“Doesn’t it ever enter a man’s head that a woman can do without him?” ~ Ida Lupino as Lily Stevens
Jefty’s is quite the joint. Bowling, drinks, floorshows. In a one-horse town, it’s the place to go especially when the establishment’s proprietor (Richard Widmark) brings in the alluring nightclub singer Lily Stevens (Ida Lupino) to liven up the bar. Although he hired her without much forethought following a trip to Chicago, Jefty’s convinced this girl is really something although his faithful right-hand man Pete Morgan (Cornel Wilde) has her pegged from the start. Smoking and playing solitaire. It sums up her life. It’s true.
They don’t exactly hit it off because he thinks he already knows what type of girl she is and she’s not too happy about getting pushed out of this gig. But ultimately she stays, the general public starts coming in droves, Jefty’s happy, and Pete does his best to keep away from her. But she does exactly the opposite. She appreciates Jefty but really has eyes for Pete and she pursues him.
What the film hinges on is really a love diamond with Ida Lupino and Cornel Wilde at the points. She is the object of desire for Jefty who thinks he could finally tie the knot with a girl. He’s in love no question. But Pete warms to Lily as well and is the one looking to go away with her. There also must be some necessary credit given to Celeste Holm for her performance although she has the most thankless role as Susie, the cashier at the Road House who also has obvious feelings for Pete.
But everything is thrown for a loop when Jefty comes back from a week long hunting trip with big news to spring on Pete. He’s gotten a marriage license. He’s going to ask Lily to marry him. However, over that same week, Pete and Lily have gotten closer than ever. Obviously, when the truth comes out the old friends have it out and the two lovers look to leave town.
The whole film thus far, Jefty has been a bit of a loose cannon but a generally nice guy. Except on a dime, things turn. Soon Pete is being detained for some cash missing from the company’s safe that his old friend claims is missing. It’s Pete’s words (with Lily’s) against Jefty’s with the police in the middle. It seems like a small deal but in a whirlwind sequence of events, Pete is brought to court and convicted of grand larceny. However, in a diabolical turn of events, Jefty becomes Pete’s savior as well as his master following a talk with the judge who agrees to put the convicted man on probation at the Road House. It’s just like old times, the gang all back together again except this time Jefty has Pete in a bind. One false move, one thing that he doesn’t like and Pete goes back to fulfilling his prison sentence. Jefty’s got him on a string and everyone knows it.
It’s in these moments where the remnants of the maniacal cackle of Tommy Udo from Kiss of Death begin to rear their ugly mug. And the next hunting trip Jefty plans with everyone included fills liked forced fun. No one’s having it and Lily and her love look to take one final chance to run away because any life is better than a life under Jefty’s thumb. What follows is a race for the woods and the Canadian border with Susie fleeing after them pursued by the crazed man packing a gun a bit like A Dangerous Game. It’s bound to be a deadly finale. Someone has to lose.
Cornel Wilde always feels too much like cardboard or plastic, whichever you prefer especially when put up against Ida Lupino and Richard Widmark. The latter pair is more at home in the worlds of film noir, Lupino being both alluring and assertive, boasting a gravelly voice perfect for rasping out “One for my Baby (and One More for the Road)” that is enhanced by her smoking habits.
Meanwhile, Widmark always had a handle on the sleazy and embittered characters who were in one moment grinning and in another seething with a cunning anger. There’s a volatile polarity that he taps into that makes most every character he plays enjoyable as we slowly watch their evil tendencies overwhelm any good that is in them (or vice versa). He also likes hitting the sauce. Cigarettes and booze have always been a hallmark with noir and so it is with this film. So if you’re looking for a good time and a bit of uncompromising filmmaking, look no further than the Road House.