Richard Widmark, Celeste Holm, Ida Lupino, and Cornel Wilde in Road House (1948)


(director: Jean Negulesco; screenwriters: Edward Chodorov/story by Margaret Gruen & Oscar Saul; cinematographer: Joseph La Shelle; editor: James B. Clark; music: Cyril Mockridge; cast: Ida Lupino (Lily Stevens), Cornel Wilde (Pete Morgan), Celeste Holm (Susie Smith), Richard Widmark (Jefty Robbins); Runtime: 95; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producer: Edward Chodorov; 20th Century Fox; 1948)


A strange cultish love-triangle film noir directed by the gifted Jean Negulesco.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A strange cultish love-triangle film noir directed by the gifted Jean Negulesco (“The Mask of Dimitrios”/”Three Strangers”), who manages to keep it credible no matter how far off course the plot drifts. It’s written by Edward Chodorov and is based on the story by Margaret Gruen and Oscar Saul. Joseph La Shelle recreates an affluent postwar look for the featured roadhouse, a cheesy nightclub lounge with a bowling alley attached, located in an unnamed Midwest rural small-town somewhere near the Canadian border. Richard Widmark plays a sociopath, who in critical moments insanely chuckles and becomes maddeningly furious in a manic performance that has become his trademark in noir films.

Playboy Jefty (Richard Widmark) returns from Chicago with racy chanteuse Lily Stevens (Ida Lupino), who is desperate for a job and eagerly takes the $250 a week promised for six weeks (a bigger salary than what he usually pays for his entertainers). Jefty uses her to drum up business and for romantic reasons, like he usually does with his entertainers. But the torch singer resists, instead she’s attracted to the hard-working business manager Pete Morgan (Cornel Wilde), despite his open disdain for her. Pete’s a childhood friend and they served together in the war, and when Jefty inherited the place from his dad Pete was grateful his blood-brother friend gave him the job.

Returning from a hunting vacation, Jefty plans to marry Lily even though she gave him no indication that she even liked him. When Pete tells him that Lily agreed to marry him, Jefty turns his love for Pete to hatred and frames him for robbing his lounge receipts. His vengeance is not satisfied with the innocent man’s conviction, as he gets the judge to suspend his sentence and parole him in his custody for 2 years. If Pete screws up, the judge promises he will serve out his full 10 year sentence. That any judge would ever follow that course, is highly unlikely. But then again, we’re in the middle of deer country and probably in a red state!

Jefty has now gone completely batty and forces his captive lovebirds to go to his country hunting cabin; also coming along is the cashier Susie Smith (Celeste Holm). Susie always had a crush on Pete (she suffers in silence), and at first resented his interest in Lily. But Susie sees how nutty her boss is (his constant mental harassment of Pete and Lily) and acts heroically to save the lovebirds from Jefty’s intention to kill them when they try to escape from his grasp by crossing the border.