Ida Lupino, best known for playing tough-talkers in ’40s film noirs and celebrated as a pioneering woman director back when there were far fewer women allowed to make movies than there are now (and there still aren’t anywhere near enough), would’ve turned 100 this year. This weekend, Baltimore low-key celebrates her work with screenings of three of the spare and scrappy thrillers she directed.
1953’s “The Hitch-Hiker” (screening Dec. 15 at 11:30 a.m. at the Charles), Lupino’s all-men crime dirge about a wall-eyed killer who kidnaps two fishermen in Mexico, is a bit like John Carpenter’s “The Thing” in that it is contained and the abundance of testosterone, and the chaos it creates and cannot stop, is the whole entire point. Realize how rare it is for a ’50s crime movie to not feature any women at all, because that also means it cannot pin the entire plot and the characters’ undoing on those women as film noir was apt to do.
There’s a famous photo of Lupino in the desert shooting “The Hitch-Hiker.” She often shot on location because it was cheap, but also because her aesthetic was generally raw, it made sense to go out there and capture that realness. She’s wearing a totally sick plaid cap and talking to two of the movie’s leads who gaze out past her into the desert and look rather dim. She is absolutely, if subtly, in charge. In 1953, Lupino was the only woman directing movies within the Hollywood Studio System (shout out to others in and outside the system around the same time, such as Maya Deren, Dorothy Arzner, Wendy Toye, Jacqueline Audry, Shirley Clarke and Edith Carlmar, to name a few).
And Lupino’s talent for taking on topics that Hollywood still regularly fails to explore sensitively appears in the two of her movies screening at the Parkway. “The Bigamist” (screening Dec. 15 at 2 p.m.) is a baffling film about a cheating businessman who impregnates a woman who isn’t his wife, so he just goes and marries this other woman, too. Lupino, who also plays the second wife, kind of feels for the conflicted guy though, or at least sees how maybe marriage can be a sort of unstable, slightly ridiculous construct that often hurts everybody involved, seeing as how it breeds resentment and likely crumbles the moment you transgress–and you will transgress, somehow at some point. All of that in 1953.
1950’s “Not Wanted” (screening Dec. 16 at 1:30 p.m) is an unwed mother movie minus any semblance of finger-wagging and moralizing (indeed, mom wracked with guilt for giving up her “out of wedlock” baby kidnaps another baby) that was independently produced by Lupino and unofficially directed by her when its original director had a heart attack. It is as radically subjective as something like “Taxi Driver” (Martin Scorsese, a Lupino fan, once declared her work “resilient with a remarkable empathy for the fragile and heartbroken”). The whole movie is shown through the eyes of Sally, the waitress wooed by a jerk jazz musician (played by Sean Penn’s father, Leo), including a staggering hospital sequence full of distorted and out-of-focus imagery, tracking shots that coast nowhere, wobbling handheld footage and sweaty close-ups–all of it far ahead of its time.
Go out and find 1950’s “Outrage,” which tells the story of Ann, a newly married woman sexually assaulted walking home from work, and the endless emotional fall-out the assault introduces. Lupino shoots the pursuit and rape with film noir lighting and loopy expressionistic angles and uses cheapo horror’s slow-burn minimalism. The scene goes on for minutes that feel fraught, endless. Meanwhile, an almost-romance between Ann and a war veteran makes the post-traumatic stress subtext the text.
Praising Lupino’s work as a director runs the risk of downplaying Lupino the actor, and often her starring roles provide the same worldly-wise, keyed-up dread. In “They Drive By Night” she plays a woman, Lana, who kills her drunk, blubbering creep of a husband. “Come on, sit up, you drunken pig,” she tells him as he passes out in her lap. He mumbles and mutters nonsense back and then her eyes get big and she looks forward, through the windshield of her car. She then drives into a garage and leaves the car idling—murder by carbon monoxide poisoning.
Lana jogs away from the garage and it is typically dramatic, and then it gets quiet, weird, discordant and wrong. The stings of Hollywood strings on the soundtrack can’t keep up with the emotion here, and Lupino’s performance becomes messily transcendent. She walks disassociated, in a daze. The line “exhaustion was pressing upon and overpowering her,” from Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening,” comes to mind.
A courtroom scene later leads to Lana, big-eyed and bugged-out describing the murder to a jury. She unspools and stops making sense, talking about the opened doors of the garage, blaming them (“The doors made me do it”). And here, Lupino’s performance looks ahead, to something like the cosmic desperation of Isabelle Adjani in “Possession.“
Early on in acrid love triangle noir “Road House,” Lupino sings “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)” as some kind of syrup-slow, almost screwed-down talk-sing thing, taking the Frank Sinatra version out at the knees a decade before it even existed while her dead-eyed delivery provides a blueprint for demon-haunted pop music, Lynchian before Lynch, Lana Del Rey-esque really, Rihanna-ish. Another moment in “Road House”: Lupino in white high-waisted shorts, smoking a cigarette, scowling and bowling really, really well, employing an annoyed diffidence in some dumb and ugly bowling alley, keeping her jaw tight, hard, annoyed—like she saw an atomic bomb explode in the distance and is not the least bit surprised by it, maybe inconvenienced, though.
There is so much more, but that is a start. In the ’60s, Lupino began slowly slinking away from Hollywood. She directed lots of television—and in particular there is the “Twilight Zone” episode she directed, “The Masks,” which a friend of mine described as “just pure malice all the way down,” a ringing endorsement for sure. She appeared in some television shows too. Her performance in 1972’s “Junior Bonner,“ as Steve McQueen’s mother, is a study in sanguine resignation.
On a 2017 episode of the Toronto International Film Festival podcast, critic Karina Longworth observed that Lupino exhibited a “pattern of… constantly downplaying her own agency and power” as a filmmaker. “[It’s] a tactic that women sometimes have to use in order to be able to have power in a world dominated by men so that men don’t get defensive,” Longworth went on to explain.
Lupino called herself “the poor man’s Don Siegel,” a reference to the craftsman-like, tough-guy action director with whom she worked on “Private Hell 36.” Lupino, mind you, wrote and produced and starred in that particular Siegel picture, so she is wrong about being the poor man’s anything, but this self-deprecating line follows Lupino’s work to this day and remains one of those few times where a woman filmmaker, rarely taken at her word, is taken at her word because it reinforces not taking her seriously.
Another detail about Lupino the director: On the back of her director’s chair were the words, “Mother Of Us All.”