Jennifer (1953)

One of the lesser known wonders of the film noir style is the paranoid woman movie

Classics of the genre are well-known ― Rebecca ― and probably the cream of the complete crop ― The Secret Beyond the Door (1947).

Dark Waters (1944) is another downbeat and typically melodramatic example, while others like The House on Telegraph Hill (1951) offer less routine scenarios, and more complex outcomes.

And speaking of outcomes, and before we proceed, here is the habitual Film Noir Spoiler Alert.

There will be spoilers in this article, as if you didn't see any of this coming! Find the full Official Spoiler Alert here.

The setting for a typical paranoid woman film is always either a house, or a marriage, or preferably both. The two are hard to separate in the noir canon, and are usually haunted not by the dead, but by the weirdness or wickedness of the living.

Psychologically, these paranoid woman movies question marriage, and perform on a woman’s fears on entering into marriage. The idea is that in acting out these spooky and unknown scenarios offers a psychological satisfaction ― the opposite of a ‘triggering’  effect.

To ensure that nobody is triggered, indeed, and to make sure that the paranoid woman films perform as desired, their action is consistent and always to be expected.  Usually the only surprise is the reveal.

Structurally speaking, Jennifer is no different from pooaranoid woman films in the main.

It begins with Ida Lupino inquiring after the house where she seeks to become caretaker, and being told by a local that the property is a bad lot, and that lots of strange things happen to be happening up there ― and that she won’t last a few days.

Ida Lupino in "Jennifer" (1953)

Real or bunk, this is always the question. As the question dangles, Ida Lupino’s charactrer’s own weakness is soon revealed ― “I haven’t been too well” she says. Other clues include: “I don’t mind being alone, I’m used to it.” The second of these is a clue to Agnes' (Ida Lupino's character) unmarried state, which in itself is seen by some of the other characters as a kind of mental illness in its own right.

As the plot thickens, other staple performances of the style emerges ― an abandoned diary with more paranoid clues ― “I feel someone is following me” ― suspicious and scheming serving staff ― an open window with curtains billowing (absolutely essential) ― and creaks and clanks in the night.

While we are on the staples, we also find mirrors playing their part ― self examination and public appearance as concerns ― and an inscrutable and domineering male (Howard Duff as Hollis) who seems to be pushing rather uncomfortably for affection ― though who would be the last person you’d want to offer affection to. These guys’ romance style ― it’s always lacking.

Oddly, with the help of a lovely dress ― previous property of the missing woman ― and perhaps a drink ― the charms of Hollis eventually work and the heroine finds herself happy, as she declares, for the first ever time. All it takes is a frock and a dance. The question now remains for any watching woman ― as to whether this is really love or not.

Perversely, within Ida Lupino’s character, we simultaneously and psychologically prepare for an  woman being by herself ― Ida as self-sufficient heroine and the same time, find her metaphorically within the marriage home ― although it is not her marriage. The structure is still used in horror films to this day, as weirdness and confusion drive a character fatefully (as in say, Get Out, 2017) to a horrific personal challenge.

Howard Duff also proves in Jennifer that any man worth his salt in those days, had to be able to light a match with his thumbnail. That is about his only charm however, and it is a weakness tof this movie that Howard Duff's character remains rough, insensitive and unlikeable. Not much of a catch, for any woman.

The mystery of the piece is not just why Jennifer ― the missing woman of the movie’s title ― painted everything blue ― but why she went missing and why her diary seems to act magically by itself. And nobody cares, and just shrugs it all off!

Peering into the darkness of marriage: Ida Lupino in "Jennifer" (1953)

The crux is of course that nobody has even seen Jennifer Brown ― it is all quite transparent, even by the standards of 1953. A further staple of this kind of paranoid woman movie, is that the seeker-heroine also begins to adopt the role of her missing and often titular predecessor.

All of it is yet a noble attempt at the mystery genre ― the film noir paranoid woman. Fans will note the presence of Ida Lupino’s husband Howard Duff, whom she married in 1951.

The breakdown and climax of a paranoid woman film is not pretty. We will either expect the paranoid woman’s precursor to be either murdered or insane ― the real paranoia of the hero herself ― that she is either going mad, or about to be murdered. 

Ida Lupino and Howard Duff in "Jennifer"

Howard Duff manhandles Ida Lupino in Jennifer at this stage, because here, the paranoid woman needs to be phsycally forced to face the truth. The faults are all hers, we have established ― after all she is 32 years old and unmarried, which is barely acceptable and in the eyes of this movie, a genuine cause for parnoia.

The paucity of Jennifer as a movie in particular is revealed when Ida Lupino as Agnes sees the dead woman’s body in a water tank ― only to have the truth forced on her ― “it’s only a reflection.”

Tragically for all of womankind, Ida Lupino’s character swallows this and then accepts the hand of this domineering and rough male, who has actually just dragged her quite a long way against her will through a dark house. 

The weird message that follows at the end of this is that the shadow remains ― the shadow of insanity ― the shadow of a woman that maybe never was ― and questions not only remain, but abound. Even at the end, a shadow drags across the title card, indicating that even with the truth displayed, there are still psychological fears which are as real enough to harm an innocent woman, as are the lies she has to swallow to get married.

"Jennifer" (1953)  is available free to watch on platforms such as YouTube, copyright having lapsed:

Ida Lupino at Classic Film Noir

Ida Lupino at Wikipedia

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