At a time when Hollywood was dominated by the studio system, Ida Lupino became the first woman to direct a noir in the 1950s. Katie Da Cunha Lewin explores the legacy of the forgotten filmmaker.
In Four Star Playhouse, an anthology series that ran in the mid-1950s, Ida Lupino stars in the episode called ‘The Stand-In’. Lupino is the body double for a famous actress, played by fellow Brit Virginia Field, who she comes to hate. This episode, for which Lupino had written the story, demonstrates the actor’s distaste for the mechanisms of the studio system of Golden Age Hollywood, one that produces commodified bodies, particularly those of women.
Lupino was not shy to discuss this in interview; when, in 1943, she declined a new contract offer from Warner Bros she explained: “All I could think of was that seven years from that day, I’d be a movie star, but they’d be saying the same thing to another girl that in seven years she’d be another Ida Lupino. I decided that there was something more for me than being a big star. So I said no and I walked out. In 1947, after refusing a four-year contract with the same studio, she restated her position: “I don’t want to be told someday that I will be replaced by some starlet as I was told I would replace Bette”.
That Bette is, of course, Bette Davis. Lupino had been compared to Warner Brothers studio-mate Davis for reasons that clearly have nothing to do with performance: Lupino does none of the histrionics that qualify Davis’ style, nor the eye-widening. She is level-headed, direct, and has a half-smile on her lips which seems to suggest that she is calmly aware of everything around her. It seems, then, that the industry comparisons lie in the perceived ‘difficulty’ of these actors.
But where Davis famously fought for roles she wanted (the battle for Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind is an infamous example of Davis’ tireless campaigning) and attempted to litigate her way out of punitive contracts (an action for which she was sued in 1937), Lupino’s ‘difficulty’ seems to stem from her resistance to taking a safe route through Hollywood; and indeed, doing what heads of studios told her to. She had several starring roles in film noirs, They Drive by Night and High Sierra, and dramas such as Deep Valley, but she often clashed with studio director Jack Warner about roles in films she did not like, or simply found boring. This waning interest in acting gave rise to her increasing desire to write, produce and direct – something few other women had the opportunity to do or indeed the confidence to contemplate.
Lupino’s determination to work on the other side of the camera resulted in a period of intense work between the late ’40s and early ’50s: Lupino set up production company The Filmakers in 1949, with collaborator and husband Collier Young, with the express aim of making socially conscious films on small budgets. That same year, the company produced two films: Lupino co-wrote and co-produced Not Wanted, and though the directing credit is given to Elmer Clifton in the titles, Lupino in fact directed the film after Clifton fell ill three days into shooting.
Her first credited work came soon after Never Fear, also known as The Young Lovers. In both films, Lupino explores societal taboos: in Not Wanted, a young woman follows a man she is in love with to a new town, but quickly realises her feelings are not really reciprocated. When she finds out she is pregnant, she has the tough decision of whether or not to keep her child. In Never Fear, a young woman deals with the long-lasting effects of polio, and tries to recuperate in order to be able to dance again. The lead actress in both, Sally Forrest, gives highly emotional performances that do not veer into the melodramatic, instead showing the profound effect of these events, something heretofore unseen on the Hollywood screen. In both films, much space is given in the slim running times to explore the profound effects of emotional trauma, loss, illness and disability. Lupino’s realism is an emotional one.
It is perhaps 1950’s Outrage that explores the most radical taboo: rape. In this film, Lupino demonstrates not only her commitment to exposing often unspoken traumas, particularly those of young women, but it also proves her command of filmic grammar. Outrage wears its influences boldly, both the conventions of Italian neo-realism, and the German crime films of Fritz Lang. The tense rape scene in particular evokes the unsettling chase scenes of Lang’s M, implicitly suggesting that the public outcry about murder and crimes against children should also be readily available for crimes against women.
Like Lang, who sought to give an insight into those modern society may simply call ‘evil’, Lupino complicates our perspective through the camera itself: we get a glimpse into the psyche of the rapist by the framing, which becomes a literal way of containing the young woman, compounding her vulnerability. The tense scene, with more hints of M through the interplay of shadows, leads slowly to her attack. Lupino’s critique of male violence seems to move far beyond the specific confines of the screen, as the camera explores the alienating landscape of urban accumulation through the drawn-out scene. This technique of looking around her is typical of Lupino’s directorial aims and styles; in each of her films, she seeks to move away from personal judgement, and direct the audience’s attention to the troubles of society itself.
And yet, after this flurry of activity with her production company (including 1953’s The Bigamist and The Hitch-Hiker), when Lupino became an established and respected director of television, she was still well aware of her position in Hollywood: “I used to be the poor man’s Bette Davis. Now, I’m the poor man’s Don Siegel”. Her comparison of herself to Siegel, who by the late ’50s had a reputation for gritty B-movies, noirs and action films, again reveals her profound self-awareness that for Hollywood, a woman director would always be second best.
At this time, Lupino was probably aware that she had the dubious honour of being a constant first for women in Hollywood: she was the only female director to be working during the early 1950s and is also widely considered to be the only woman to have directed a film noir in The Hitch-Hiker. She was also only the second woman to be admitted to the Directors Guild of America, after director of silent and early-talkies Dorothy Arzner. Perhaps most importantly, Lupino was a pioneer of independent filmmaking at a time when Hollywood’s process and aesthetic was still determined by the studio system.
Though American independent cinema is dominated by names like John Cassavetes and Dennis Hopper, Lupino demonstrated years earlier that socially conscious films could be made quickly, cheaply and pack a substantial emotional punch – even with a woman behind the camera.
Katie Da Cunha Lewin (@kblergg) is a writer and tutor based in London. She has a PhD in literature and is the co-editor of Don DeLillo: Contemporary Critical Perspectives published by Bloomsbury in 2018. Her writing has appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, The White Review, The London Magazine and Los Angeles Review of Books among others. She has taught literature, film and theory at a variety of institutions.