While Ida Lupino is best known for the seven feature films that bear her name as director – the out-of-wedlock pregnancy drama Not Wanted (1949), which she took over from an ailing Elmer Clifton; Never Fear (1950), about the effects of polio on the life of a young dancer (Lupino protégé Sally Forrest); Outrage (1950), the first feature film to deal with rape and its aftermath from a feminist point of view; Hard, Fast and Beautiful (1951), an exposé of the ruthlessness of amateur tennis as a “money sport”; The Hitch-Hiker (1953), perhaps her most effective film, about a young punk on a killing spree menacing two men on a fishing trip who give him a ride; The Bigamist (1953), a domestic drama of complex marital discord; and, after a long hiatus, The Trouble With Angels (1966), a surprisingly effective coming-of-age story set in a convent school.
All of this, of course, came after a long career as an actor dating back to the 1930s, acting in more than 100 films in all, from bits and supporting parts to noteworthy lead roles. By the 1940s, she was a major star at Warner Brothers, which could have been described, quite accurately, as a factory: you showed up, you did your work and you went home. Working with such talented roughnecks as Raoul Walsh (High Sierra, 1941) and William A Wellman (The Light That Failed, 1939), Lupino began to turn her attention more to work behind the camera; and, as soon as she could, she struck out on her own with her small company, The Filmakers. The only other woman director in Hollywood at the time, Dorothy Arzner, had been stopped from completing First Comes Courage (1943), a drama of Norwegian war resistance, after falling ill during production; Charles Vidor completed the film. Thus, from 1943 to 1949, no women helmed Hollywood films. Lupino changed all that – in a hurry.
But at the same time as she worked on feature films, Lupino also did an enormous amount of direction for television, specialising in suspense but covering a wide range of material, from sitcoms to hour-long thrillers to television movies. Starting with the distinctly low-budget Screen Directors Playhouse in 1956, Lupino began turning out a torrent of series work over the next two decades, on such shows as Climax!; Mr. Adams and Eve, in which she also starred with then-husband Howard Duff; The Donna Reed Show; 77 Sunset Strip; Alfred Hitchcock Presents; Have Gun – Will Travel; The Rifleman; General Electric Theater; The Untouchables; The Fugitive; Dr. Kildare; Kraft Suspense Theatre; The Twilight Zone; Bewitched; Mr. Novak; the feminist private eye detective procedural Honey West; Gilligan’s Island; The Virginian, a ninety-minute weekly Western series; and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.
For most of these shows, she would direct a few episodes and move on – rather atypically for television directors of that era, and even today, who find one show, and one genre, and stick with it for as long as a series lasts. But Lupino, as can be seen from the list above, was equally at home in comedy, drama, fantasy, suspense, Westerns – anything at all, with episodes shot on tight budgets and with production times ranging from six days for a 30-minute show to a slightly more luxurious ten days for an hour-long program. She was a freelancer, and she liked it that way: no need to get tied down to anything for a false sense of “security”. She was much in demand as a director because she brought her episodes in on time, knew how to get the best out of her actors and used the camera as creatively as possible within the constraints of time and budget.
But there was one show Lupino fell in love with: Thriller, which ran for two seasons on the NBC network and was hosted by Boris Karloff. Between 1961 and 1962, in addition to her other work noted above, Lupino helmed no fewer than nine episodes of Thriller, an hour-long suspense/horror anthology series. Of these episodes, “The Bride Who Died Twice” (which originally aired on 19 March 1962) is of special interest, and also serves as an excellent example of the atmospheric production values Lupino could wring out of the most modest sets and shooting schedules. As always in her dramatic work, lighting compensates for the necessary use of standing and recycled sets. Lupino creates a world in “The Bride Who Died Twice” that vibrates with menace and cynicism; it’s a domain where power alone rules, and the weak are helpless.
In an unspecified Latin American country, the vicious Colonel Sangriento (Joe De Santis) sets his sights on the already betrothed Consuelo De La Varra (Mala Powers, in a superb performance), and forces her father, the ageing and politically desperate General De La Varra (Eduardo Ciannelli, in another standout turn) to send Consuelo’s lover, Captain Bartolomeo Antonio Fernandez (Robert Colbert) to certain death on a suicide mission to attain his ends. Then Sangriento will marry Consuelo, or so he thinks.
The opening scenes of the episode demonstrate just how brutal Colonel Sangriento is; as General De La Varra looks on, unable to intervene, Sangriento tortures a man to death in front of our eyes, seeking information on the revolutionary underground that seeks to oust him from power. Though General De La Varra outranks Sangriento, he is now too old to do anything more than make perfunctory protests – Sangriento, modelled to a degree on a young Fidel Castro, has seized complete control.
Though the young lovers are ostensibly the center of the story, Lupino is much more interested in the machinations of the power-crazed Sangriento, who thinks nothing of machine-gunning protesters in mass executions as the whim strikes him. Needless to say, such strong fare was exceptional in television of the era, and Lupino makes strategic use of shadows and off-screen violence to get her point across; but in the massacre described above, she puts the camera directly in front of the Gatling gun, blasting the audience as well as the off-screen peasants engaged in their futile demonstration. In addition, Lupino spends considerable time documenting the internal torment of De La Varra, who knows he is sacrificing his daughter to save his career, but is too weak to stand up to Sangriento.
To divulge any more would be unfair; suffice it to say that there are many twists and turns in the narrative – some expected, and some much more difficult to discern. But the downbeat ending of the episode is very much of a piece with Lupino’s dark, fatalistic view of life. Suspense, leavened with a generous dose of violence, was Lupino’s niche, and in many ways she can be seen as the forerunner of such contemporary action directors as Kathryn Bigelow, who refuses to be pigeonholed as a “woman filmmaker.” Lupino, throughout her entire career, whether in feature films or on television, picked her projects carefully, and imbued each of them – the dramatic shows, in any event – with a palpable atmosphere of impending doom, which is just the right sensibility for Thriller, and for “The Bride Who Died Twice”.
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Thriller: “The Bride Who Died Twice” (1962 United States 60 minutes)
Prod Co: Hubbell Robinson Productions Prod: William Frye Dir: Ida Lupino Scr: Robert Hardy Andrews Phot: Benjamin H Kline Ed: Danny B Landres Prod Des: Howard E Johnson Mus: Jerry Goldsmith
Cast: Mala Powers, Eduardo Ciannelli, Joe De Santis, Robert Colbert, Peter Brocco, Alex Montoya