Born to be Bad
Women in Film History - Profile #4
Ida Lupino (1918-1995)
"'My father once said to me, 'You're born to be bad,' she recalled. 'And it was true. I made eight films in England before I came to America, and I played a tramp or a slut in all of them.'" (source)
Ida Lupino was born in London to a family of actors. She started acting as a child, often cast in small parts for productions in which her father starred. She attended London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and began starring in film in 1932. From there, she was contracted with Paramount Pictures, and made her way to Hollywood.
Eventually moving over to Warner Brothers, Lupino’s dramatic looks and husky voice led to roles as a tough girl— a quick-witted dame who knew what she wanted. Her most famous roles in They Drive By Night and High Sierra set her across Humphrey Bogart, where she easily held her own against Bogart’s screen presence.
However, Lupino grew tired of being type-cast, and decided not to renew her contract with Warner Brothers. Instead, she pursued independent filmmaking. With her then-husband Collier Young, she formed an independent studio called The Filmmakers, and began producing films. When one of their films, Not Wanted (1949), lost its director, Lupino stepped in— and thus began her directing career.
In many ways, Lupino defined early independent cinema. With her films she explored subjects that studios wouldn’t touch: Not Wanted followed an unwed woman with an unwanted pregnancy, her first official director’s credit Never Fear was the story of a woman recovering from polio, and her 1950 film Outrage followed the social experiences of a woman who survived rape. Lupino co-wrote her films and made them with relatively small budgets, often filming in the streets to offset costs. She was only the second woman to join the Director’s Guild of America, the only woman to direct a film noir, and the only woman to direct an episode of The Twilight Zone.
After her marriage dissolved due to her husband’s affair, Lupino’s directing career waned. While she continued to act in television for most of her life, Lupino only directed one film outside of The Filmmakers— 1966’s The Trouble with Angels. She suffered with alcoholism and depression later in life, and suffered many health problems, including cancer. She died of a stroke in 1995.
Cruelly coincident with Lupino's passing was a burgeoning renewal of public interest in her feature film work and her championing among film historians as an important figure in the development of American cinema in the second half of the 20th Century. (source)
The Hitch-Hiker (1953)
A terse film noir, The Hitch-Hiker is Ida Lupino’s most critically renown work. At a short 72-minutes, Lupino’s film wastes no time in getting to the psychology of the situation. With only three major characters— all of whom are male— Lupino makes searing observations about toxic masculinity and the role it plays in violence.
“This is the true story of a man and a gun and a car,” says the film’s first title card. The camera’s first few images keep the viewer limited to a few details— feet at the edge of the rode, a gunshot, the limp hand of a murder victim. These elements create a visual synecdoche for the dark force about to haunt the story— a murdering hitchhiker named Emmett Myers (William Talman), or, in a larger sense, a performative, harmful version of masculinity.
To contrast Myers’ killer are his two victims, the mild-mannered Collins (Edmund O’Brien) and Bowen (Frank Lovejoy). The two men are on their way to Mexico for a fishing trip, and are a touch nervous about being so far from wives and children. When they pick up a hitch-hiker just north of the border, their trip turns into a nightmare. Emerging from the darkness of the backseat is Myers’ gun. In an effort to survive, they follow Myers instructions to drive him to his escape in Mexico.
The film is claustrophobic, limited to these three men, the car they’re driving him, and the bleak desert landscape. Lupino uses these constraints as a blank canvas to interrogate the psyches of the men. Myers views his two victims as weaklings, mocking them for their submission and concern for one another. He regards them as idiots because they have chosen to wait the situation out rather than try to escape. “You kept thinking about each other,” Myers says. “And you missed some chances.”
Bowen serves as the foil to Myers. In the face of the toxic masculinity displayed by his captor, Bowen remains affectionate and soft. As they travel throughout Mexico, Myers expresses disgust with the idea of speaking “Mexican,” and is cruel to the citizens they encounter. Meanwhile, Bowen affectionately greets the children that remind him of his own, risking himself to speak Spanish and humanize them (Worthy of note: in a bold directorial move, Lupino does not add subtitles to any Spanish in the film). He takes care of the more vulnerable Collins.
“You aren’t a thing without that gun,” says Collins earlier in the film. When Myers is eventually apprehended, Bowen manages to get the gun out of his hands, letting it drop into the water. Without the gun— that mask of masculinity and power— Myers is indeed nothing, easily taken away by the police. Finally safe, and mirroring Myers’ appearance from darkness, Bowen lets Collins lean on him as they walk toward the light.
Bonus: The Female Gaze in Ida Lupino’s The Trouble with Angels
While researching, I came across this video essay by Laura Ivins of Indiana University. I love her reading of Lupino’s film. Watch it below!