Jefty, owner of a roadhouse in a backwoods town, hires sultry, tough-talking torch singer Lily Stevens against the advice of his manager Pete Morgan. Jefty is smitten with Lily, who in turn exerts her charms on the more resistant Pete. When Pete finally falls for her and she turns down Jefty's marriage proposal, they must face Jefty's murderous jealousy and his twisted plots to "punish" the two. Written by
Rod Crawford <firstname.lastname@example.org>
In a 1969 interview, director Jean Negulesco recalled that when Fox studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck gave him the assignment to direct 'Road House', Zanuck told him, "This is a bad script. Three directors have refused it. They don't know what they're doing, because basically it's quite good. Remember those pictures we used to make at Warner Bros., with Pat O'Brien and Jimmy Cagney, in which every time the action flagged we staged a fight and every time a man passed a girl she'd adjust her stocking or something, trying to be sexy? That's the kind of picture we have to have with 'Road House.'" See more »
Well, I'm Lil Stevens, the new entertainer from Chicago. Right now I'd like to sleep.
Oh. The new equipment.
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"Doesn't it enter a man's head that a girl can do without him?"
Road House (1948)
Road House is in some ways a straight up romance with noir stylizing. The setting is great, out in some isolated and spectacular club/bar of a type once known as a roadhouse (often out of town to avoid local laws about drinking and cavorting). The core is that the troubled and cocky Jefty, played by the inimitable Richard Widmark, wants the troubled Lily, played by a tough Ida Lupino. Widmark as the roadhouse owner is pure Widmark, so that even when he's charming he's scary, and when he's not so charming he becomes demonic. This repels Lupino, who though hard edged is decent deep down, and she falls for the nice guy, played by Cornel Wilde, who is a sweetheart with an inability to stand up for himself. This gets him, and everyone else, into trouble.
The steady, downward drone of this movie from a just barely tense introduction as Lily comes to town to be the new entertainment to a love conflict and a frame up is subtle and effective. Don't look for fireworks--it's all smoke until the very end. A full hour passes before you reach the movie's one major plot twist (the bizarre parole conditions announced in the courtroom), and then the gun has finally been cocked. Now all that we wonder about is how it will go off.
And Lupino. There is no one in Hollywood quite like her, one of the best women for making bitter arrogance smart and snappy. Her husky-voiced singing is far more provocative than awful, and perfect for this roadhouse in some unlikely mountain town fifteen miles from Canada. Not only is Lupino brilliant with her lines, she has brilliant lines to deliver, almost as though she invented them, they fit so well. The fourth main character, the "second woman" played by Celeste Holm (the beguiling voice-over in Letter to Three Wives), seems to have a smaller role, but she's ultimately the sensible and good gal, not as sexed up and headturning as Lupino's Lily, but steady and practical and a key to everyone's salvation in the end.
The camera-work starts out as pretty straight 1940s greatness (aided by an astonishing series of period sets), with Joseph LaShelle as cinematographer building up the drama through the last half hour to some searing, dramatic face shots. The final scenes in the woods presage the similar foggy ending to Gun Crazy, which has more of a cult following (and which has visual innovations this one doesn't), and these scenes are worth the ride by themselves. Director Jean Negulesco has only a few features of note to his credit, but Road House, along with How to Marry a Millionaire and Johnny Belinda, makes a great case for his ability.
It's easy to fault the film for some small things (Pete seems inexplicably powerless to fight the frameup) and even for larger ones (the romance that holds it together isn't all that convincing), but the moods and sets and lines are all great stuff. The plot has some gratuitous moments (including an exhibitionist Lupino) but taken another way they emphasize her difference from the others, her insouciance and her confidence. It's curious, and maybe defining, that the natural match between the troubled characters, the Widmark and Lupino leads, is rejected, but then Lily's shift to Pete ought to catch fire.
In a way, the film's theme, of a man being overwhelmed by his wanting and expecting a woman, is defined best in Lily's matter of fact line, "Doesn't it enter a man's head that a girl can do without him?" Not usually.
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