There’s certainly room for more than one Road House in anyone’s cinematic universe.
If the title “Road House” brings to mind only Patrick Swayze stripped to the waist and Kelly Lynch as a photogenic small-town doctor, you’re missing out. Not that Rowdy Herrington’s 1989 film doesn’t have its pleasures, but there’s another Road House worth knowing, a 1948 film directed by Jean Negulesco and starring Ida Lupino, Cornel Wilde, Celeste Holm, and Richard Widmark. The two films don’t actually have much in common other than their name, and there’s certainly room for more than one Road House in anyone’s cinematic universe.
Sexual obsession drives the plot in Negulesco’s Road House—the kind of all-consuming obsession that can drive a man mad. Since Jefty, the obsessed individual, is played by Richard Widmark—just one year after he made an indelible impression in Kiss of Death as the psychopathic gangster Tommy Udo (his signature move is pushing a crippled old lady down a flight of stairs)—it’s not surprising that Jefty’s obsession also endangers anyone unfortunate enough to be around when his reason starts to fray. And yes, Jefty is a rich guy with a weird rich-guy nickname (the character’s given name is Jefferson Robbins) and a dangerous rich-guy sense of entitlement.
The titular roadhouse is a combination nightclub and bowling alley owned by Jefty, who inherited it from his father, and managed by Pete (Cornel Wilde), his childhood friend and war buddy. Despite their shared background, Jefty and Pete could not be more different today—Pete’s a hard-working, clean-living kind of guy, with an All-American physique to match, while Jefty is scrawny and twisted and given to sharp suits and self-indulgence. A similar dichotomy is present between the two major female characters in Road House—bookkeeper Susie (Celeste Holm) is wholesome and athletic but a bit plain (only in Hollywood terms, of course), while lounge singer Lily (Ida Lupino) is glamorous, urbane, and positively oozes sex appeal.
Jefty hires Lily in the hopes of drawing more patrons to the club, and that part of his plan succeeds (Lupino sings “One for My Baby” in a manner recalling Marlene Dietrich, but, as Susie says, “She does more without a voice than anyone I’ve ever heard”). However, Jefty has more than the cash register on his mind—he returns from a hunting trip with a marriage license bearing his and Lily’s names, despite receiving no indication that she’s on board with the project. Meanwhile, Lily and Pete have been getting rather well acquainted in Jefty’s absence, and who can blame them? Negulesco grants us a little fan service in the form of Wilde with his shirt off and Lupino in perhaps the tightest pair of shorts to ever grace the silver screen, and it’s a wonder the film doesn’t just burst into flames from the heat they generate.
When Pete informs Jefty that he’s going to marry Lily, the news does not go over well. Jefty takes revenge by framing Pete for robbery, then arranges to get him released into Jefty-supervised probation, with the threat that if Pete makes the slightest misstep he’ll go straight to jail. This rather improbable arrangement signals the beginning of Jefty’s transition into full-blown psycho mode, and the film’s departure from even the pretense of plausibility. The benefit of pushing naturalism to the side, of course, is that it allows Negulesco to amp up the intensity in a way that is highly entertaining if not entirely believable. Our four principals head to spend a few days at Jefty’s hunting cabin in the woods—not entirely voluntarily on the part of three of them—setting up a finale involving much punching of faces, firing of guns, and discussions of the distance to the Canadian border. | Sarah Boslaugh
Road House is distributed on Blu-ray by Kino Lorber. Extras on the disc include a commentary track by Eddie Muller and Kim Morgan, the featurette “Killer Instinct: Richard Widmark and Ida Lupino at Twentieth Century Fox” (19 min.), and an animated image gallery.