Out of Ida Lupino’s long, storied career, the first work of hers that comes to mind is arguably the most minor.
In the first season of The Twilight Zone, Lupino stars in the episode “The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine” as Barbara Jean Trenton. I’m sure you know a woman like Barbara or at least you’ve seen one. Barbara is an actress with her best years behind her. Her mornings are spent lost in the haze of her own past, watching her films from the decades prior when she was a star. When her name meant something. Doom and delusion are her regular bedfellows.
The Sixteen-Millimeter Shrine isn’t, strictly speaking, a noir. It’s a dramatic and somewhat fantastical portrait of female madness that occurs when the world a woman knows slips from grasp due to sexism and being considered on the wrong side of 40. But the episode is influenced by one of the greats of the genre, Sunset Boulevard, and even uses the same composer, Franz Waxman.
Barbara could easily be a caricature but Lupino understands her situation all too well. She forms Barbara with a keen understanding and sympathy — a trademark that connects all her work as an actress and director. The first time we meet Barbara, she’s already drinking at only 11am and, as writer/narrator Rod Serling says in the opening narration, dreaming in celluloid. The way her chest rises and falls, along with the nervous way she handles her drink, quickly sketches her mental state. Her eyes are lit with deranged desire and something darker too. She’s unraveling. And fast.
Lupino herself never suffered Barbara’s tragic fate of a career headed toward a dead end far too soon, as her career spans nearly 50 years — eight films as a director, and a healthy run on television. She even went on to be the only woman to direct an episode of The Twilight Zone with “The Masks” in 1964. During her time in front and behind the camera, Lupino proved to be an artist of immense intelligence and style.
The London-born Lupino came from a theatrical family. She always understood the male dominated milieu she operated within that made her a rarity as a female director. It also came with a set of expectations on what kind of stories she should gravitate toward, all of which she never gave into. Lupino also had sense of humor about her vocation, evident in how she joked that, as an actress, she was “a poor man’s Bette Davis.” The comparisons between the women are understandable. At least on the surfaces. Many of Lupino’s roles feel like retreads of what Davis did earlier. Even as Lupino got a contract at Warner Brothers and came into her own, their characters share similarities: tough women prone to anxiousness and hand-wringing moving through worlds that won’t budge an inch for their desires. But I’ve always felt that, upon closer examination, Lupino and Davis prove to be very different actresses.
Davis moved through many genres. Above all else, she was a star of women’s pictures. Even her darker forays into noir (Deception, 1946) and horror (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, 1962) have a strong undercurrent of that female oriented and, at times, feminist genre. On the other hand, Lupino never profoundly associated with melodrama or women’s pictures. She instead exists within genres typically considered masculine and very male-dominated stories. If Lupino met the men in her life on the same level, Davis easily and even gleefully dominates anyone in her path. Their actual style as actresses is also dramatically different.
Davis operates on a level of the mythological as if she could exist alongside Medusa herself and hold her own. Her acting is operatic yet human. Lupino has a bit more grit to her. She plays her characters as ordinary women of whom you could pass on the street. And more than any other genre, Lupino is associated with film noir.
Within noir, she’s played lounge singers falling in love with down and out musicians (The Man I Love, 1947) and a woman in the shadow of her husband as their marriage falters (The Big Knife, 1955). She’s worked with great directors like Nicholas Ray in On Dangerous Ground (1951), a man she shares some commonalities with as a director. In the film, she plays Mary Malden, a blind woman that Detective Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan) comes across in the manhunt for a killer who just happens to be her brother.
In noir, Lupino never fully plays a femme fatale or good girl. She’s able to bring a well wrought emotional landscape that makes these characters more than the archetypes they’re based on. There’s always just enough earnestness, making her seemingly incapable of falling into caricature. In On Dangerous Ground, Mary could easily become an emblem of pity. But Lupino plays her with too much tender strength. Her refusal to be mistreated and looked down upon gives the character a calm and resolute sense of self. And her chemistry with Robert Ryan gives the film its heart. As a throughline in Lupino’s on-screen pairings, ragged leading men like Ryan and Humphrey Bogart show how adult these relationships feel. Unlike a lot of other romances in noir, none of Lupino’s feel solely, or even primarily, based on lust or circumstance.
In High Sierra (1940), Lupino plays Marie, a woman who refuses to go back to the “dime a dance” joint that marks her life in Los Angeles. She’s not quite a gangster moll. Instead, she’s a woman on the edges of criminal activity as a means of escape. She isn’t even a first for Bogart’s Roy “mad Dog” Earle (the graying criminal fresh out of a jail involved in a heist destined to go south) when it comes to romance. Their relationship isn’t fueled by simple lust but rather an understanding of each other. Every woman Lupino plays in noir feels worldly, like they’ve been around the block more than once and have the scars to prove it. Just look at how she moves in High Sierra, even after dealing with physical abuse at the hands of the other men as part of the heist. She knows who she is and how to get out of tough spots. She’s not a woman on the make, but a woman trying to make do. They Drive by Night (1940) actually gives her a chance to cut loose as the femme fatale Lana Carlsen.
In the film (which also co-stars Bogart, although they don’t really interact), Lana’s married to a kind of bumbling trick business owner and former truck driver named Ed Carlsen (Alan Hale Sr.), and she has designs on his good friend and ambitious truck driver, Paul Fabrini (George Raft).
Lana has many traits we’ve come to associate with femme fatales. She’s money hungry, openly disdainful toward her husband, adulterous and disloyal to everything besides her own desires. But Lupino plays Lana in unexpected ways. The character doesn’t feel emboldened by lust or even a quest for autonomy. The true center of the character is only clear when she decides to kill Ed. By leaving him in the closed garage of their home (after he falls asleep, drunk, with the car running), Lana seals his fate. She derives no pleasure from this decision in the way that Barbara Stanwyck does in Double Indemnity (1944) or Bette Davis during the opening murder of The Letter (1941). Lupino plays Lana as increasingly unsure of herself. She even turns around after leaving Ed in the garage as if she immediately regrets her decision. Of course, she doesn’t regret it enough to turn around. It’s here that we learn what is underneath all of Lana’s airs and obvious discomfort with anything she associates with lower class: an irrational desire to be loved and have what’s out of reach.
Ed’s murder brings Lana no peace. Instead, it causes her to start falling apart almost immediately afterwards. Her steps grow more labored. Her gaze jumps across every room she enters as, at any moment, the truth will come out. She’s all nerves and regret. The murder doesn’t even bring her closer to Paul who plans to marry the fast-talking, sweet Cassie (Ann Sheridan).
In grand self-sabotaging fashion, she finds herself at court trying to bring Paul down with her. The electric doors of the jail become an omen and consistent reminder of how she sealed Ed’s fate with the switch of the garage doors.
As she’s questioned by an attorney, Lupino gives a masterclass in shifting mood. Her gaze vacant. Her face slack. It’s as if she doesn’t even know where she is. Lupino plays Lana as a shell of herself, haunted by the choices that brought her here. Then the manic touches that have been on the margins of her performance take center stage, her hands jittering with a handkerchief just as her gaze targets Paul. In real time, we witness a woman losing her sanity. Her crazed laughter rips through the courtroom as she’s taken away.
We still feel for Lana because Lupino has a way of bringing her characters down to earth. They’re ordinary women whose issues feel universal. You could find a woman like Lana down the block or sitting next to you on the train, her impassive facade hiding a neurotic need that will never be satisfied.
Lupino’s interest in tough men and women, whose stories involve small stakes but large emotions, extends to her work as a writer, director and producer, with her greatest film as a director/co-writer undoubtedly being the The Hitch-Hiker (1953).
The Hitch-Hiker tells the simple story of two good friends, Roy Collins (Edmond O’Brien) and Gilbert Bowen (Frank Lovejoy), heading to a fishing trip. Things go awry when they pick up a hitch-hiker just south of Mexicali. Their altruism quickly turns to regret when the man they picked up reveals his identity — Emmett Myers (William Talman). He’s a psychopath murdering his way across the country with the authorities at his heels.
As the first woman to director a noir, Lupino subverts expectations at every turn. Taking place in the wide open desert, The Hitch-Hiker makes Roy and Gilbert even more isolated. The car is a hotbox of very different masculine identities. Yes, Lupino’s interest in the social and emotional anxieties of common people in the post-war American landscape continues here, but the intimate war waged between these men feels like an indictment of America itself. Myers represents the lie that to succeed in life — to live the American dream — you have to take and never give. He pities Gilbert and Roy for their loyalty to each other. But it’s their friendship that saves them. Above all else, Lupino’s work is full of images of brutal poetry, privileging the faces of her actors. She’s joined by noir staple and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca (Out of the Past, Cat People and many other great works). Lupino forms a tense, cinematic character study that feels at once terrifyingly claustrophobic and oppressively grand. O’Brien and Lovejoy are underrated actors that appear in two of my noir favorites, D.O.A. (1950) and In a Lonely Place (1950), respectively. Lupino uses their skills to chart the growing dread and existential unease chipping away at their sanity and friendship. It’s one of the most fascinating portrayals of the way fear warps the mind, and male friendship, in all of noir.
While Lupino is interested in the dynamics between men, she bypasses any sort of display of toxic masculinity. She’s too smart for that, too interested in emotional truths. Lupino works within typically masculine genres and storytelling frames. In watching The Hitch-Hiker, I wondered if she utilized the female gaze, but I think that term, while useful, is too limiting for her work. One of the most striking images comes when the friends think Myers is asleep and try to escape. With a close up shot, Lupino focuses on Myers’ eyes, which slowly open to see the men attempting to flee. We don’t see his sick smile. But we don’t need to. It’s in his eyes.
Ida Lupino may have thought of herself as a poor man’s Don Siegel as a director and Bette Davis as an actress, but I think that’s far from true. Her history within film noir shows that she’s an iconoclast with her own perspective and artistry. And she deserves to be remembered as such.
Angelica Jade Bastién is a writer based in Chicago. She has been published by The Atlantic, Bright Wall/Dark Room, Movie Mezzanine and writes regularly for Vulture. You can find her on Twitter @angelicabastien and her website madwomenandmuses.com.