Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Richard Widmark "kills it" in Road House (1948) #Villains2017

Richard Widmark made a dazzling debut in Howard Hawk’s Kiss of Death in 1947. His characterization of Tommy Udo caused a sensation. For the early part of his career, Widmark played bad guys and lunatics. One of his best bad guy roles was as Jefferson T. “Jefty” Robbins in Jean Negulesco’s Road House (1948).

You can have a drink or two while bowling at Jefty’s Road House!
Set at a roadhouse with a bowling alley, the movie revolves around Lily Stevens (Ida Lupino), a singer that Widmark’s character Jefty hires as new entertainment for his roadhouse. Pete Morgan (Cornel Wilde), Jefty’s childhood friend, and business manager, is suspicious of the new singer and Jefty’s motivations for hiring her. Lily sees the gig as just a job, but Jefty quickly develops romantic feelings for her.

Jefty (Richard Widmark at right)  is infatuated with Lily (Ida Lupino).
Lily’s singing is a success, which softens Pete’s attitude toward her. All seems like smooth sailing ahead, with Pete and Jefty, working well together and enjoying each other’s friendship just as they always have. But slowly things begin to change and Jefty’s attachment to Lily grows obsessive. With this obsession comes a change in Jefty’s personality that is unsettling. When Jefty asks Pete to teach Lily to bowl, Pete originally declines, but Jefty insists. His demeanor and voice changes; he looks and acts like a entirely different person. The abrupt change scares Lily, but all is smoothed over, it seems, once Pete changes his mind and agrees to teach Lily.

Things get hot between Pete (Cornel Wilde) and Jefty when it comes to Lily.
Pete and Lily’s once antagonistic relationship quickly changes to romance, unbeknownst to Jefty. Jefty keeps pursuing Lily even though she’s given him no reason to believe that their relationship is anything more than that of boss and employee. As Pete and Lily’s relationship becomes more serious, Pete decides to tell Jefty. Jefty becomes enraged and throws Pete out of his house.

Lily isn’t buying what Jefty is selling.
Realizing that Jefty has become irrational, Pete and Lily decide to run off together. Pete takes $600 owed to him and a note explaining that he and Lily are leaving the roadhouse. While Lily and Pete are waiting at the train station, the police show up to take Pete into custody for stealing the roadhouse’s week’s receipts totaling $2600. Pete tells the police he only took the $600 owed him. It becomes obvious to Pete and Lily that Jefty has set Pete up. Jefty puts on quite an act for the police, pretending to be hurt and worried about Pete.

Jefty has Pete arrested for stealing; Lily and Susie (Celeste Holm) know he is innocent.
Pete is tried and found guilty of grand larceny. Jefty convinces the judge to parole Pete to his custody, therefore making him Jefty’s prisoner. Pete gets to keep his job, but he has to pay back the money he “stole.”
Jefty enjoys tormenting Pete and Lily and he descends into madness.
Jefty plans a trip to his hunting cabin, insisting that Pete, Lily, and Susie, (Celeste Holm) who works as the roadhouse cashier, come along. While at the cabin, a drunk Jefty taunts Pete and Lily. He becomes more maniacal, while messing around with a rifle. Lily accuses Jefty of taking the money. He smacks her and Pete knocks him out. Pete and Lily decide to make a run for the Canadian border, leaving Susie behind to keep an eye on Jefty.

Lily takes aim, but unfortunately, the gun is not loaded.
After a while Jefty comes to. Just before that, Susie discovers the deposit envelope and the cashier’s receipts in Jefty’s jacket. While Jefty is still a bit wobbly, Susie runs out of the cabin and tries to follow Pete and Lily. Jefty quickly pursues her into the woods. Susie catches up to Pete and Lily, but is shot in the arm by Jefty.

Susie confronts Jefty about the cashier receipt and deposit slip she found in his jacket
Pete sends an empty motorboat into the fog-covered lakeside as a decoy. Jefty shoots at the boat, thinking that he’s foiled Pete and Lily’s escape. Pete fights Jefty to get his gun, In their struggle the gun falls and Lily grabs it and points it at Jefty. Lily tells Jefty to stay away, but he doesn’t listen. She shoots, killing him, when he is about to throw a large rock at her. Pete, Susie and Lily leave the woods heading back to the roadhouse and we assume vindication from Jefty’s treachery.

Lobby card for Road House
Widmark’s performance in Road House is brilliant because it isn’t immediately obvious that he’s crazy. Through little incidents in the beginning of the film, we see his character slowly change. He begins to become unhinged that he almost seems drunk, even though we know he’s not. By the end of the movie he is absolutely crazy. He’s got the nuthouse laugh going full tilt and he’s mesmerizing; you can’t keep your eyes off of him.

Widmark made a spectacular movie debut playing the maniacal Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death (1947).
It’s a tribute to his talent that Widmark was able to avoid being typecast as a crazy person or bad guy, which happened in the early part of his career. During the 1950s, he was able to get more traditional leading man roles as well as playing a variety of character roles, most of which were fairly normal. But, oh, did Widmark make a great villain—and Jefty Robbins in Road House is one of his best.


This post is part of The Great Villain Blogathon for 2017. It is hosted by Ruth of Silver Screenings, Karen of Shadows & Satin, and Kristina of Speakeasy. Visit these blogs during the blogathon for some great entertaining and educational reads.

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