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Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Happy Birthday, Ida Lupino!

Sometimes everything just aligns. We were very pleased to be informed that today is the birthday of the late Ida Lupino, a fine actress from Hollywood's classic period, and also a trailblazing filmmaker/director in her own right. She was in our minds recently anyway, since her film The Bigamist screened in San Francisco last month as part of the Noir City film festival. About the movie our good friend David Robson wrote: "The first piece I've seen at Noir City that felt like an ensemble theatre piece, with everyone seeming equally engaged in a full-bore analysis of the topic at hand. All of the performances are carefully considered, firmly committing to each character's choices without veering even once toward melodrama. Beautiful emphasis at climax on how the choices made will reverberate for the rest of the characters' lives, underscored by the ambiguous and devastating final freeze-frame."

Consideration of Lupino's work gains a new dimension as it falls early in February, which some folks observe as Women In Horror Month. It doesn't take a long and detailed look at Lupino's body of work to establish her horror bona fides. She appeared in a number of classic and lesser-known film noirs, of course. But she's also notable as the only person to both star in and direct episodes of The Twilight Zone; indeed, she's the only woman to direct for that classic show, and her episode, "The Masks," boasts one of the series' most eerie and unsettling payoffs. The end of her acting career includes appearances in memorable 1970s horror fare like The Food of the Gods and The Devil's Rain.

But this writer would argue that her greatest horror credit is her direction of the 1952 thriller The Hitch-Hiker. The tale of two motorists taken hostage by a psychotic and sadistic madman is a textbook exercise in maintaining suspense on the lowest of budget (three actors, one car, etc.), but Lupino's attention to the psychology of her characters, jumping fearlessly into the feelings of helplessness and emasculation that might cut too close to home for most male filmmakers approaching similar subjects, amplifies the distress at the heart of the story. Though the noir audience often approaches the genre with a fair amount of irreverence, the desperation at the heart of The Hitch-Hiker usually renders them speechless, if not absolutely terrified. It's a rare thriller that thanks to its conviction and intensity crosses over into horror.

A versatile and tough actress of Hollywood's finest era; a trail-blazing, socially conscious director; a little-considered but worthy inclusion in the horror film firmament. Ida Lupino is all of these things, and much more, and she left behind a fantastic oeuvre, as an actor and a filmmaker, that remains well worth exploring. On this, her birthday, or any other day. Happy Birthday, Ms. Lupino.


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