As a classic noir fan-scholar, I look for women’s voices behind the screen. One of the few is director Ida Lupino. The Hitch-hiker (1953) is her most obviously noir film, telling the tale of two average guys (Edmund O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy) who find themselves at the mercy of a psychopathic escaped convict (William Talman at his finest). It’s a great B noir thriller: without subtlety or nuance but an exciting ride.
The rest of Lupino’s films are probably best described as social dramas, from the first Hollywood picture about rape directed by a woman (Outrage, 1950) to the first dealing with bigamy (The Bigamist, 1953), starring Edmund O’Brien as the unlucky fella, Lupino herself and Joan Fontaine (‽) as his two wives, and Edmund Gwenn as an annoying investigator.
I’m learning, however, that several other of Lupino’s films can be considered at least noirish. The Bigamist is sometimes discussed as noir for its underside-of-the-American-Dream emphasis and crime, for instance. But to that I’m definitely adding the Hard, Fast and Beautiful! (1951), not the least of which for its absurd title and its exclamation point. The film is loosely based on the John R. Tunis’s novel American Girl (1930), which is about America’s first female tennis celebrity, Helen Wills Moody. (If you haven’t heard of her, she’s worth reading about. Eight Wimbledon wins!) For Lupino, the “true story” is fodder for romance, scheming, and deception. We have what Hollywood of the post-war era would call a “weak” father figure; an obedient, talented, and perky daughter (Sally Forrest – also the star of Lupino’s Never Fear (1950), which I’ll see and review soon!); and the controlling mother determined to get rich (Claire Trevor). The casting of Trevor in this part is noir gold on its own. She’d already won the Academy Award for her portrayal of Gaye Dawn in Key Largo (1948) and played the black widow lead in Murder, My Sweet (1944). She’s also known to noir fans for central roles in Crack-up (1947), Raw Deal (1948) and my favorite of her pictures, Born to Kill (1947), in which she plays a psychopath to Lawrence Tierney’s sociopath and the two actually sizzle. The picture also features Elisha Cook, Jr. and Esther Howard at their best.
I put off watching Hard, Fast and Beautiful for a long while because I though a tennis movie would be dull. (While I was working on my book on gender in the films of George Cukor, I learned that I dislike Pat and Mike (1953), for example, a quite different tennis film of the same era featuring annoying battle-of-the-sexes rhetoric throughout). Lupino’s film is far from dreary, however. We watch as our young heroine Florence -- of humble, middle-class beginnings – develops her tennis skills and falls in love with regular guy Gordon (Robert Clarke). He works a menial job at the local country club (for now) and gets Florence in. Mom Millie (Trevor) is thrilled at this access to the upper-class set, which husband Will (Kenneth Patterson) cannot provide. Millie has already (or always already) given up on Will and seeks the wealth and privilege she feels she deserves through her daughter. The manipulation of Florence and Millie’s ultimate fate (shown in the film’s final scene, which I won’t give away beyond that) make this film definitely worthy of the descriptor “noirish,” even if there is a happy ending for Florence and Gordon. Sadly, that blissful heteronormative closure comes at the cost of career, for happy housewife and mother is Florence’s ultimate goal, much to mom’s chagrin. Even scheming manager Fletcher Locke (Carleton G. Young) lightly moves on to a new, younger female player to build another star.
Given the era and its gender norms, a little more might be said. The contrast between Florence and Millie is intended to reflect a good/bad, virgin/whore binary, and champion those who can be happy with everyday, middle-class lives. (Lupino also returns the rape-scarred protagonist of Outrage to her ignorant “nice guy” fiancé at the film’s conclusion, although she does not show the reunion on screen.) But there is also a potential feminist argument for the ambitious wives-gone-bad here. Millie has not been educated for a career nor attempted one because she’s opted for what the culture tells her is best: marry a man and stay home. This drives her to overinvest in her daughter, to get her daughter to live the life she wishes she could have, a life of fame and fortune. The ambition is too high, but the idea that suburban women of the post-war era have thwarted goals will come to haunt us soon, as reported by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique. I also see this pattern in late noir Crime of Passion (1956), in which Stanwyck’s Kathy Doyle actually has a job, writing an advice type column for a newspaper. She gives it up to marry police detective Bill (Sterling Hayden), but soon finds he lacks the ambition to advance in his career, and she is miserable in the dull life of the suburbs. She thus overinvests in him (because they don’t have children to push), trying to manipulate his career behind the scenes through sex with his superior, Tony Pope (Raymond Burr). She thus goes from good/virgin to bad/whore, and a feminist position might critique the culture that necessitates such choices.
Whatever your perspective on the sexual politics of the 1950s, I do recommend Hard, Fast and Beautiful! This genre-bending B classic is definitely worth 78 minutes of your time – and easy to find free online.