I've been looking forward to ROAD HOUSE for quite a while -- since it came out on DVD a few years ago, actually! (So many movies, so little time...) I expected to enjoy a film noir with Richard Widmark and Ida Lupino, and I certainly did.
Lupino plays Lily Stevens, a chanteuse hired by Jefty Robbins (Widmark) to perform in his road house near the Canadian border. Jefty's righthand man Pete (Cornel Wilde) isn't happy about what the expensive new hire will do the roadhouse budget, but eventually Pete and Lily stop bickering and fall for one another -- to the disappointment of bookkeeper Susie Smith (Celeste Holm), who crushes on Pete, and the rage of Jefty, who wants Lily for himself. Matters spiral out of control as Jefty plots revenge.
This film has outstanding performances and really terrific atmosphere, with both the music and set design being key elements in the film's great look and sound. The opening credits sequence sets the tone, with some marvelous shots, including the pins being manually reset in the road house bowling alley. (Those were the days...)
I won't say anything about the film's ending, other than to mention I felt that it raised more questions than it answered, in terms of the paroled Pete's future and what a judge would make of what happened. Will a judge accept Lily and Susie's account or perceive a devious plot?
The hard-drinking, chain-smoking, solitaire-playing Lily is one tough cookie. Her refusal to use an ashtray, instead allowing her cigarettes to burn holes into the top of the piano, seems to illustrate her attitude, daring others to argue with her. Lily isn't blessed with a classically beautiful voice, yet she pours so much emotion into "One for my Baby" and "Again" that audiences are captivated. As Susie exclaims, in one of the film's many good lines, "She does more without a voice than anyone I ever heard!"
Lupino's Lily is mesmerizing, although at the same time she's so cranky and hard-edged that I found it a little difficult to understand exactly why both Jefty and Pete fall for her so hard. (I guess she does look quite nice in her evening gowns...) Given that this is a woman whose first act upon awakening is to reach for her cigarettes, I also couldn't help thinking that she must have absolutely reeked of smoke, but that's a '40s film noir for you.
This was Widmark's third film, following his memorable debut in KISS OF DEATH (1947) and another charismatic performance in THE STREET WITH NO NAME (1948). Jefty starts out as a relatively normal guy, with occasional flashes of anger, but by film's end he's descended into all-out Tommy Udo-like madness, tormenting his former friends. Widmark was always a great villain, including in this film, though I'm glad that his roles later expanded into heroes and anti-heroes.
THE BIG COMBO (1955) -- but he's fine in this, in a performance I found a little more interesting than his norm. Celeste Holm is sympathetic as the woman who wishes Pete would see her as more than a friend; this was Holm's fourth film, following her Oscar-winning Supporting Actress performance in GENTLEMAN'S AGREEMENT (1947).
The supporting cast includes O.Z. Whitehead, Robert Karnes, Ray Teal, Grandon Rhodes, George Beranger, and Ian MacDonald.
ROAD HOUSE was directed by Jean Negulesco. The beautiful black and white cinematography was by Joseph LaShelle. (IMDb also indicates cinematographer Norbert Brodine did uncredited work.) Kay Nelson designed Lupino's gowns. The film runs 95 minutes.
The set design of the road house and bowling alley is truly gorgeous. Lyle R. Wheeler and Maurice Ransford did the art direction, with set decoration by Thomas Little. The only drawback to the film's great look is the very phony soundstage exteriors during the film's concluding sequence.
DVD release. Unlike most Fox Film Noir releases, it is unnumbered. It's a wonderful print. Extras include a featurette and a commentary track by Kim Morgan and Eddie Muller. The DVD was reviewed at DVD Talk; it can be rented via Netflix or ClassicFlix.
ROAD HOUSE has also had a release on VHS.
ROAD HOUSE rates a definite thumbs up for fans of film noir.