Beware, My Lovely (1952)
Beware, My Lovely falls into that particular sub-genre of thrillers classified as “house invasion” films: a criminal or gang of criminals manage to break into a family’s home and take it over, transforming the safe suburban landscape into a land of dark shadows and looming threats. The sub-genre was particularly prevalent in post-World War II America as an off-shoot of Cold War paranoia and the increasing sense that the enemy could be the person next door. In Beware, My Lovely, the sub-genre also deals with the incipient sense of inferiority of post-war masculinity.
Beware, My Lovely is set in 1918 and features Ida Lupino as Helen Gordon, a widowed housewife preparing her home for Christmas by a spate of extensive cleaning. Her lodger is leaving for several weeks, and her young niece Ruth is of little assistance, so Helen calls in an itinerant handyman Howard Wilton (Robert Ryan) to help her with the heavy work. As Helen finds herself alone with Howard, it develops that the otherwise friendly worker has a serious psychosis. After a violent outburst, Howard confesses to Helen that he has occasional blackouts where he does things – including murder – that he later cannot remember. Although Helen tries to express sympathy for the damaged man, she soon discovers that Howard has locked them in the house and hidden the keys, prompting a battle of wills as Helen tries to convince the damaged Howard to let her go.
Beware, My Lovely is a chamber-piece of a film noir anchored primarily by Lupino and Ryan, with only a few supporting characters coming in and out. It moves quickly, developing Howard’s psychosis and subsequent possession of the house as something nearly outside of his control. Ryan plays his part with remarkable pathos: Howard isn’t a bad or evil person per se; he’s after nothing more than help and some cure for his loneliness, but is incapable of controlling his blackouts or his behavior within them. Refused entry into the army, Howard’s madness seems to be instigated by a sense that he’s “less of a man,” his violence directed at women that he believes are laughing at him. It’s Helen’s niece who prompts his outburst when she tells him that the housework he’s doing is “woman’s work.”
Lupino has a more thankless role. While Helen begins the film with a strong emotional character, her behavior sometimes borders on nonsensical. She never seems to get past her terror and so remains a victim throughout the film – a companion to similar female characters in home invasion films who never manage to get their hands on a coffee pot, a lamp, or a kitchen knife long enough to do something. While the audience shares her terror, her ineptitude becomes increasingly exasperating. This isn’t a slur on Lupino, however, who has one of the strongest screen personas you can ask for in a Classical Hollywood actress. But Lupino’s very strength of character makes Helen’s behavior seem unbelievable; Ida Lupino would never faint the way this woman does.
Despite Helen’s hysteria, there’s much to like in Beware, My Lovely. It maintains a claustrophobic atmosphere that does not let up until the final frame. Most of the film takes place within Helen’s house, juxtaposed occasionally against the world outside that goes along as it always had, developing into a seeming mockery of Helen’s situation. It’s the scenes of near-escape that have the most energy, as do the moments where Helen tries to convince Howard that she’ll help him if he’ll only unlock the front door.
Beware, My Lovely has the hallmarks of a classic, even if it falls somewhat short in the execution. Ryan and Lupino are attractive screen presences, and Ryan in particular uses his looming physicality and sorrowful eyes to excellent effect. If it never quite achieves the level it might, Beware, My Lovely is a diverting piece of thriller cinema.