Lost in the Movies: Road House

Road House

Soon after his scene-stealing turn in Kiss of Death, Richard Widmark played a seemingly very different role in Road House. (Spoilers ahead!) Jefty owns a road house and appears to be a solid citizen, if something of a loner, boozer, and womanizer. He runs a business, wants to get married to new entertainer Lily Stevens (Ida Lupino), and has a long-standing friendship with Pete Morgan (Cornel Wilde). But Widmark still ends up as the villain, a character trying to seperate the two long-suffering characters who just want a simple life together. And he still has a mad (meaning angry and/or slightly crazy) streak, lashing out with violence and losing his temper in ways that get him into hot water.

But Udo in Kiss of Death is the classic psychopath, curling his lip in feral homicidal glee, killing as much for the thrill of it as for a sense of duty. Not much, save for looking out for #1 and fulfilling his professional duty (that is, killing and terrorizing), seems to motivate him on a rational level, and he's frightening because his ruthlessness seems extrahuman. Jefty is a far more recognizable type: the jealous lover, the betrayed friend, the resentful loner. Whereas Udo cackles frequently with his animal laugh, Jefty's smile seems slightly wounded, and by the end of the movie has disappeared altogether. It's an ironic smile, and Jefty is a character driven far more by emotion than Udo (whose only feeling seems to be a kind of conscienceless killer's joie de vivre). But he's also more clever. Jefty uses his brains rather than a gun to get his way, at least initially, framing his friend for a theft and then convincing the judge to parole Pete into his own care.

This is reminiscent of Catherine Martel in "Twin Peaks," who forces her wayward sister-in-law Josie Packard to become her maid, serving her meekly and humiliatingly - revenge for Josie's involvement in a conspiracy against Catherine, and an exploitation of Josie's desperation to avoid a captor. This plot point is hardly the only way in which Road House recalls "Twin Peaks" (or rather, vice-versa). After all, there's a crucial locale in the series and the spin-off movie, Fire Walk With Me, which is also called "the Road House" (and it too is on the Canadian border, hovering near a kind of spiritual/geographical no man's land). A few weeks ago, Glenn Kenny at Some Came Running noticed this similarity himself and put up some similar stills from the movie and the moment in the film when a drunken patron attacks Lily.

Lily Powers, or rather Ida Lupino, is of course the thread running through the story which connects the early, perhaps uneasy, friendship between Jefty and Pete, to the violence of the finale. She's a classic femme fatale, but she's presented sympathetically, a pro whose husky singing voice leaves no doubt as to what her weary appearance and tough demeanor suggest: she's tough, tired, damaged goods. No blame remains upon her by the end of the movie, even though early on we seem to be angling for an "other woman" scenario as she steals Pete's attention away from his girlfriend Susie Smith (Celeste Holm).

Curiously, Susie becomes allied with Pete and Lily; I kept expecting a twist in which it's revealed that she was somehow in on the plot to frame Pete, but her intentions remain pure throughout. It's part of the movie's ever-shifting portrayal of its characters: none of them end up where they started, and their relationships to one another are very different by the end of the movie from what they were. Jefty and Pete have become mortal enemies, Susie has gone from girlfriend to spurned lover to unexpected ally, and Lily, the change agent, is now relegated to the sidelines watching as the two men she tore apart face off against one another.

To me, however, the most compelling scenes in Road House occur early on, when all the tensions and frustrations remain submerged, hinted at as Lily smokes endless cigarettes while playing the piano (a series of black marks on the wood memorialize where the cigs have burned out), and suggested by the strain in Jefty's smile, the hurt that peeks out as one corner of his mouth curls up hesitantly. It's a far cry from Udo's evil grin, but in its own way, just as dangerous.

This makes a week's worth of write-ups on movie classics - after 7 days' focus on 30s/40s/50s Hollywood (thanks to the classic channels and a new DVR) I'll be getting back to some of the basics, including Twin Peaks, finally the Auteurs series again, Hooray for (Hating) Hollywood - which, of course, also deals with the classics. But this was getting back to basics, and I hope you enjoyed it - I definitely did.


Tony D'Ambra said...

Lily is a tough world-weary dame, but she is not a femme fatale, and I have called the movie more a noirish melodrama than a film noir.

Joel Bocko said...

Tony, I would agree (which is what I was sort of going for in the review) - though Road House contains elements of noir and Lily at first seems like a femme fatale, ultimately she ends up more victim than instigator - and to the extent that she is instigator it's inadvertent.

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