Born in 1918 in Camberwell, London to a musical, theatrical family, the English-American Ida Lupino was a staple throughout noir cinema as an actress, and also became one of Hollywood’s ground-breaking female directors. Though she often referred to herself (as an actress) as the “poor man’s Bette Davis” or (as a director) as the “poor man’s Don Siegel,” the actress, director, screenwriter, and producer left an indelible mark on Hollywood and forced her way into independent filmmaking at a time when there were simply no female directors.
She began her career as an actress, during her teenage years, where she was bleached blonde in order to mimic the look of Hollywood starlets like Jean Harlow. But the young Lupino quickly made a solid impression in Hollywood — both positive and negative. She took her career seriously and refused to take roles than she considered silly or beneath her dignity, including an endless stream of Bette Davis cast-offs. As a result, Hollywood considered her stubborn and difficult, and she was put on “probation” many times.
Throughout the ‘30s, she was mostly in sentimental dramas or romantic comedies, though there was the occasional musical or war flick, such as The Lone Wolf Spy Hunt (1939) with Rita Hayworth. 1939 was a major year for Lupino’s career – she finally impressed Hollywood with her role in drama film The Light That Failed (1939). She also had a starring role in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes alongside Nigel Bruce and Basil Rathbone; she would return to B films throughout her career.
Lupino is the undisputed queen of film noir – she was not only the single woman to direct a film noir during its classic period (1941 to 1959), but she starred in many of them, including They Drive by Night (1940), High Sierra (1941), Out of the Fog (1941), Ladies in Retirement (1941), Moontide (1942), The Man I Love (1947), Road House (1948), Lust for Gold (1949), Woman in Hiding (1950), On Dangerous Ground (1951), Beware, My Lovely (1952), Private Hell 36 (1954), which she also wrote, The Big Knife (1955), While the City Sleeps (1956), and The Strangers in 7A (1972). She was always memorable, regardless of the role, though she was generally cast as a femme fatale or a particularly independent woman (as in While the City Sleeps, where she co-stars as a journalist turned newspaper executive).
She was also in a number of well-regarded war films, including The Sea Wolf (1941), Forever and a Day (1943), Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943), In Our Time (1944), and Pillow to Post (1945). Some of her more interesting efforts outside of war movies or film noir include Devotion (1946), about the Bronte sisters, with Ida as Emily and Olivia de Havilland co-starring as Charlotte. In this curious film, both sisters fall in love with a reverend, played by Paul Henreid, Lupino’s close friend in real life. His Casablanca co-star Sydney Greenstreet also appears. Later in her career, she starred as Steve McQueen’s mother in Sam Peckinpah’s western Junior Bonner (1972), though McQueen protested that it was unbelievable to cast her in a motherly role. Her penchant for being cast in violent films also led to a lead role in Women’s Prison (1955), where she played a sadistic, repressed warden in one of the first women-in-prison films.
While the ‘50s marks the heyday of her film career, in the ‘60s she primarily starred in episodes of television shows, including The Twilight Zone, Batman (as Dr. Cassandra), and The Mod Squad. Lupino also directed more than 100 episodes of TV from various shows, including Bewitched, Gilligan’s Island, The Untouchables, and many more. She was the only woman to direct an episode of The Twilight Zone (“The Mask”) and the only one of the show’s directors to star in en episode. She closed out her career with a few cult movies – satanic horror film The Devil’s Rain (1975) and animals attack movie The Food of the Gods (1976) – while her final film, My Boys are Good Boys (1978), was of course a crime caper flick about teenagers robbing an armored car – with Lupino fittingly cast as their mother.
Though she is most often recognized for her acting, her most important work was certainly in directing. Lupino and her then-husband, Collier Young, founded an independent production company, The Filmmakers, which made eight films total — six directed by Lupino herself. She also wrote and produced many of them. Though women worked as directors and screenwriters in the ‘20s and ‘30s, the only active female director in the ‘40s was Dorothy Arzner. After Arzner, who made her final film in 1943, Lupino became the second female admitted to the Director’s Guild — a major accomplishment.
Not Wanted (1949) is credited to Elmer Clifton, but he had a heart attack just after the start of production and Lupino stepped in to direct her first film, which she also wrote. Not Wanted concerns a single woman who gives birth without being married and gives the baby up for adoption. She comes to regret the decision and is driven to kidnap someone else’s baby. Though Lupino refused to take credit out of respect for Clifton, the taboo subject matter is in keeping with much of the rest of her career. This film also helped established her reputation that she could finish a production under budget and before schedule.
Never Fear (1950) continues her women’s theme, as it concerns a dancer who contracts polio just as she’s about to make it big with her career, and just after she’s gotten engaged. Perhaps Lupino’s most famous of her women’s films is Outrage (1950), the first Hollywood film to tackle the subject of rape from a sympathetic perspective, though Lupino, who again wrote the script, had to refer to it as “criminal assault” because of the Production Code. The film remains topical today, as its primary theme is the randomness of the act, the fact that this woman — all woman — are always under the threat of violence from men. It was also perhaps the first film to show how rape deeply impacts a person’s psychology and is a life-changing event.
Noir actress Claire Trevor and Lupino regular Sally Forrest starred in Hard, Fast and Beautiful (1951) as a contentious mother and daughter pair. The mother pressures her daughter into becoming a professional tennis player, which turns out to be a world full of corruption and questionable characters.
Lupino’s most well-known effort is the film noir The Hitch-Hiker (1953), a violent, all-male production with a small cast. The plot concerns two men on a cross-desert trip who pick up a hitch-hiker. Unfortunately, he turns out to be a murderer on the run and takes the men hostage in their own car. The excellent visuals are Lupino’s most stylish as a director and the film is certainly her most violent. And speaking of film noir, Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (1951), which Lupino and Robert Ryan starred in, had a few scenes directed by Lupino. When Ray fell ill, she confidently stepped into the director’s chair when needed.
The Bigamist (1953), her final film for many years, was unfortunately not as successful as The Hitch-Hiker. This movie about a man with two separate families was also Lupino’s only film as a director that she also starred in. Though it continued to tackle taboo themes, it lacked the passion of her earlier films. Her last movie came 13 years later — comedy film The Trouble with Angels (1966). This underrated film concerns two girls causing trouble at a private school run by nuns.
Lupino’s approach to directing was to remain feminine, passive on a surface level. She called the members of her cast and crew “darling” and asked — rather than demanded or ordered — for what she wanted on set. She preferred being called “mother” and had her director’s chair emblazoned with “Mother of Us All.” To learn more about the underrated Lupino, check out this biography or her memoirs, published after her death and, most of all, watch her films.