"The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of" ... Bogart, Shakespeare, The Maltese Falcon, Those Great Movies

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Beware, My Lovely -- Film Noir With A Difference

This is my contribution to the Ida Lupino Blogathon being sponsored today and tomorrow at  www.missidalupino.wordpress.com.  The banner for this Blogathon is posted on my sidebar at right.  Don't miss these wonderful articles about a wonderful actress!

Beware, My Lovely is not a typical film noir. It does not take place in the underworld of Chicago or the back streets of New York. It is not set in modern time, nor does it involve crime bosses or femme fatale molls. Yet, it is as the genre name indicates, a dark movie, tense and disturbing, about a crime already committed and potential crime yet to come. The setting is a small American town in the year 1918. It is Christmas time in a lovely tree-lined neighborhood where children are laughing and playing and the sun is shining.

The film opens in the kitchen of a big-city apartment, where handyman Howard Wilton (Robert Ryan) discovers the dead body of the lady he has been working for. Howard looks at the body, shocked and confused. We know he does not know what to do, and in his fear he flees the building. The next scene opens in the small town described above, in the home of a World War I widow Helen Gordon (Ida Lupino). Helen is cleaning and preparing her house for Christmas. She is also saying goodbye to Walter (Taylor Holmes), her longtime boarder who is moving away. Helen’s niece Ruth (Barbara Whiting), a particularly sullen and malicious adolescent, is being punished by her mother, who has ordered her to help Aunt Helen with her cleaning. Some of Helen’s little piano pupils drop by, and Helen’s little dog is happily romping around with all the company.

Amidst all of this pleasant bustle, Howard walks through the front door. He seems intensely shy and unsure of himself, quiet and gentle. He is looking for work, and Helen decides to hire him for the day to help with the cleaning. Soon Walter is moved out, the children are gone home, Ruth has been released from her punishment, and the dog is outside. Helen is alone with Howard, and so begins a day of terror for her. Howard is mentally unstable, at once menacing and pitiful, sharp and alert one moment, confused and forgetful the next. Helen comes to realize that she is trapped in the house with him, and as she comes to understand the danger she is in, her fear and vulnerability increase with every moment.

Each scene of Beware, My Lovely builds upon the next like the little Russian doll that opens to reveal another smaller doll, than another, until the core is revealed. Screenwriter Mel Dinelli did a wonderful job with this subtly terrifying story. (Dinelli also wrote the screenplay for another of my favorite suspense thrillers, The Spiral Staircase.) There is little more I am willing to reveal about the film because the very nature of it depends upon the unknown. Suffice it to say that this is not a typical story with a typical ending.

Beware, My Lovely began as a stage play and then a radio play in 1945 on the popular Suspense program, starring Agnes Moorhead and Frank Sinatra in his radio drama debut.  Ida Lupino and her husband produced the movie of Beware, My Lovely in 1952. Lupino was one of the first women to begin working behind the camera to produce and direct movies. Director Harry Horner did his usual wonderful job (he also directed one of my favorite movies, The Heiress). The cast was solid, including long-time character actor Taylor Holmes and young Barbara Whiting, the sister of famed singer Margaret Whiting and the daughter of Robert Whiting, a prolific songwriter whose compositions included “Hooray for Hollywood”, “On the Good Ship Lollipop”, and “Too Marvelous for Words”. The art direction was done by the wonderful Albert D’Asgostino, who was also responsible for art direction in The Magnificent Ambersons. Mention must be made of the costume designer, Michael Woulfe. Lupino’s costume with the long hobble skirt popular in 1918 gives her an even greater look of trapped inability to save herself. Ryan’s clothing, including an oddly short tie, is rather dorky and sad, like a man who does not know how to dress himself.

With all these winning elements, the fact is that Beware, My Lovely is Robert Ryan’s film. Audiences accustomed to seeing Ryan as intensely masculine, tall and dominant, saw him in this movie as a sad, tired, mentally ill man. He is indeed menacing, but at the next moment unable to remember what had happened and afraid of his confusion. He terrorizes this woman, and at the same time has gentle feelings for her. His character cannot be pigeon-holed into good guy/bad guy, and Ryan masterfully creates this disturbing presence.  Beware, My Lovely belongs in the film noir genre despite its uncharacteristic elements, maybe even because of the peculiarity of mental volatility and disturbing undercurrents that darken the sunniest day.

(This article was originally posted on the Classic Film and TV Cafe)


  1. Each scene of Beware, My Lovely builds upon the next like the little Russian doll that opens to reveal another smaller doll, than another, until the core is revealed.

    Very nice. To be honest, I'm more of a fan of Ida and Bob's On Dangerous Ground but the last time I watched Lovely I did so was with my Mom (Irene to you) and I remember she liked it a lot.

  2. I'm glad you liked my description, Ivan. I know what you mean about On Dangerous Ground. I really love that Ryan/Lupino movie. As I said, though, I was so impressed with Ryan's unusual performance in Farewell, My Lovely. He is such a wonderful actor. And Ida, well she is the same. Irene is a very intelligent woman -- Mother knows best!

  3. "The film is simply constructed, yet engulfs the viewer with a creepy atmosphere primarily driven by Ryan’s outstanding off kilter performance."

    The quote above is from my own review of this tense thriller a while back and says just about everything I like about it, that is except for Ida Lupino and I just say how much I adore her work. Like you and Ivan, I am a big fan of Nicholas Ray's ON DANGEROUS GROUND.

    Enjoyed reading your review and glad to see this film get a little love.

  4. Great review! I feel like this is a really underrated movie and all the performances are top notch.

    Thank you for participating in the blogathon! I really enjoyed reading your post. :)

  5. Wonderful review Becky, It is very hard to watch the film knowing early on that Ryan, is a mad killer and poor Miss Lupino, tries everything in her power, to keep him calm when she learns the truth.

  6. 24FOUR: Thanks so much! I think this is one Ida movie that deserves attention too. I like your quote from your own article very much!
    MISSIDA: I'm glad to be part of the your blogathon. I love Ida too. Thanks for your nice words. I haven't been too well lately, and now I'm better and need to catch up with the other contributors!
    DAWN: Thanks! I know what you mean about knowing what Ida's character does not-- and holding our breath for her!

  7. Did Harry Horner direct the radio version of "The Heiress?" That query notwithstanding, this is a great film, with wonderful performances by Ryan and Lupino.

  8. South Loop, I don't know anything about the radio version. I'll have to look that up on my favorite old time radio site. I listen to that a lot! And I agree, this movie had wonderful performances by both! Thanks for stopping by! (I really like your name!)

  9. Your description of the building tension in the film actually put a knot in my stomach! Good writing. I don't think I could ever watch that movie again. Her vulnerability really got to me.

  10. KC, what a great compliment to an author, to say my description put a knot in your stomach! Thank yoiu so much. I do kow what you mean about watching it again -- I feel that way about "The Ox-Bow Incident." Just cna't do it. Thanks again!

  11. Becky, although I was too swamped with previous commitments to participate in the Ida Lupino Blogathon, I'm glad I got to read your superb blog post about BEWARE, MY LOVELY.

    I was especially struck by this passage: "Howard is mentally unstable, at once menacing and pitiful, sharp and alert one moment, confused and forgetful the next." I've actually known people like that (no exaggeration), so your descriptions alone sent chills up my spine! My late mom was a huge fan of Robert Ryan and loved his movies, even when he played bad guys! I'll keep an eye out for this film on TV. Great post, Becks!

  12. I'm just glad you got to see this, Dorian, much less be so complimentary! Being in a whirlwind of personal and blogging activity is something you know I've been dealing with too! LOL!

    Ryan is marvelous in this movie. Ida too, but he stands out. I'm like your Mom -- the man was just good in everything he did. I hope you do get to see this...