At BAMPFA, Ida Lupino Gets Her Due as Actor and Auteur

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Still from Raoul Walsh's 'High Sierra,' 1941. (Courtesy of BAMPFA)

Smart money says Ida Lupino never fell for a Hollywood ending. Acting was her family’s trade, and she was pushed into movies early, cast as an adolescent minx in a few British productions before getting gobbled up by Paramount and Warner Brothers as the “poor man’s Bette Davis” -- her words, and the kind of ostensibly self-deprecating remark that threatens to give the whole game away.

Of Hollywood’s factory line, she reported: “Boredom sets in, which is a bad thing.” Remarkably, she did something about it: first turning down a long-term acting contract and then striking out with husband Collier Young to form the independent production venture for which she would direct a handful of fine-tuned variations on the social-problem formula.

A BAMPFA retrospective on this month and next illuminates both sides of Lupino’s extraordinary life in movies. “Bored” certainly isn’t the word for her glowering onscreen presence, though something of her confessed impatience is evident in her knack for turning a film inside out. The whole center of gravity of Raoul Walsh’s High Sierra (1941) seems to shift the moment her character imposes herself on Bogart’s seasoned stickup man in a dingy motel room. A gritty striver on the run from her ordinary, awful life as a dancer, she sizes up the heist group’s dynamics faster than any of the men, grabbing at her best chance for escape and making it stick.

Still from Raoul Walsh's 'They Drive by Night,' 1940.
Still from Raoul Walsh's 'They Drive by Night,' 1940. (Courtesy of BAMPFA)

Lupino’s role as a blind recluse who redeems Robert Ryan’s raging cop in Nicholas Ray’s imperishable On Dangerous Ground (1951) looks hopeless on paper, but she finds a dozen clever ways to shade the character’s self-reliance with stubborn pride, thereby mirroring the Ryan character’s alienation rather than offsetting it. And then there is her star-making performance in Walsh’s They Drive By Night (1940), where Lupino singlehandedly -- and joyously -- throws a wrench into a rollicking proletarian drama. Her low-rent Lady Macbeth first appears draped across her husband’s desk, playing different registers for the two men present and plainly relishing her character’s self-regard. In all Hollywood villainy, there is little to compare with the devious look her character shoots the camera after getting away with murder. Walsh sensibly cedes the entire screen to this magnificent touch of evil.

The critic Manny Farber, always attuned to the pleasure of a scene-stealing actor, applauded Lupino’s penchant for working from “the basic realization that life is hard, severe and bitter,” and this same cutting intelligence is evident in her work as a director. Lupino found freedom in constraint, working fast and cheap off the bounce of a hot-button issue or ripped-from-the-headlines yarn.


Outrage (1950), the first of Lupino’s own films showing in the BAMPFA series -- and in a rare print from the British Film Archive at that -- is a fine place to start. Tiptoeing around the Hays Code, this 75-minute programmer patiently details a rape victim’s psychological unraveling. The assault itself is done in heavy shades of German expressionism, as if the film’s all-American gal had suddenly been dropped in Fritz Lang’s M (1931). The geometric rendering is classic noir and cues the audience’s expectation for an investigation, but Lupino steers away from the thrill of the chase. To the contrary, Outrage works against the whole premise that such an attack can ever be set right. A key sequence deploys a slow camera movement to register every passing glance tracking the girl’s initial reentry back into her anodyne middle class milieu. Whether pitied or scorned, she is every bit the outcast, a precursor to the drifter figures found in Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970), Agnès Varda’s Vagabond (1985), and Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy (2008).

Still from Ida Lupino's 'The Bigamist,' 1953.
Still from Ida Lupino's 'The Bigamist,' 1953. (Courtesy of BAMPFA)

Another highlight in the BAMPFA series is The Bigamist (1953), a film that shows off Lupino’s adroitness in simultaneously capitalizing on and undercutting a salacious premise. Edmond O’Brien is the titular two-timer, an everyman so accustomed to being passed over that he looks as if he might not recognize himself in the mirror. The character splits his life between an entrepreneurial marriage and a working-class romance, with the big reveal coming when an investigator espies O’Brien shushing a baby to sleep because his second wife (played by Lupino) is sick in bed -- hardly the stuff of a torrid potboiler.

Among other things, The Bigamist suggests that classical Hollywood would have produced more tough-minded, unsentimental melodramas if only more women had been asked to direct.

'Ida Lupino: Hard, Fast, and Beautiful' plays at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive Jan. 13 - Feb. 24, 2018. For tickets and more information, click here.