Road House, directed by Juan Negulesco, is an odd duck. And no, before you ask, it’s not the movie with Patrick Swayze, the one where he has a philosophy degree from NYU but would rather play bouncer. This one is a 1948 programmer that features a mish-mash of genres. It’s a noir. It’s a love triangle. It’s a nightclub film. It’s a bowling movie.
Right, this is the rare film that includes multiple scenes set in a bowling alley, and, in fact, our protagonists Pete (Cornel Wilde) and Lily (Ida Lupino) arguably fall in love as he teachers her how to bowl. (In that way, it’s not exactly Jeff and Kathy romancing each other in Mexico in Out of the Past.)
The alley sits adjacent to the restaurant Pete operates along with owner Jefty (Richard Widmark) and Lily, a singer, is brought to the woods of northern Michigan to serve as the restaurant’s nightly entertainment. Lily is ostensibly Jefty’s girl, but that doesn’t last long. And Lupino infuses her character with so much verve and independence that it’s pretty clear from the outset that she’s going to do what she wants with whom she wants.
The best part of the film comes early, with Lupino’s sultry, gravely performances at the bar. Not really much of a singer, Lupino convincingly sells the idea of a woman trying to make use of every ounce of her talent. In a great touch, Lily lines up lit cigarettes on the lid of her piano. “You smoke too much,” Jefty tells her at one point. She does. She’s almost never without a cigarette, even when she bowls, and even when she ends up macking with Pete. The suggestion is clear: Lily’s a city girl, out of her element and at loose ends. Like so many women in movies like this, she is both the driver of the plot and a bystander is it careens into desperation.
Wilde lacks charisma as the male lead, as both Lupino and Widmark, both of whom would help push noir to its limits in their careers in On Dangerous Ground (1951) and Night and the City (1950), respectively, blow him off the screen. Widmark slowly descends into sort of a psychotic madness, similar to his character in 1947’s Kiss of Death and takes everyone else along for the ride. There’s also good-girl Celeste Holm, whom nobody seems to desire, but who makes off with a lot of the film’s best lines. Hearing Lily sing for the first time, Holm’s character exclaims, “She does more without a voice than anybody I’ve ever heard!”
For most of the film, it doesn’t quite feel like a noir at all–until the story almost goes off the rails in a late second-act twist that sees Pete framed for a crime and then placed in Jefty’s care. It’s a development that strains all credulity, but ramps up the tension. Still, the movie is shot like one. with shadows and blacks and angles, even making a friendly rest stop look sinister. And once our leads are trapped in the woods, trying to escape a crazed Jefty, the film fully embraces its noir trappings, while setting a template for every backwoods slasher movie ever made. While Jefty gets what’s coming to him in the end, it doesn’t come without regret, making this a film where the relationships do matter. To its lasting credit, it feels like a death in the family. – James Oliphant