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Review: Ida Lupino Filmmaker Collection on Kino Lorber Blu-ray

This excellent set makes a case for Lupino as one of the most socially conscious, psychologically observant filmmakers of her time.

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Jake Cole

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Ida Lupino
Photo: Photofest

The first film in Kino Lorber’s Ida Lupino Filmmaker Collection doesn’t carry Lupino’s name as director. The 1949 social-issue drama Not Wanted was co-written by Lupino and began production with Elmer Clifton in the director’s chair, but after Clifton suffered a heart attack on set, Lupino filled in behind the camera. Perhaps inevitably, it’s hard to distinguish between Clifton’s work and Lupino’s, but regardless, the film’s spare visual style belies a keen ability to suss out the psychological collapse of an unwed mother, Sally (Sally Forrest), who’s forced to contend with both with the unreturned affections of her baby’s caustic and disdainful father, Steve (Leo Penn), and the stigma of single motherhood. Sally’s continued lust for the man who wants nothing to do with her roils with repressed sexual tension, which only compounds her despair over her shame and guilt.

Lupino’s ability to plumb psychological depths with minimal resources is even more apparent in 1950’s Never Fear, her first credit as a director. Again teaming up with Sally Forrest, here playing Carol Williams, a dancer whose career is scuttled by polio, Lupino grounds the protagonist’s melodramatic breakdown in minute observations of individual behavior. In particular, the subtle modulations that Lupino captures in Carol’s face speak to the complexity of recovering from a crippling disease, from Carol’s relief at regaining her motor functions to the residual bitterness she feels over being unable to dance again.

As sentimental as her films could seem on the surface, Lupino brings a radical empathy to bear on her subjects that deepens what could have been no more than pat melodrama. Nowhere is that more apparent than in 1953’s The Bigamist, in which a traveling salesman, Harry (Edmond O’Brien), is discovered to have two separate families by a social worker (Edmund Gwenn) reviewing his adoption application. The agent’s initial disgust over this revelation gives way to understanding, though, as Harry explains his situation. Through flashbacks that illustrate how he gravitated from his workaholic wife, Eve (Joan Fontaine), toward the wry and affable but lonely Phyllis (Lupino), Lupino portrays Harry not as a careless philanderer, but as a man struggling with his sense of isolation on the road. Lupino also takes time to get to know Eve and Phyllis, showing how their alternating affections and withdrawals are informed by their own sadness and thwarted desires. Never stooping to mockery or outrage, The Bigamist finds Lupino tweaking her socially conscious outlook to tackle an unsympathetic subject with the same care she devoted to depictions of unwed mothers and arduous convalescence.

The centerpiece of this set, of course, is 1953’s The Hitch-Hiker. This vicious noir is an extreme outlier in Lupino’s filmography, but it’s also the apotheosis of her work behind the camera. Taking place almost entirely inside a car, the film renders its cramped conditions almost abstractly, a hellacious void where only the streaks of light passing by as the vehicle speeds down country roads suggest that the characters—two buddies (Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy) on a fishing trip and the hitchhiker (William Talman) they pick up—are still on Earth and not some purgatory. Amazingly, the scenes that take place outside the car may be even more claustrophobic, with Lupino emphasizing the isolation of desert roads that leave nowhere for the killer’s unwitting chauffeurs to run. The Hitch-Hiker plays Lupino’s interest in social ills for horror instead of moral instruction, yet it does no less than those films to demonstrate the director’s firm grasp of contemporary fears.

Image/Sound

All four films have been transferred from 2K and 4K restorations, and the images are consistently strong. Barring minor instances of residual debris and scratches, each film looks clear and textured, with stable contrast in the black-and-white frames. There are no major instances of print damage, and fine details in the deep-focus shots can be spotted even in the background. The soundtracks betray only the slightest residual tinniness common to old mono mixes but otherwise lack any artifacts. Dialogue and music are clearly balanced on each film.

Extras

Each film comes with a audio commentary track: Barbara Scharres, director of programming at the Gene Siskel Film Center, and film historian Greg Ford on Not Wanted; historian Alexandra Heller-Nicholas on Never Fear; historian Imogen Sara Smith on The Hitch-Hiker; and historian Kat Ellinger on The Bigamist. Each track covers its respective film, as well as Lupino’s broader filmography as a director, writer, and actress. A recurring theme of the commentaries concerns the disconnect between Lupino’s confident direction and her constantly demurred public image, which emphasized her nonthreatening femininity, a subject that also comes up in the booklet essay by critic Ronnie Scheib. The essay is filled with insights into the films in Kino’s set and Lupino’s other directorial output, including the brilliant observation that her films fit comfortably within the more bullishly rebellious work of Nicholas Ray and Samuel Fuller as attempts to reckon with trauma and forced normality in the postwar era.

Overall

The four films gathered together on this excellent set make a case for Ida Lupino as one of the most socially conscious, psychologically observant filmmakers of her time.

Cast: Sally Forrest, Leo Penn, Keefe Brasselle, Edmond O’Brien, Edmund Gwenn, Ida Lupino, Joan Fontaine, William Talman, Frank Lovejoy Director: Ida Lupino, Elmer Clifton Screenwriter: Ida Lupino Distributor: KL Studio Classics Running Time: 322 min Rating: NR Year: 1949 - 1953 Buy: Video

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