I'm a little bit more excited about the movie. I'm not sure why. She fascinates me.

I've yet to track down The Bigamist and I hadn't even heard of Jennifer (though I will seek it out now). But On Dangerous Ground is a fabulous film - probably not Ray's best, but it does serve as a great example of Ray at his best. For a few years there, he made emo positively cool, man..

As for Lupino, I think my favourite performance of hers would probably be her cameo-sized office slut in While the City Sleeps. It made me wish she landed a few more of those aging-diva-popping-up-to-steal-a-few-scenes roles in the later part of her career.

June 5, 2012 | Unregistered Commentergoran
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