Ida Lupino, Filmmaker

Edited by Phillip Sipiora (Bloomsbury Academic) 2023 and The Bigamist by Amelie Hastie (BFI Film Classics, Bloomsbury)



Is Ida Lupino a feminist director or only a proto feminist director?  Are her screen performances an inspiration to feminist driven actors?  And can she to be considered a role model for how to succeed in a largely (then) and now (a bit less so) male dominated Hollywood?  These questions arise when considering the 48 year career of an attractive, highly talented and tenacious woman who directed 6 feature films, wrote scripts, worked in American Television, formed her own independent production company and acted in 59 films.

For her achievements she was only the second woman to be inducted into the Director’s Guild of America.  And to have been given that honour (no easy feat) is probably more significant to us for understanding Ida Lupino’s ambition than according her a feminist label.

When interviewed in 1972, still working as an actress but not director, she said, of the women’s movement, that she was not “one of those ladies who go in for women’s lib.  Any woman who wishes to smash into the world of men isn’t very feminine…Baby, we can’t go smashing.”

Rather than smashing men Lupino considerately manipulated them in order to get things done.  She’s admitted to employing a feminine charm in order to have male co-operation and peer approval on the set.  It worked and her highly professionally directed films won her great respect.  Just one small thing though her ‘professional’ films are a lot more than that.  Lupino made them uniquely personal and quietly subverted genres to create some remarkable films of the early 1950’s.

Her cinema stands seriously apart from categories like “women’s pictures” and “social issue movies”.  Lupino was not creating steamy Joan Crawford melodramas nor Stanley Kramer earnest liberalism but a Lupino humanity reaching out to portray the lives of ordinary people.  She tackled subjects that were against the grain.  Unwed pregnancy in Not Wanted (1949); the struggle against Polio in Never Fear (1950); rape in Outrage (1950): ambition and commerce in Hard, Fast and Beautiful and bigamy in The Bigamist (1953).  Even her more thematically ‘conventional’ film noir The Hitchhiker (1953) which apart from being the first woman directed noir has a villain who’s often filmed to look like the sort of horror film character (ala Norman Bates in Psycho) seven years before his screen time.

Ida Lupino, Filmmaker is a welcome volume of essays on a director who isn’t easy to categorise and remains problematic and underappreciated because of that fact.  What these essays have in common is the fact Lupino’s talent should be applauded even when critics are not fully certain of what she is creating.  I think Lupino is a nuanced and highly individualistic artist.  Rather than exploring gender politics I’d suggest what really interested her were the difficulties of staying human in an increasingly  repressive, conformist and commercialised culture.  This would imply that she’s more of a political director.

But she isn’t.  True there’s a subtle social critique in Lupino’s cinema but it’s closely bound up with male and female psychology under extreme pressure from numerous sources.  How people cope under the dreams of American capitalism.  Well, yes.  Though even more so how people are compromised and frustrated in their personal efforts to lead a meaningful life: being true to yourself when there’s so much that’s untrue around you.

Martin Scorsese has written that Lupino’s “work is resilient, with a remarkable empathy for the fragile and heartbroken.  It is essential.” A powerful reason (Yet not fully explored in this book) for this integrity and sympathy is Lupino’s working relationship with the actress Sally Forest.

Julie Grossman’s essay “A Big Family of Little Failure” is good on the infantilising of characters in the Lupino / Forest film Not Wanted.  But she fails to discuss in depth Lupino’s direction of Sally Forest (who is brilliant here and in Never Fear and Hard, Fast and Beautiful) and perhaps how Sally could be standing in for the more vulnerable, if hardly publically revealed, character of Ida Lupino?  Just an autobiographical suggestion.

Yet Lupino’s sympathy also extends to the male protagonist under stress because of his ‘irresponsible’ actions as a bigamist in The Bigamist.  Edmond O’Brien delivers an excellent performance as the passive husband who cheats on his two wives played by Joan Fontaine and Ida Lupino.  There’s nothing like The Bigamist in American cinema of the fifties.  Usually bigamy had been the butt of Hollywood screwball comedies yet The Bigamist treats the crime very seriously and maintains a remarkably non-judgemental position.

Right through to its inconclusive, but satisfying, ending The Bigamist elicits immense sympathy for everyone.  Lupino’s sense of how irresolvable are our feelings, in not wanting to produce an easy self-pity, but requiring to get beyond that in order to achieve a manageable, if ambivalent, maturity are equally apparent in the moving endings of Outrage, Not Wanted and Never Fear.

Lupino’s fine performances in Walsh’s High Sierra and Siegel’s Private Hell 36 are justly celebrated in Curtis Levan’s essay on Lupino and acting (But Lupino’s equally terrific performance in Curtiz’s The Sea Wolf isn’t mentioned at all).  Three chapters are devoted to Lupino’s striking television work (Seek out her direction of the disturbing Twilight Zone episode The Masks) and are finely researched and insightful.  All the pieces on The Bigamist are thoughtful but this landmark film is generally better handled in the BFI film classic book by Amelie Hastie.  And Philip Sipiora’s introduction to the Lupino book contributors is admirable.

Is Ida Lupino an auteur outsider working in the classical period of Hollywood filmmaking?  I’m not yet fully sure of her visual signature but she could handle the camera with great power – the final chase sequence of the 1949 Not Wanted has a location shot physical energy and emotional impact that’s breathtaking.  All the more remarkable when you realise that the outdoors excitement of Naked City (1950) and On the Waterfront (1954) was still to come.  And Not Wanted has another inconclusive ending with an unexpected hope of compromise.  A chance of qualified love, with an injured war veteran, though not the love and attention that teenage Sally (Sally Forest) really wants or, as yet, can understand.

Ida Lupino was a considerable maverick force in Hollywood.  Closer to individualists like the visceral Samuel Fuller than many an “A picture” director.  She both played the system’s rules and also broke them.  She was her own woman.  Or perhaps Ida would say her own sensitive person.

Alan Price©2024.