Iconic Film Noir

This month, the BFI Southbank launches an intriguing season of films starring and/or directed by Ida Lupino. Born in England to a theatrical family in 1918, Lupino made her name in Hollywood at the height of the studio system, alongside the likes of Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson and Robert Ryan. Despite health problems – she was diagnosed with polio in 1934 – she was dubbed “the English Jean Harlow.”

Must-see films featured in the season include two classic Raoul Walsh-directed films They Drive By Night (1940) and High Sierra (1941), both co-starring Bogart. Watch out for Lupino in the courtroom scene in the former; she practically steals the picture as Lana, the unhinged femme fatale who gets involved with two trucker brothers. She’s just as effective in High Sierra as the loyal moll to Bogart’s career criminal. Others to catch include The Sea Wolf, a 1941 adaptation of Jack London’s novel directed by Michael Curtiz the year before he made Casablanca. Lupino and John Garfield star as fugitives aboard a ship captained by Robinson’s tyrannical “Wolf” Larsen. Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (1951), meanwhile, sees Lupino as a blind woman entangled with Ryan’s hard-bitten cop.

Yet it was her work as a writer, producer and director that marked her out as unusual. At a time when actresses never made the leap behind the camera, Lupino worked on both films and in television beginning after she and Collier Young – her second of three husbands – formed an independent production company. Outrage (1950), just her second feature as director, dealt with the-then taboo subject of rape and its aftermath.

Whilst her tastes geared towards films with social messages, she became the first woman to direct a film noir – a genre she had clearly spent years studying as an actress – with The Hitch-Hiker (1953). The film stars Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy, as two men on a fishing trip to Mexico that goes disastrously wrong when they meet a serial killer on the run. For those seeking out something a little lighter, The Trouble With Angels (1966) showed that Lupino was just as deft in the comic arena with a story set in a Catholic boarding school. Featuring Rosalind Russell as a Mother Superior, and Hayley Mills and June Harding as rebellious pupils, it was the final feature Lupino would direct before she moved into episodic television.

Ida Lupino: Actor, Director, Writer, Producer, Star runs at the BFI Southbank until 30 June. For more details, visit BFI.

James Mottram

1. Ida Lupino in Roadhouse.