Not Wanted (1949)

For the first production under the company she formed with then-husband Collier Strong—The Filmmakers—Ida Lupino hired dependable B-movie workman Elmer Clifton to direct. A few days into shooting, Clifton suffered a heart attack, and Lupino stepped in to direct the film herself, uncredited for decades. Not Wanted is not the strongest film under Lupino’s guiding hand. Judging by the four titles in Kino Lorber’s recent Ida Lupino boxset (alongside The Hitch-Hiker, The Bigamist, and Never Fear), it may in fact be the weakest. Lupino felt much more personally engaged with the themes of her first credited directorial work to follow, Never Fear, than she does in Not Wanted, and her skills as a visual stylist & commander of tension only grew from there. Still, Not Wanted is a solidly staged, thoughtfully empathetic melodrama that proves Lupino had immense talent as a director from the very beginning, suggesting that hiring company men to handle direction duties for The Filmmakers pictures was mostly a formality. She was always going to be the one in control.

In Not Wanted, an unwed teenage mother fails at making her own way in the big city after running away from home. We meet her in her darkest hour. In the opening scene, she’s arrested for snatching a stranger’s baby from its pram while aimlessly wandering city streets. Once imprisoned, she practically turns to the audience from her jail cell to announce “You’re probably wondering how I got here . . .” The rest of the film plays out in flashback, detailing the young woman’s confused romantic life caught between a tragically hip jazz pianist who doesn’t care about her as much as he pretends to and a dorky miniature trains enthusiast who’s willing to devote his entire life to her – even accepting that she’s pregnant with another man’s child. As her inevitable imprisonment suggests, this scenario does not end well. An opening title card explains that this is “a story told 100,000 times each year,” a kind of cautionary tale about how cruel life can be for young, unwed mothers. The resulting story follows a moralistic road-to-ruin template, except it sympathizes with the main character instead of trying to shame her, wagging its finger more in the direction of the social failings (mostly exploitative men & morally righteous parents) that leave her vulnerably alone in a cold, uncaring world.

Lupino sometimes reaches for surprisingly surreal moments here – particularly in the sequence where the young mother gives birth, represented in a woozy first-person POV. For the most part, though, the film builds a lot of its payoffs around the tensions & emotions of its central melodrama, allowing breathing room for Sally Forrest to make an actor’s showcase out of the lead role. That’s not especially shocking considering that Lupino started her career as an actor herself, and only formed The Filmmakers because she felt bored & underutilized while on-set watching directors run the show. Lupino eventually made a dozen feature films under the Filmmakers brand, with a major hand in writing, producing, or directing in any capacity she could get away with. Of the few I’ve seen, Not Wanted was the least exceptional in its visual artistry or its boundary-pushing moral stances (at least by today’s standards; the sympathetic portrayal of an “unwed mother” did spark minor controversy in its time). It was still wonderful to feel Lupino get excited about the craft of filmmaking from behind the camera, though, especially for a production that had to change course so soon into its shoot. It feels like she was not just willing to spring into action to save the picture, but rather that it was the only thing she wanted in life.

-Brandon Ledet

Never Fear (1949)

You might be tempted to ask for a better directorial debut from actor-turned-auteur Ida Lupino than the 1949 sudden-illness weepie Never Fear, but it would be tough to ask for a more personal one. Lupino’s first credit as a director is a well-behaved but harrowing melodrama about polio, a disease that Lupino herself had suffered early in her career as a young actor. In fact, it was being bedridden with polio (and eventually losing some mobility in her leg and hand) that inspired Lupino to develop skills as a writer & a filmmaker in the first place, as it was a harsh realization that her career as an onscreen beauty was limited & impermanent. She explained in an interview, “I realized that my life and my courage and my hopes did not lie in my body. If that body was paralyzed, my brain could still work industriously . . . If I weren’t able to act, I would be able to write. Even if I weren’t able to use a pencil or typewriter, I could dictate.” Polio was maybe too sensitive of a subject at the time of Never Fear‘s release and, thus, failed to make a splash at the box office, but Lupino fearlessly tackled it head on from a place of personal frustration & anguish that affords it cultural significance anyway.

Story wise, there’s nothing especially daring about Never Fear that you won’t find in the decades of romantic melodramas about ill, bedridden women that followed: Love Story, The Big Sick, A Walk To Remember, The Fault in Our Stars, Ice Castles, etc. In this iteration, a young dancer (Sally Forrest, who also starred in Lupino’s uncredited debut as a director Not Wanted that same year) has her career cut short by a rapidly onset case of polio that leaves her paralyzed. She gradually earns her mobility back through painful months of physical & emotional therapy, but in the meantime struggles to hold onto her hopes to maintain the love, art, and independence she knew before the disease left her unable to dance. There are about twenty minutes of puppy-love bliss shared between the dancer and her partner/choreographer before polio cuts their ambitions short. The remaining hour is a pitch-black tearjerker that threatens to break that blissful romance apart, both through the introduction of potential love interests inside & outside the hospital and through the protagonist’s self-pity that makes her believe she’s no longer worthy of her former beau’s love & devotion now that she’s not a soon-to-be-famous dancer.

This movie would be a totally standard sudden-illness “Woman’s Picture” if weren’t for the way Ida Lupino pulls from her personal experience with polio to illustrate just how isolating & embittering the disease could be. It’s impossible to not draw this extratextual comparison as we watch a young artist who’s limited by the failings of her body just as her career is taking off. While the narrative beats are uniformly familiar to its genre, the details of the dancer’s time alone in her hospital bed can be impressively, uniquely horrific in flashes. In feverish internal monologues, the dancer curses her own body for failing her and endlessly frets about how much of a burden she is on her able-bodied fiancée despite his protests to the contrary. Everyone’s optimism that she will find a way to live a fulfilling life only makes her more bitter and she shrinks within herself, frustrated and increasingly alone. At the same time, this isolation is the first opportunity she’s had in her entire life to be alone with her thoughts (with the audience as spectator), which opens her up to a newfound sense of autonomy. At the beginning of the film, she’s somewhat resentful of her dance partner/choreographer/future-husband’s control over every aspect of her life (even though she loves him dearly), and in a fucked up, roundabout way the disease gives her the first chance to make decisions for herself by herself. The film illustrates a complex, nuanced psychological portrait of someone bedridden with polio, one that arrived in theaters while the country was still suffering the darkest days of the epidemic.

Presented as a true story “photographed in the places where it happened,” Never Fear was largely filmed on-location at the Kabat-Kaiser institute in Santa Monica, CA, employing many of the facility’s live-in patients as background characters. I almost wish Lupino had pushed this proto-cinema verité approach even further and played the lead role herself, amplifying the film’s personal resonance within her own biography. If nothing else, it could have used the extra oomph her screen presence brought to The Bigamist. Forrest does a decent enough job as Lupino’s avatar to make to sell the heartbreak of her frustrated internal monologues, though, and the sudden-illness weepie genre structure is emotionally effective even if it is overly familiar. Never Fear isn’t Lupino’s best work in the director’s chair, but it is one with surprising emotional depth in her expressions of personal, professional anguish, which makes it a worthy watch for anyone interested in her one-of-a-kind career as one of the most substantial female directors in the Old Hollywood system.

-Brandon Ledet

The Bigamist (1953)

One of the ways Ida Lupino was able to make the leap from actress to director in the Old Hollywood system was by framing her work as morality tales. That way, she could get away with making the first woman-directed noir The Hitch-Hiker—a throat-hold thriller from start to end—by passing it off as a lesson on the dangers of adultery with just a few throwaway lines of dialogue. Her directorial follow-up to that chilling cult classic is much more enthusiastically committed to exploring adultery as a moralistic theme, as you can tell by its attention-grabbing title: The Bigamist. Oddly, though, The Bigamist takes a much more wishy-washy stance on the dangers of adultery than The Hitch-Hiker, even though it dwells on the act for the entirety of its runtime instead of merely evoking it in a mood-setting prologue. The Bigamist is a morality tale about adultery (through its furthest extreme in polygamy) without ever outright condemning the act as a sin. It’s an engagingly ambiguous film in terms of reading its moral compass even now—more than a half-century after its initial release—but especially so for its time.

Edmond O’Brien stars as a traveling salesman who is racked with guilt because he’s hopelessly in love with both of his wives, who live in two distant cities. Joan Fontaine co-stars as his wife of 8 years, who has settled into a business partner role as the initial romantic spark of their marriage has dulled. Ida Lupino rounds out the cast as the salesman’s wife of 8 months, a fiercely independent West Coast waitress who reignites the salesman’s lust for life. The movie is set up like a murder-mystery noir where the salesman’s discomfort around anyone digging into his personal life is meant to spark the imagination of the audience. What nefarious acts could he possibly be up to on these business trips? The answer, of course, is right there on the poster and in the title: “Edmond O’Brien is The Bigamist.” Once the full details of his double-marriage lifestyle are divulged, the movie mostly dwells on the melodrama of his predicament, focusing especially on the unbearable stress of balancing a double life. The women both get their own moments of spotlight to convey their internal anguish, but this is largely the bigamist’s story, and it’s in daring to sympathize with the lout where the movie finds its moral ambiguity.

In a lot of ways, The Bigamist feels like an inverse of (and a precursor to) Agnes Varda’s Le Bonheur, in that it takes the husband’s love for both women seriously without poking too harshly at how the women might be working overtime domestically to make his traveling Lothario lifestyle possible. If anything, the film comes across as surprisingly pro-polyamory, since it entirely builds its melodrama on the guilt & harm of the salesman’s dishonesty rather than the usual fallacy that he can’t love both women equally at once. He initially cheats out of loneliness and confesses the transgression to his first wife in plain terms, who takes the admission as a playfully sarcastic joke since he’s just not the type to do such a thing. While most of his colleagues would just hire a sex worker to satisfy that urge, this lout can’t help but fall in love with his mistress, who initially asks that he reveal nothing about his personal life outside their relationship so as not to spoilt the mood. Both of his marriages are relatively functional in their own insular realms; what eats the bigamist up on the inside are the lies necessary to maintain his cross-country rouse. That’s a bold moralistic stance to take in a Hays Code era film where the leads have to sleep in separate beds for the sake of onscreen propriety.

Of the three leads, Ida Lupino is the most electric in her role as the salesman’s second wife. According to Wikipedia, this film has been cited as the first time the female star of a Hollywood film directed her own performance, which is pretty neat but also difficult to verify without several qualifiers. What’s much easier to verify is the strange real-life melodrama that played out behind the scenes between the director and her collaborators. Lupino had recently split with her ex-husband and creative partner Collier Young, who wrote & produced The Bigamist while at the start of a new marriage with Lupino’s co-star, Joan Fontaine. In that way, the film works just as well as a relic of Hollywood gossip as it does as a morally ambiguous noir. It even accentuates that Hollywood rumor mill DNA by setting the first scene of emotional infidelity on a bus tour of famous Los Angeles movie stars’ homes – including the homes of women like Barbara Stanwyck & Jane Wyman, who could have been cast in this just as easily as Fontaine (as well as the home of Miracle on 42nd Street‘s Edmund Gwenn, who does feature heavily in the movie as the nosy adoption agency bureaucrat who initially exposes the salesman’s bigamy). It’s a nice little meta touch for a movie so unavoidably steeped in Studio Era scandal.

Even speaking in general, Ida Lupino’s life & career are inextricably tied to Old Hollywood mystique. It’s incredible that she was able to manage as interesting & high-profile of a directorial career as she did in a system designed to lock women out of that creative process entirely. The Bigamist is not quite as immediately thrilling of example of her getting away with something within that misogynist paradigm as The Hitch-Hiker, but the longer you dwell in its moral ambiguity the more it feels like a one-of-a-kind anomaly. Like all of Lupino’s films (and even the filmmaker herself), it’s a wonder that The Bigamist was allowed to exist in its time at all.

-Brandon Ledet

The Hitch-Hiker (1953)

“This is the story of a man and a gun and a car. The gun belonged to the man. The car might have had been yours – or that young couple across the aisle. What you will see in the next seventy minutes could have happened to you. For the facts are accurate.”

In the late 2010s, it’s still depressingly rare for a female director to land a substantial Hollywood production. In 2017, only 8% of the Top 100 film productions were directed by women, a number that has been showing no improvement despite increased scrutiny on the issue. It’s always incredible to me, then, when I discover films from female directors in the distant past when men’s stranglehold on the industry wasn’t even a topic of wide discussion, but just a silently accepted inevitability. Pictures like The Red Kimona from the silent era feel like total anomalies, as it’s almost unfathomable how a woman would have been able to get her foot into the door of Hollywood’s boys’ club back then. 1953’s The Hitch-Hiker is another such anomaly, especially as it participates in the traditionally macho noir genre. Director Ida Lupino worked her way into the industry by directing movies with strong moralistic warnings, message pictures. The Hitch-Hiker finds her using that pronounced moral finger-wagging as an excuse to participate in & mutate the crime thriller genre, restricting the movie’s direct messaging to just a few minutes of screen time and busying herself for the rest with crafting nonstop tension & suspense. This picture is credited as being the first noir directed by a woman, a distinction that adds pressure for Lupino to prove herself as a creative force, something she achieves with a tight grip & gritted teeth.

Two men on what’s supposed to be an innocent fishing trip lie to their wives and change course to check out girly shows across the Mexican border. On their new route, they’re overtaken at gunpoint by a crazed hitchhiker who’s quickly revealed to be a notoriously violent escaped convict. What develops is a hostage crisis in motion (like an AIP precursor to Speed), as the three men perilously evade trigger-happy cops on the way back to California, two of them under constant threat of the hitch-hiker’s pistol. There’s a moderate amount of guilt laid on the wandering husbands for their duplicitous ways, but most of The Hitch-Hiker is instead focused on building tension in both the close quarters of the hostages’ car and the vast, isolating expanse of the desert terrain. It’s in the nighttime drives where the film most resembles a typical noir. The escaped convict is an absolute terror in the shadowy backseat, where he keeps a constant eye (and gun) on his two victims. We’re first introduced to him in a montage detailing his earlier crime spree, jumping from car to car, stolen wallet to stolen wallet, as cops discover his previous victims in flashlit crime scenes. These nighttime noir set pieces are in stark contrast with the harsh sunlit desert setting of the daytime, but Lupino finds plenty ways to terrorize her audience there as well, most spectacularly in a forced game of William Tell. The movie is light on plot & thematic soul-searching, choosing to instead strive for 70 straight minutes of pure, cruel, nightmarish tension.

The small cast and cheap locations of The Hitch-Hiker remind me a lot of Corman’s early work for AIP, even though this was a slightly more substantial RKO production. Its aptitude for Corman’s genre thrills is only part of the story, however, as the picture is much, much crueler & tenser than most of AIP’s more traditionally entertaining catalog. The audience hardly has space to breathe as Lupino maintains a stranglehold on our throats, walking us through each reluctant step toward impending freedom or death. I’m not well-versed enough to say for sure how many women-directed noirs are out there at all, only that this is reported to be the first. The film would remain significant even without that distinction, though, as its command of minute-to-minute tension and the terror of its randomly applied violence feels like a real-life threat more than most, slicker noirs could. The moral of The Hitch-Hiker seems to be less that you shouldn’t cheat on your wife by slinking off to the strip clubs than it is that this could happen to anyone at any time because life is chaotically cruel. Anyone with an affection for dark, tense genre cinema should find plenty of value in that conceit, especially anyone who wishes their noir was a little rougher around the edges or their Corman cheapies were a little more willing to go for the jugular.

-Brandon Ledet