Everyone knows that Ida Lupino was a great actress — I, for one, have already gushed in the pages of this blog about her performance as an isolated, blind woman in Nicholas Ray’s eternally underrated On Dangerous Ground (1951). Her curious performance style can make one feel, through the slightest look or gesture, that one is suddenly privy to unexpected, cavernous depths of emotion — memorably evoked in this beautiful jazz tune by the Paul Bley Trio named for her. Thanks to recent efforts by programmers, her directorial work has been getting some much-needed critical attention as well. Almost everything one reads about Lupino’s work nowadays, though, seems to be more preoccupied with her contextual status as an industry pioneer than it is with the particularities of her aesthetic vision.
The truth is that Lupino was much more than a “socially significant” filmmaker; she was a great filmmaker, one of the best of the 1950s. Her directorial style is, above all, stripped-down: like a few other Hollywood filmmakers of the period, such as André de Toth, she brought a kind of lean, essentialist poetry to commercial material that didn’t really require such artistry. The critic Dave Kehr writes that Lupino “placed her emphasis on the hard, elementary particles of human expression — the angle of a look, the position of a hand.” This description, which in some ways recalls Robert Bresson, seems to situate Lupino as a kind of harsh, metaphysical poet, an artist concerned with examining the mysterious nature of expression itself. For me, this remains the most enduring and fascinating aspect of her work.
A few years ago, while living in Bloomington, I was able to attend theatrical screenings of a number of Lupino films when IU Cinema honored her work in its 5X Ida Lupino: Fearless, Extraordinary Trailblazer series. For years, the only way one could easily watch Lupino’s masterpiece Outrage (1950), the greatest of the five films by her that I’ve seen, was through a grainy YouTube upload; being able to see the clarity of the film’s spaces and textures on a 35mm print was a revelation. The film, which deals forthrightly with the rape of a young woman (played by Mala Powers) and with the aftereffects of this assault, conjures up not one, but several, visions of the world in its startlingly detailed mise-en-scène.
The first world, the one that Lupino carefully constructs at the beginning of the film, is one of comfort and security, tied to notions of American success: Powers’ character, Ann Walton, has a steady job and a steady boyfriend, whom she plans to marry. But Lupino soon undermines this reassuring vision through the brutal assault sequence, filmed on eerie, spartan streets with stark shafts of light jutting in between dense fields of black. Like some other great American filmmakers of the ‘50s (John Ford, Vincente Minnelli), Lupino seems entirely unconvinced here by the mythic notion of postwar America as a land of prosperity and familial stability; rather, what we see here is a despairing portrait of a society ruled by fear and self-centeredness. The third, and most powerful, act of the film deserves to be compared with On Dangerous Ground and Rossellini’s Stromboli (1950) in its graceful flowering of hope and its inauguration of a new way at looking at the world. Lupino grounds Walton’s reckoning with her own trauma in the experience of nature, shown to us in a series of flowing outdoor shots. As this character begins to take her first, tentative steps back into the world, one gets the sense that she uses the natural world as a means of self-reconstruction.
During the retrospective at IU, I also had the opportunity to see a true rarity that Lupino directed: Never Fear (1950), sometimes known by the inferior title The Young Lovers. Here, too, Lupino presents us with a hopeful vision that swiftly crashes down into tragedy: a young dancer (Sally Forrest) enjoying her first taste of romantic love and professional success contracts polio, and is forced to endure a prolonged treatment in a rehabilitation facility. Though the plotline is perhaps more conventionally melodramatic than in Outrage, Lupino’s habitual interest in unaccountable forces of disruption comes through strongly, and the long, painful implications of the road to self-healing, both physical and mysteriously spiritual, are powerfully evoked. The film’s images possess a beautifully uncluttered clarity (the kind that one simply doesn’t find in the kinetic American cinema of today) which strikes me as being in keeping with its unflinching, almost Ozu-like unveiling of hard truths.
IU Cinema is virtually presenting Lupino’s arid, plein air noir The Hitch-Hiker (1953) for free until February 17. It’s an excellent movie, and probably Lupino’s best-known work as a director alongside The Bigamist (of the same year). I hope those who admire the film will feel compelled to check out these less-heralded titles, as well as some of the subsequent work that Lupino directed for television (including “The Masks,” an effective Twilight Zone episode from 1964). Though Lupino directed a relatively small number of theatrical titles before embarking on her career in television, her body of work represents an ethically serious and formally accomplished contribution to the best period in American cinema.
The Hitch-Hiker is being presented in the IU Cinema Virtual Screening Room from February 3-17 as part of the series 10 Years, 10 Films, 10 Perspectives. You will be able to stream the film for free to the device of your choosing via a link and password which will only be provided through our Weekly Email. You must be subscribed to our Weekly Email to receive the film’s link and password.
IU Cinema previously screened The Hitch-Hiker in 2018 as part of our series 5X Ida Lupino: Fearless, Extraordinary Trailblazer, which celebrated the iconic filmmaker’s 100th birthday.
Never Fear is currently streaming on the Criterion Channel.
Jack Miller enjoys the films of Howard Hawks, Jacques Tourneur and John Ford. He graduated from Indiana University with a BA in English, and currently resides in Chicago. He also enjoys listening to country and disco music.