The first time I heard about Ida Lupino was in Scorsese’s journey through American cinema series, which first aired, in the mid 1990s on C4. Scorsese framed Lupino as an auteur director who dealt with social issues that went unmapped in much of mainstream American cinema, such as rape. It was only later I realised how great of an actress she was: British born, eloquent and unassailable. Lupino was a film star first and had unbelievable range; she could play trashy and classy with relative ease and cropped up in many film noirs during the 1940s. She was most striking when she played characters that were inflicted in some way, physically or psychologically, conveying a vulnerability and timidness that mark performances such as Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground. There was also a capricious side to her acting. Below the vulnerabilities lurked a volatile social rage incessantly pushing outwards. In many ways, Lupino’s career was a germinal one since she not only acted but also directed, offering a counter hegemonic view of a patriarchal Hollywood system.
Deep Valley was a star vehicle for Lupino, featuring one of her most accomplished performances as Libby Saul, an impecunious and shy girl, secluded from the outside world by unreasonable demands placed on her by an ailing mother and churlish father. Libby lives literally a life of quiet desperation with her parents in a dilapidated farm in the woods of the California coast. Her life is complicated by a convict, Barry (Dane Clarke), working nearby as part of a group making a new road that will lead from the coast to the valley. Libby is attracted to Barry but represses her feelings. During a landslide, Barry escapes and meets Libby who has run away from the farm. They hide out in the woods and slowly Libby falls for Barry.
The director of Deep Valley, the Romanian Jean Negulesco, made over 80 films during a career that saw him work on many studio genre films in the 1940s and 1950s. Negulesco spent much of the early 1940s learning the craft by on short films and also assisting on other studio projects. This is a point made by Scorsese in his documentary; that directors got to work all the time, on four or five pictures a year, and this naturally meant they got to be good at what they did. Moreover, having to work under austere utilitarian and economic constraints also imposed a discipline on many studio directors, leading to the mastery of narrative economy, an important classical notion all but absent from contemporary mainstream Hollywood. It is an approach still evident in the work of Steven Spielberg. Perhaps the greatest purveyor of narrative economy is Alfred Hitchcock. Spielberg like Hitchcock before him storyboard meticulously, reiterating that such a process is intrinsic to the traditions of classical Hollywood storytelling. Negulesco’s break came in 1944 with The Mask of Dimitriois, a low budget film noir with Peter Lorre. Deep Valley, made at Warners in 1947, arguably saw Negulesco at his peak, bringing together noir aesthetics with the melodrama form. What makes Deep Valleyi a particularly striking work from the 1940s studio era is the involvement of Ida Lupino who is given a more unconventional role as a female film star than was expected at the time.
Categorising Deep Valley as a mood piece is a position that I am compelled to agree with as Negulesco creates a disquieting ambiance, presenting a dysfunctional family reminiscent of a Gothic horror trope in which instability radiates from an arduous past that remains closed to us. There is a sickly tone that materialises. Libby’s desire for escape is realised through Barry, symbolising the forbidden, whereas the father dubiously pimps his daughter to Jeff, the mildly arrogant engineer overseeing the construction of the road. The film is uncharacteristic in such respects but when contextualised in the melodrama form, female subjectivity is key to our understanding of the way the genre functions and communicates with audiences.
Although Libby’s longing for Barry could also be viewed as a form of late teenage rebellion, it is Barry’s status as an outsider that forges a relation since this is how Libby has been positioned by her family and those around her; a strange, odd girl (not a woman) and an outsider. This raises questions about gender that the film deals with subtly. Since Libby has been raised in seclusion, her social skills are infantile while her understanding of sexuality is also erroneous. In many ways, her identity constructed by her parents explains why Libby feels most at ease when she is in the woods with her dog. The interactions with Barry and Jeff complicate her independence as they place demands on her related to negotiating new ideas concerning gender and sexuality. The father in particular wants Libby to conform to traditional ideas of gender and the choice of Jeff as her suitor smacks of dogmatism that Libby contests.
Like many films made under the studio system it was the endings, habitually striving for closure, that were characteristically compromised ideologically and thematically, and in some cases struck a tone which clashed with the rest of the film’s narrative. Deep Valley ends incongruently. Barry and Libby cannot be allowed to escape and their affections for each other are undercut by an ending, promulgating a moralistic tone, that sees Barry/Libby neutered for their attempt at transgression. However, it is not clear from the closing moments if Libby is now with Jeff. Though they are seen together in the final shot, the inclusion of the dog suggests primitiveness still exists and that Libby retains her unconventionality and that she is still free from the tyranny of men.
A noir reading of Deep Valley compared to other noir films released around the same time offers some notable vagaries. For example, traditional noir conventions argued the femme fatale typically seduced the central male protagonist, leading to his entrapment and subsequent downfall. Deep Valley reverses such a narrative idea, arguably positioning the femme fatale as Barry, the male protagonist, whereas Libby is the prey and to a certain extent becomes Barry’s attempts to escape a fatalistic trajectory already mapped out for him by society. Unlike the dangerous woman who is usually punished for transgression, this time the male anti-hero gets his comeuppance. However, there is no satisfaction for Libby in this conclusion but rather a loss that is romantically inclined which returns to the cathartic audience pleasures of the women’s melodrama.