When Lily Stevens arrives at the backwoods bar and bowling alley called Jefty’s Road House as the latest singer, general manager Pete is less than thrilled. He thinks that Lily will only become the next in a long line of entertainers that Jefty has brought into his place hoping for some cheap thrills, while Pete is forced to deal with the poor girl’s broken heart. But something is different about Lily. She’s a chain-smoking, scotch-pounding woman who is here for the paycheck, and not interested in any extracurricular activities - at first anyway.
Pete, much to his chagrin, finds himself falling for Lily as he teaches her to bowl and shares a few drinks with her. Meanwhile, Jefty has been working himself up thinking that Lily is falling for him, when in fact she is discovering a love for Pete. Lily and Pete try to keep their relationship a secret, though when Jefty does not ask, but tells Lily they are going to get married, they are forced to reveal the truth. Jefty, whose gone mad from love and insane with jealousy, devices a nefarious scheme to keep the two lovebirds in town, but his short temper and heavy drinking may just prove to be his own undoing.
By 1948, the film-noir genre was in full swing, with studios churning out movies left and right. ROAD HOUSE marked one of 20th Century Fox’s earlier entries in the genre, and what an entry it is! Jean Negulesco, who would win a Best Director Oscar for JOHNNY BELINDA the following year, directs with cool panache a story from Oscar Saul (who adapted A STREET CAR NAMED DESIRE for the screen). The story is almost a two-in-one, as the first half is a quick witted melodrama in a bowling alley bar, while the second half steeps itself in shadows and tension as the characters rocket toward their inevitable fates.
At the heart of the movie is Lily Stevens, played to perfection by Ida Lupino. Saul’s screenplay, which was co-written by Margaret Gruen, features surprisingly progressive feminist ideals for the general time period, though were rather commonplace within the noir genre. Lily proves again and again that she is no pushover and can go drink for drink, smoke for smoke, and vocal jab for jab with the men, and is aghast when she is simply told to get married to Jefty. Lupino is simply perfect for the role, and shows within the movie her skills with an “I can do that, it easy” mentality. Off screen, Lupino would later make a name for herself as a television and movie director in a decidedly “boys only” era of Hollywood.
Pulling the reigns of Pete and Jefty are Cornel Wilde and Richard Widmark. Wilde gives a solid performance, but nothing too fancy or memorable though, but Widmark absolutely steals the movie. Widmark had made an incredible debut as the psychotic gangster Tommy Udo the year before in KISS OF DEATH, and he retains a little bit of that edge here. For Widmark, his talent lies in talking with his eyes, and you can watch the man flick a switch as he goes from likable to feared in a split second. When Jefty finally loses his cool in the last third of the film, Widmark is in complete control and his performance is mesmerizing.
As with any noir worth its weight in bullets, the set design and lighting play just as crucial a role in making or breaking the movie as the actors inhabiting it, and ROAD HOUSE makes exceptional use of both. While the standard light through the Venetian blinds makes an appearance, the film instead uses large swaths of bottomless shadows to engulf singular light bulbs, or a moon high in the sky to light the woods, a rather surreal setting given noirs often concrete jungle atmosphere. And what can be said of the actual road house set but pure fantastical brilliance. The crashing pins in the background and wafting cigarette smoke is simply intoxicating, and it is here that you can see glimmers of influence on THE BIG LEBOWSKI which would be release fifty years later.
While titles like DOUBLE INDEMNITY and THE BIG SLEEP have come to symbolize film noir through and through, ROAD HOUSE has criminally fallen to the side. Its true that there are no sinister plots of murder, no wicked double crossing and no voice-overs telling the story to be found here, but Negulesco’s movie does have that same unsettling feeling that these characters somehow know how this is all gong to end, and they are powerless to stop it. Even at the lightest moments of the movie, there is that burning feeling that happiness is but a fleeting moment, and that the only thing you can really trust is a slug of whiskey in your gut and loaded revolver hidden close by.
For the movie’s DVD debut, Fox has done their absolute best to present the finest print from the source material available. Preserved in its original full-screen ratio, the transfer does justice the incredible black and white cinematography along with the original mono soundtrack. English, Spanish and French subtitles are also provided. Included in the extras is an audio commentary, a look at the lives of Lupino and Widmark, an interactive pressbook, and a photo gallery.
Any self-respecting cinema fan needs to have this in their collection, and this DVD release is what we have all been waiting for.