Road House (1948)

“If you like the sound of gravel.”

Jefty (Richard Widmark) owns a Road House in a small town. It’s managed by childhood friend, Pete Morgan (Cornell Wilde). Jefty, who has a reputation with the ladies, brings home a sultry singer, Lily Stevens (Ida Lupino), and when Pete hears that she’s getting $250 a week for singing in the bar, he’s against the deal. Jefty, apparently, has a history of bringing female singers back to the road house, and then expecting more than just a few songs for his money. Pete tries to dump Lily at the train station, and Lily refuses to leave. This initial maneuver by Pete sets him at odds with Lily. But then when Pete hears Lily sing, he realizes that she’s worth every penny Jefty’s paying her.

Jefty soon makes it clear that Lily is hired to entertain the crowds that swarm to listen to her every night, but that in her spare time, she belongs to him. Lily is experienced enough to know how to manage Jefty. Circumstances, however, throw her into Pete’s company, and they fall in love. Jefty feels crossed. He’s not about to let his manager leave town with Lily, so he devises a plan that guarantees that the couple will be under his sadistic thumb for a long time….

Lily, Jefty, and Pete could make an interesting love triangle. Unfortunately, there’s just not enough of a hint early in the film to explain Jefty’s later actions. His character isn’t explored adequately to explain his evil actions once the couple try to leave town. It’s clear that Jefty has a problem with using his female singers (and that Pete is tired of moping up after Jefty), but Jefty’s character is not warped beyond a certain weakness where women are concerned. Pete and Jefty should be foils for one another, but neither character is distinct enough to really bring this out. Pete is too bland, and Jefty isn’t spoiled and evil enough. There are just not enough sparks here. Widmark as Jefty does a credible job with the restraints placed upon him by the narrow role. There are shades of Tommy Ugo (Kiss of Death) when Jefty goes crazy in the final scenes, so for film noir fans, this film is well worth watching. Lupino, as the singer who sounds as though she’s smoked her way through a six-pack-a-day habit for years, is great. From director Jean Negulesco.

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Filed under Film Noir, Richard Widmark

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