Ida Lupino was an innovative filmmaker at a time when women simply didn’t make movies

TIFF Cinematheque's summer series honours the actor-turned-indie director by screening 10 of her finest features


IDA LUPINO: INDEPENDENT WOMAN August 4 to September 2 at TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King West). Visit tiff.net for showtimes. Rating: NNNNN


Ida Lupino made movies about victims and victimizers, about societal blind spots and the people who take advantage of them, and about men who don’t understand women. And she did it more than half a century ago, at a point in time when women simply didn’t make movies.

TIFF Cinematheque’s summer series, Ida Lupino: Independent Woman, is a 10-film program of Lupino’s finest work, both in front of and behind the camera.

Lupino started out as an actor, and her presence was instantly identifiable even as the studios shifted her through every genre available. She shared the screen with Jack Benny in Artists & Models and held her own with Basil Rathbone in The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes, and while those films couldn’t have had less in common, she fit into them perfectly. And she was having fun.

Once she got to Warner Bros., Lupino’s self-aware poise turned out to be a good fit for that studio’s hard-boiled programmers she made They Drive By Night (screening August 26, 6:45 pm) and High Sierra (screening August 6, 1 pm) with Humphrey Bogart for Raoul Walsh, The Sea Wolf (with Edward G. Robinson) for Michael Curtiz and Out Of The Fog (with John Garfield) for Anatole Litvak. And she paid attention to what was going on behind the camera.

I was going to write more about her evolution from actor to filmmaker, but Simon Ennis gets it perfectly right in this essay over at TIFF’s Review: she was smart, she was underused and she got bored. Warner’s didn’t value her enough – Bette Davis was the studio’s big draw, and everyone knew it – so Lupino started finding other things she could do. She founded a production company, The Filmakers, with her husband and frequent collaborator Collier Young, the better to make her own movies without worrying about a studio having the final say. She had to leave Warner’s to do it, but that wasn’t a tough choice.

Road House, the 1948 noir Lupino developed for herself as a starring vehicle, gave her a delightfully snappy showcase as a nightclub singer desired by beady-eyed boss Richard Widmark. It might not be her best role, but it’s her most enjoyable one, and I can totally understand why it’s kicking off TIFF’s series tonight (August 4) at 6:30 pm.

But developing projects wasn’t enough, either. She’d directed a portion of the 1949 melodrama Not Wanted when Elmer Clifton was sidelined due to a heart attack, and that put her in a good place to make her first feature, Never Fear (screening August 9, 6:30 pm). Lupino even brought along the stars of that film, Sally Forrest and Keefe Brasselle.

Never Fear, which was also known as Young Lovers, was an example of writing what one knows: Forrest plays a dancer whose future as a performer is jeopardized when she contracts polio. It was a subject Lupino knew all too well, having survived the disease herself.

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Courtesy of TIFF

Mala Powers in Ida Lupino’s Outrage

Lupino’s next film Outrage (August 24, 6:30 pm) looks like a crime picture, but pulls a quick twist: it starts with a violent crime, as a happy young bookkeeper (Mala Powers) is assaulted by a leering thug while leaving work one night. That’s a standard opening to any pulp movie, but rather than following along with the police as they find the assailant, Lupino stays with the traumatized victim as she tries to put as much distance between herself and her old life as possible for reasons she can’t even begin to articulate.

The Hays Code prevented writers Lupino, Young and Malvin Wald from using the word “rape” in the movie, but they don’t have to Powers’s traumatized performance shows us everything we need to know about her character’s physical and psychological state. Almost 70 years later, it’s a shockingly frank film about trauma and survival.           

Less emotionally fraught but just as tense is Lupino’s 1953 thriller The Hitch-Hiker (August 22, 6:30 pm), in which she takes a pulpy premise – pals Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy wind up stuck in their car with volatile escaped convict William Talman – and plays it for maximum tension by locking us inside the vehicle with all three men. It’s a minimalist showcase for her directorial skill, and it pays off

The series ends with Lupino’s The Bigamist, (September 2, 1 pm), a drama in which she co-stars with Joan Fontaine as the secret wife of their mutual husband (O’Brien, just months after The Hitch-Hiker). I’ve never seen it, and it sounds fascinating I just hope I can spare the time to catch it with that other TIFF event creeping up on us.

movies@nowtoronto.com | @normwilner

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