November 23, 2010

JENNIFER (1953)




“Oh, I don’t mind being alone, I’m used to it.”


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I love Ida Lupino as much as the next guy, but I much prefer her rough and raspy screen persona to the meek and skittish Ida we meet in Jennifer. She plays Agnes Langley, a burgeoning spinster-type who accepts a caretaker’s position at a sprawling Spanish-style mansion on the outskirts of Santa Barbara. The mansion’s previous resident, Jennifer Brown, disappeared mysteriously, leaving the bored locals to postulate theories regarding her whereabouts. Agnes inexplicably falls under Jennifer’s spell and becomes unnaturally obsessed with uncovering the missing woman’s fate. Along the way a few men enter Agnes’s life — Jim (Howard Duff), who owns the local grocery store and manages to show up at the mansion at least a dozen times each day; Orrin, an overgrown teenager who bags groceries and runs errands for Jim; and an unnamed gardener we see constantly lurking around the grounds. The men are each posited as potential suspects in Jennifer’s disappearance, even though it’s unclear if a crime has been committed at all — Jennifer may have just skedaddled. By the time we learn the truth, we witness Agnes unravel from the strain of not knowing, and of being alone in a such a large house. The film is only superficially concerned about what happens to Jennifer — and it’s more interesting (and film noir-ish) to see what happens to Agnes.


We are in B-picture territory here, and while Richard Edwards argues that it’s an oversimplification to suggest that B-films all went the way of television, as much can be said of Jennifer. This is surely subject matter that would become fodder for television — though admittedly the low quality of the Poverty Row production makes such an assumption easy to make. And the production values here are in fact pretty low. Even sporting cinematography by, perhaps the greatest of them all, James Wong Howe, there’s little to distinguish this film from other Monogram efforts than an occasional nicely atmospheric shot. Considering the talent involved, the results are very pedestrian.


Most of the picture’s action takes place around the house, which is described as “old” by some of the film’s characters — as if all vacant movies houses have to be old, though it is revealed in the first scene that the house was built just before the market crash, a mere twenty-five years before. Where typical movie mansions are richly appointed, particularly in spooky films, this one is bare. The lack of appointments meshes with the story, but it’s equally obvious that the filmmakers were working with what was available to them: a for-sale property leased as a ready-made film set for the duration of a two or three week shoot.


I spend a lot of time looking for little pieces of clever narrative corner-cutting that are a hallmark of low-budget films, and Jennifer is full of them. One of the key devices in the film is a diary, which is conveniently labeled “DIARY” in big gold embossed letters smack dab on the cover, which Agnes finds early on. As the entries are revealed, we learn a little about Jennifer and get a few clues as to her mindset in the period of time leading up to her disappearance. It’s clear that the filmmakers constructed the entries solely for the benefit of the audience, as the pages bear little resemblance to real diary entries. Pages with brief lines such as “Oiled the sewing Machine” or “Walked in the Garden,” with absolutely nothing else simply don’t ring true. Yet it’s a clever use of the book, with the pages functioning as brief inter-titles to keep the story churning along.


The leading man in the film is Howard Duff, Lupino’s then-husband. They are much better together, though not paired romantically, in Private Hell 36, but they have the easy-going chemistry of husband and wife that makes their moments together passable. Look closely and you’ll see that Duff shifts his real-life wedding ring to his little finger for their scenes together. His character, grocer Jim Hollis, has some connection to the missing girl and the family that owns the house. He’s supposed to look in on Agnes, but he goes somewhat overboard and at times seems to be stalking her. We are supposed to assume he’s the chief suspect, but the movie lays it on so think he becomes an obvious red herring.


In the end, the film’s men are irrelevant. It’s all about Ida’s performance, and how she bears up. This isn’t one of her best outings, and it’s hard to make it through the film without imaging a more physically demonstrative actress in the part — namely Joan Fontaine. Of course Fontaine made such roles famous (and cliché), but it’s plausible to imagine her getting this part. Joan’s big studio career was over by the time Jennifer was made, and soon afterwards she would be cast to play opposite Ida and Edmond O’Brien in Lupino’s The Bigamist.


A short essay for a short film. This is available for viewing on Netflix Instant Watch, and although Netflix just announced across-the-board price increases, the abundance of B film noir and sci-fi (many of which are incredible rare) makes the rental service worth it at almost any price.


Jennifer (1953)
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Directed by Joel Newton
Produced by Berman Schwarttz
Story by Virginia Myers

Cinematography by James Wong Howe

Starring Ida Lupino and Howard Duff

Released by Monogram / Allied Artists
Running time: 73 minutes

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