Pioneering film director, Ida Lupino

black and white head and shoulders photo of Ida Lupino. She is looking to the left of the camera with a serious expression. She has short curly hair. She is wearing a silk white dress.
Photo of Ida Lupino from an appearance on the radio program ‘Cavalade of America’

Today marks 67 years since the release of the spine-chilling film, The Hitch-Hiker. With it, director, Ida Lupino made cinema history by becoming the first woman to direct a film noir. 

Ex Brighton and Hove High School pupil, Ida Lupino (1918 – 1995) found fame in Hollywood in the 1940s and ‘50s, appearing in more than 59 films In her life. It was her work behind the camera, however, that really made her a pioneer.

Borne in Herne Hill, Lupino came from a show business family who could trace their theatrical origins as far back to the seventeenth century. Naturally, she was expected to follow in the family business and at first acted accordingly, going on stage as a child and appearing in her first film, The Love Race aged only thirteen in 1931. By age ten Lupino was writing plays and memorising the leading female roles in each of Shakespeare’s plays. After school in Brighton and then a spell at RADA, a glittering film career commenced. In 1933 Lupino took the lead role in four British films alone, and her success was assured.

Touted as the ‘British Jean Harlow’, it didn’t take Lupino long to be discovered by Hollywood. By the middle of the decade she was working first for Paramount, then for Warner Bros with whom her relationship gradually became stormy. Not only was she thought to be uncomfortable playing the typically ‘bad girl’ or ‘femme fatale’ roles that were coming her way, the main problem was that Lupino had started to become more interested in what was going on behind the camera. More and more she ruffled feathers on set by questioning casting decisions and suggesting changes to the script. She was eventually put on suspension by Warner Bros when she refused to play a role alongside Ronald Reagan.

Although very few women managed to penetrate the more technical side of film making, Lupino decided that this was where she wanted to be. In the late 1940s she set up her own independent film company, ‘The Filmmakers’ together with her second husband, Collier Young. Now she could follow her interest in creating films that were more issue-orientated and independently spirited. There followed a string of films featuring strong female characters and themes that the major studios preferred not to touch. The first film Lupino co-wrote, produced and directed was 1949’s Not Wanted, which tackled the controversial theme of unmarried pregnancy.   Despite its shocked reception, the film was a huge success.

poster of the movie the Hitch-Hiker. It has a red background and an image in black of a gun pointing at two men in the front seat of a car. The words The Hitch-Hiker are across the bottom of the image in white. The line at the top reads 'Who will be his next victim? You?'
Theatrical poster for the American release of the 1953 film, The Hitch-Hiker

The second Never Fear explored the ups and downs of a woman with polio. In 1950 Lupino co-wrote and directed Outrage, with the tag line ‘Is Any Girl Safe?’, one of the very few films to tackle rape. 1951’s Hard, Fast, and Beautiful is about the struggles of a female tennis player.

still image from the film the Hitch Hiker. Three men are sitting in a car, two in the front of the car and one in the back. The man in the back is pointing a gun at the men in the front.
Screenshot of film: The Hitch-Hiker, featuring actors Frank Lovejoy, William Talman and Edmond O’Brian.

The Hitch-Hiker, first released on 20 March 1953 was inspired by a real psychopathic criminal and follows the journey of two fishermen who start to suspect that the hitch hiker they’ve picked up has murderous intentions. In 1998 the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry for being ‘culturally, historically or aesthetically significant’.

Pre-empting later film-makers, Lupino pioneered the practice of filming in public areas. Not only did this create a more naturalistic atmosphere, it also saved money on set rental. She also kept budgets low by being an early adopter of product placement. The final film Lupino directed was The Trouble with Angels in 1965 starring Hayley Mills.

Lupino remained a presence on the American TV screen until the late 1970s. Batman, Columbo, and Charlie’s Angels are just three of the popular shows that featured her. Still in the minority as a female director, she directed, among many other shows, episodes of Bewitched, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and was the only woman to direct an episode of The Twilight Zone, The Masks which aired in 1964.

Lupino also found the time to write short stories, children’s books, and music. Having contracted polio in the 1930s, she worked to help raise funds for research into the condition.

Though Lupino wasn’t Hollywood’s first female director, she successfully worked in production, film writing and direction and a time when it was unusual to find women behind the camera. Not only did she present audiences with strong female characters and a range of issues relevant to women’s lives, this former Brighton schoolgirl has now rightfully taken her place as a pioneer of independent cinema.

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