Jennifer (1953)

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Is the truth about a young woman’s disappearance being covered up? Ida Lupino thinks maybe so . . .
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US / 73 minutes / bw / Monogram Dir: Joel Newton Pr: Berman Swarttz Scr: Richard Dorso, Bernard Girard Story: Virginia Myers Cine: James Wong Howe Cast: Ida Lupino, Howard Duff, Robert Nichols, Mary Shipp, Ned Glass, Kitty McHugh, Russ Conway, Lorna Thayer, Matt Dennis.

Thirtysomething secretary Agnes Langley (Lupino) eagerly accepts a job as caretaker of the old Gale estate outside Montecito, somewhere within striking distance of Santa Barbara, Southern California.

Ida Lupino as Agnes.

According to Lorna Gale (Shipp), the family member who shows Agnes round the mansion and interviews her for the post, the previous caretaker, Lorna’s cousin, Jennifer Brown, simply upped and disappeared one day. Agnes isn’t worried by that: timid and visibly needy, she’s clearly desperate to get the job. And, for her part, Lorna isn’t inclined to be picky:

Lorna: “You left your last job four months ago?”
Agnes: “I know. I . . . I haven’t been too well.”

Even so, Lorna tells Jim Hollis (Duff), who owns the inn and store in Montecito, to keep an eye on Agnes, whose vulnerability she recognizes.

Mary Shipp as Lorna.

Browsing through Jennifer’s things prior to sending them on to Lorna, Agnes discovers the missing woman’s diary which, in among the daily trivia, records her feelings of being watched. Agnes herself hears things, and has the sensation of someone else being in the house with her. Even though Jim, a frequent caller, dismisses her concerns and urges her to forget Jennifer, Agnes becomes increasingly obsessed about her predecessor’s fate.

Howard Duff as Jim.

Her uncertainty’s enhanced by the prattlings of Orin Slade (Nichols), a 19-year-old college boy helping out in Jim’s store during the vacation. Even though the store clerk (Glass), his colleague Molly (Thayer) and the inn’s landlady, Mrs. Kennaway (McHugh), all seem united in dismissing Orin as an overimaginative bullshitter, his conspiracy theories about the possible fate of Jennifer deeply affect Agnes’s psyche, making her ever more nervous.

Robert Nichols as Orin.

It’s from Orin that Agnes learns Jennifer was previously employed by a prominent LA attorney, Sampson, who committed suicide after a bunch of his confidential papers went missing. Could Jennifer have stolen them? Was she a blackmailer, an hypothesis that seems highly likely once Agnes discovers Jennifer’s bank book, listing large sums deposited but none withdrawn?

Meanwhile romance is blossoming between Agnes and Jim. For much of the movie it’s obvious she’s both attracted to and extremely wary of Jim, forever skittery in his presence as if the mildest advance from him might make her either run away shrieking or throw herself in complete abandonment into his arms. And eligible divorcé Jim is all too obviously interested in her, full of invitations to dinner and unsubtle hints about his yearning to “find the right girl” and his willingness to risk a second try at marriage.

But is he all that he seems? Some of his actions are surely rather suspicious. Does he know more about Jennifer than he’s letting on? What is he hiding from her? Does he really care about her or is he simply trying to worm his way into her confidence in order to head off any discoveries she might make about the disappearance?

Jennifer is a really neat little psychological thriller that does a great deal with a very limited cast and, one suspects, an equally limited budget. It was apparently the last movie to be released under the Monogram moniker, the company hereafter becoming known as Allied Artists. (It’s often listed as an Allied Artists release; this may be correct, but I could find no supportive evidence on the—admittedly rather ropy—copy I most recently watched.)

Of course, it’s difficult to go wrong when Ida Lupino leads the cast, and the fact that she’s playing opposite then-husband Howard Duff adds an interesting little screen frisson to their scenes together: despite Agnes’s initial timidity, there’s from the outset a definite chemistry between the two characters.

With the work of the other main player, Robert Nichols, I’m ashamed to say I’m far less familiar than I should be. He’s very good here as the credulous college boy Orin—although quite clearly his teenage years were far behind him! After cutting his teeth on entertainment during and immediately after World War II in the US Army, Nichols studied at RADA in London before being spotted by Howard Hawks. His first credited screen role was as Erickson in the sf classic The Thing from Another World (1951) dir Christian Nyby; his last was as a Scottish preacher in So I Married an Axe Murderer (1993).

Adding to the effective tension of Jennifer is the evocative cinematography of James Wong Howe, who shows great mastery of shadows and angles in depicting the various areas of what becomes in his hands a creepy old house. He’s even better with the dusk and nighttime exteriors. Howe was graylisted at the time, which was apparently why you found him working on a Monogram flick. (I have no idea why Lupino and Duff were doing likewise.)

Although on occasion it can become a little too repetitive and formulaic, Ernest Gold’s score, too, contributes to the ratcheting up of suspense.

The soundtrack includes also the song “Angel Eyes,” performed by its composer, Matt Dennis (lyrics by Earl Brent). From Wikipedia we learn that the song has been recorded by, aside from Dennis himself, artists including James Anthony, Chet Baker, Shirley Bassey, Dave Brubeck, Kenny Burrell, Hank Crawford, Paul Desmond, Duke Ellington, Don Ellis, Ella Fitzgerald, Earl Grant, Jim Hall, Bill Henderson, Pat Metheny, Charles Neville, Duke Pearson, Oscar Peterson, Neil Sedaka, Wayne Shorter, Frank Sinatra, Sonny Stitt, Sting and the Modern Jazz Quartet. Sinatra used it as the closing song of his closing gig before his planned retirement in 1971 (the retirement lasted just two years) and Fitzgerald, who recorded “Angel Eyes” no fewer than four times, described it as her favorite song ever. Your correspondent has to admit that, despite all the accolades it’s received, he himself isn’t blown away by the song. Each to their own.

Matt Dennis sings “Angel Eyes.”

The ending of Jennifer, and the explanation of the mystery that has supposedly driven the movie, could perhaps be thought of as a little pat, but that’s about the only criticism one can really make. I say “supposedly driven” because what actually drives it is Lupino’s performance. By this stage in her career she had absolute mastery of the screen and knew exactly what she was doing. In Jennifer she’s magnetic from start to finish.

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10 thoughts on “Jennifer (1953)

  1. From the start of here career Ida Lupino had absolute mastery of the screen and knew exactly what she was doing. In Money for Speed, made when she was fifteen, by her official dates, she does a “bad girl” very well. I’d guess she was in this film just because she could be – she seems to have had to keep pushing as actor and director to remind people she still there and that her last success wasn’t a freak.

    • From the start of here career Ida Lupino had absolute mastery of the screen and knew exactly what she was doing.

      Thank you for your comment. I’m not 100% sure I agree with you, though. Although there’s nothing actually wrong with her performance in Search for Beauty (1934), for example, I don’t think even her staunchest fan — i.e., me — could say that it displayed “absolute mastery of the screen.” Like any other intelligent person, she learned as she went along, and by the time of Jennifer it was all either second nature to her or at least she could make it look that way.

      I can’t remember if I’ve seen Money for Speed — must dig it out. Thanks for the tip!

    • I did find it pretty involving, but I know what you mean: I can point at various elements of the movie and say, “I love that . . . and that . . . and that . . .” but as a whole it doesn’t entirely gel.

  2. This must have been one of the last Monogram films before it became Allied Artists, right? I really must see this, thanks mate. I love the indies that Lupino made with her assorted spouses (Duff and Collier Young) 🙂

    • You’re right (he said, having hastily checked): in fact, while in theory the AA moniker has taken over in September 1952, a few movies were issued under the Monogram marque in 1953 — so this must have been among the very last Monograms! It is sometimes listed as an AA issue, although the opening credits give it as Monogram.

      I love the indies that Lupino made with her assorted spouses (Duff and Collier Young)

      Me too . . . but I think you’ve guessed that.

  3. Is any information available on the director, Joel Newton? He has no other credits on imdb, which seems unusual given that this seems like a pretty major production, at least by Monogram standards. Could someone have used a pseudonym?

    • I can’t help you, I’m afraid, Ben, although, as you say, it does look suspiciously as if there might be some pseudonymery going on. The tempting speculation is, of course, that it might be Lupino herself, flying under the radar — or, in this context, glass ceiling. But the direction doesn’t seem to have the sureness of touch I usually associate with her work. A conundrum.

      Fingers crossed that one of the knowledgeable people who occasionally pause here might have more idea than I do.

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