“She reminds me of the first woman that ever slapped my face,” says a patron at Jefty’s Road House about the establishment’s new entertainer, Lily Stevens (Ida Lupino), and the wistful way he says it tells you everything you need to know about Lily’s personality and her allure. She’s introduced like a femme fatale, legs first, with her nylon-clad feet propped up on the office desk of Jefty’s manager Pete Morgan (Cornel Wilde). Released 75 years ago this week, Road House is a sweaty, sensuous noir, but Lily doesn’t fit the typical femme fatale formula. Rather than tempting Pete into danger, she serves as his salvation from a wasted, aimless life, and she’s the driving force behind the film’s narrative.
Although Lupino was still two years away from her first official project as a director, she was still a major factor in getting Road House made, selecting the original story by Margaret Gruen and Oscar Saul and receiving top billing over co-stars Wilde and Richard Widmark. This is Lily’s story, and she remains in charge of it, even as she ends up in the middle of a lopsided love triangle with Pete and Widmark’s Jefty. There’s no real question where Lily’s affections lie, and the dangerous, manipulative figure in this scenario is the sadistic Jefty, not Lily.
At first, he just seems like a common lech, an entitled small-time operator who inherited the road house from his father. Located in an unnamed town somewhere between Chicago and the Canadian border, it’s a lively joint that’s a combination of bar, bowling alley, and cabaret, with Lily hired to sing and play piano. As Pete notes when she first arrives, she’s the latest in a string of dubiously talented performers Jefty picks up on his travels to Chicago, hiring them for a few weeks so he can bed them and then discard them.
Lily is wise to Jefty’s ways from the start, though, and Lupino radiates contempt when she pats his hand like a small child’s after he places it on her shoulder. She deftly rebuffs all his advances, and she proves Pete wrong when she puts on her first performance, a sultry take on the standard “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road).” Pete has previously tried to run her out of town, driving her to the local train station and attempting to pay her off rather than see her run through Jefty’s customary cycle of seduction and rejection.
“She’s something, isn’t she?” says the bartender at Jefty’s to cashier Susie Smith (Celeste Holm), who responds dismissively, “If you like the sound of gravel.” Lupino’s husky voice is a key part of Lily’s appeal, though, both as a singer and as an object of desire. The way she casually shoves the piano with her hips to properly position it for her first song, then places her lit cigarette on the edge while she sings, is an expression of her aloofness, but it also belies the genuine passion she puts into her music. She sarcastically downplays her own abilities when people ask, but she’s more than just a sexy figure to put on a poster in front of the road house.
Pete eventually figures that out, and during a week when Jefty is off on a hunting trip at his remote cabin, Pete and Lily fall in love, in the familiar accelerated fashion of classic Hollywood films. It’s obvious that Jefty is going to be angry about this development, but Widmark and director Jean Negulesco take things even further, turning Jefty into a devious psychopath with a maniacal laugh that makes him sound like the Joker.
“Nobody’s all good; nobody’s all bad,” Pete tells Lily about Jefty, which is also a handy summary of the thesis of film noir, but he underestimates just how bad Jefty can be. To Pete, Jefty is merely a spoiled brat who is used to always getting his way, but as a woman, Lily sees signs that Pete misses. When Jefty uses the hotel passkey to enter Lily’s room uninvited at 7 a.m. to bring her breakfast in bed, it’s more than a misguided romantic gesture. It’s a signal that this is a man who ignores and obliterates boundaries, who views women as his exclusive domain because he’s paying them.
It’s a bit jarring when Road House shifts from a simmering potboiler into an all-out thriller in its final act, but Jefty’s increasing volatility is an outgrowth of his inflated self-importance. He easily maneuvers the local cops and legal system to keep Pete and Lily under his control, and when they seem to be escaping, he resorts to even more desperate methods.
Road House is full of crackling dialogue, expertly delivered by its main stars, especially Lupino and Widmark. Negulesco captures the striking mix of rustic and art deco inside the road house itself, and his stars enter every scene with maximum swagger. The movie is entertaining on that level of pure craft, but it’s also a powerful cautionary tale about male entitlement, led by a woman who’s confident in both her sexuality and her autonomy. Like the best noir, it arouses the senses while challenging entrenched institutional ideas. It’s sexy, but it’ll slap you in the face if necessary.
“Road House” is available on Blu-ray from KL Studio Classics.