Several weeks ago, I randomly decided to watch On Dangerous Ground, the pretty good film noir by Nicolas Ray from 1951. It was one of those nights where I was flipping through my various streaming services and eventually got so tired of not making a decision, I wound up punching "play" on whatever sounded remotely interesting. I’ve enjoyed several of Nicolas Ray’s film and I’m always up for a noir so away I went.
Like I said, it was pretty good. It is about a cop whose violent tendencies get him sent to the countryside to cool off. There, he gets involved in trying to solve the murder of a child. In his search, he comes across a blind woman with a secret. I was really struck by the actress playing the blind woman. It wasn’t a great role, but the performance was so much better than the material. She played it so passionately, so deeply felt that I looked her up afterward.
The actress was Ida Lupino. After doing some research on her, I knew I needed to watch more of her films. She started her career as an actress making her film debut in The Love Race at age 13. For the next 15 years, she continued to get steady work as an actress and saw her star begin to rise. But she was constantly in trouble with the studios. Signed to Warner Brothers, she found herself at odds with Jack Warner, refusing to take roles she felt were “beneath her dignity as an actress.” Still, she was making bigger and bigger pictures and earning lots of critical praise.
Just about the time she was becoming an A-List star, she formed an independent film company with her husband Collier Young. They called it "The Filmakers," and she began writing, producing, and directing a series of low-budget, issue-oriented films. In doing so, she became only the second woman admitted into the Directors Guild of America and a pioneer for women in film.
Sadly, she has mostly been forgotten by the masses. These days, she's only remembered by classic film enthusiasts and then mostly for her work as an actress. But recently there has been something of a revival of her work as a filmmaker with several retrospectives taking place in major cities and now Kino Lorber has released a remarkable boxed set containing four of the films she made during this period.
Three of the films (Never Fear, Not Wanted, and The Bigamist) are what they used to call women’s pictures, melodramas about one social issue or another. The outlier is The Hitch-Hiker, a western noir of a road movie that made Lupino the first woman ever to direct a film noir.
In each of these films, she is able to move past what is often After School Special subject matter and make something meaningful. They might be melodramas but they are not overly melodramatic. In Not Wanted, a woman finds herself both unmarried and pregnant (something still very much taboo in 1949). When she visits a shelter for women in her predicament, the director tells her they are there to help without judgment. That could be the tagline for these three social dramas.
In Never Fear, a talented dancer with a promising career is stricken with polio (a disease that very much was in the public mind in 1949). Though her father and fiancé try to help her, she pushes them away and works through her recovery on her own. The film follows her at a rehab center where she slowly learns to use her legs again. Lupino films it with humanistic grace. The character struggles to come to terms with her disease and the effect it has on her career and her life. While it is certainly maudlin at times, it also takes a realistic look at the disease and the steps needed for recovery.
With polio all but being irradiated in the industrialized world and unwed motherhood completely unscandalized, the social issues of some of these films can feel a bit passé and old-fashioned. The Bigamist focuses on something still mostly frowned upon in our modern culture. It is about a traveling salesman who has two wives, one with a child, the other hoping to adopt. It is the latter that gets him caught, having to go through a background by a rather overzealous adoption agent. But here again, Lupino doesn’t judge. The film focuses on why this man would form two families - life is lonely on the road, his first wife is both depressed and has thrown herself into her career, thus has no time for him. It is sympathetic to his plight. And while it concludes with him going to jail for it, the audience and many of the characters feel almost sorry for him.
The Hitch-Hiker is a straight-up thriller. It finds two men off on a fishing weekend who are terrorized when they pick up a serial killer with his thumb out. It takes place on the open road, through the mountains of Southern California (subbing for Mexico), and is shot like a classic noir with claustrophobic close-ups and lots of dark shadows. She keeps the tension going for its short 71-minute run time. The killer is truly scary and his two captives are sympathetic, though no one is given much depth.
Lupino isn’t a flashy director; she’s not interested in film tricks or lots of stylish flourishes. She’s a more natural director telling a story cheaply and economically. The three dramas aren’t really my type of film but they kept me interested with their simplicity and humanity. The Hitch-Hiker is likewise not a great film noir; there just isn’t enough story there, but she capably tells it and firmly demonstrates that she was capable than more than just “women’s stories”.
Kino Lorber has done a fine job with this boxed set. Each film has been given a lovely restoration in high definition. Extras are slim - just trailers and an audio commentary for each of them, but it also comes with a thick booklet filled with nice photos and a long essay about Lupino as a filmmaker.
Ida Lupino was a pioneer in women’s filmmaking. She stepped back from a promising career as an actress to prove that she was just as strong working behind the scenes. The Filmakers didn’t last long as a production company but Lupino kept working as an actress and director of numerous television shows, and as an actress on the big and small screen, but she never became the big star it seemed she would be. This four-disk set is an excellent introduction to her work as a director and demonstrates what an all-encompassing talent she was.