Saturday, November 15, 2008
The Deno Diary: "Road House"
Earlier this year, I read Jean Negulesco's charming, continental memoir, Things I Did and Things I Think I Did, an absorbing account of his journey from European artist-boulevardier to Hollywood director, with witty sketches of the rich and famous he rubbed shoulders with. And I was fascinated to find many of his arty impulses on glorious display in Road House, which easily ranks in my top 5 movies I've seen this year, even if it did come out in 1948.
Is there such a thing as glossy noir? If so, that is what Road House is, a noir-themed melodrama couched in luminous artifice. Even more than the talents of Ida Lupino, Richard Widmark, Cornel Wilde and Celeste Holm, the real star of Road House is its central set, a combination nightclub-bar and bowling alley built with gleaming opulence and curves and set illogically in a small hunting-fishing town near the Canadian border. (Watch how Negulesco's camera glides across the bowling lanes in the mesmerizing title sequence and ends up behind the pins when his own directing credit comes up. Did the Coens see this, pre-Lebowski?)
We're used to gritty street reality in post-war noir; Road House breaks the mold. It's all set work, from the bowling alley to the fake cabin, lake and woods in the film's explosive climax. The clash of hard, tough characters and faux setting makes Road House one weird, unclassifiable movie.
There are so many strange, alluring things in it. The whole town is strange, a "moosetrap" as one character calls it, filled with stuffed animal heads and the humorously titled Antlers Hotel (see pic above). Richard Widmark plays Jefty, the owner of the road house. Have you ever heard of anybody named Jefty? Or anybody as street-wise as a Richard Widmark playing a guy named Jefty? Weird.
Ida Lupino is supposed to be this vampish, fabulous nightclub singer who comes in from big-city Chicago and slays the small-town crowds. Ida Lupino gets the vampish part right — she's got a throaty purr, cracks wise, leaves burning cigarettes on the piano stand and check out that short-shorts outfit she wears to a bowling lesson. But she can't sing for beans. (One character remarks: "She does more without a voice than anyone I've ever heard." Not really.)
The film has a complex interrelationship between its main characters. Jefty (Widmark) is the silver-spoon inheritor of the road house, who gives his childhood friend Pete (Wilde) a job running the place and a room upstairs after the war. Jefty brings in Lilly (Lupino) to sing because he's got a yen for her. At first, Pete takes her for one of Jefty's scheming dames, and tries to play hardball with her. Gee, where is this heading? Naturally, he falls hard for hard-to-get Lil, even though he's got a delightful, wise girl in the form of Celeste Holm's road house cashier Susie.
The film shows the two males as friends, when they are actually caught in a complex owner/servant relationship, which turns ugly when Pete and Lily spoon and Jefty goes crazy with jealous rage in that Tommy Udo way. Meanwhile, the two women start out as catty toward each other, but eventually form some kind of bond. All of this happens under the surface of the main plot, but gives the film more resonance. This does not feel like an American movie, but an American genre homage from a director whose sensitivities were developed elsewhere.
Road House isn't perfect. The plot contrivances for Jefty's revenge against Pete and Lily are pure hokum. And as passionate lovers, the dull Wilde and va-voomy Lupino seem to be acting in different modes. They have all the friction of two pieces of cardboard rubbed together. Wilde and Holm seem much more suited for each other, as do Lupino and Widmark. But the movie takes the expected matchups and shakes them upside down.
In the end, what stands out about Road House isn't really its stars or its story (although Lupino is something else), but the feel and texture of the film, the way it glides to its own inner music. Weird, offbeat, but undeniably hypnotic, Road House is one of a kind.