Beware, My Lovely (1952)

Beware, My Lovely (1952) is a home invasion amnesia Christmas-themed paranoid delusional maniac film noir starring Ida Lupino and Robert Ryan, two of noir's greatest acting talents.

Robert Ryan plays a strange kinda killer in this low-key film noir which takes something of a path of its own off of the main noir highway, and which yet complies with many of film noir's best tropes.

Most clearly of all, Beware, My Lovely (1952) is suburban noir and is the kind of noir that was becoming increasingly popular in the early 1950s — the type of noir which dealt the goods not on the streets and criminal dives of the 1940s, but directly within the super-vulnerable domestic bliss of the 1950s.

Robert Ryan's character in Beware, My Lovely is Howard Wilton, an innocent enough sounding name. Yet Howard Wilton seems to be an almost impossible combination of toxic and mentally damaged humanity — he's a man who appears to take odd jobs from generally single or isolated women, and then kills them, while immediately forgetting not only that he has done so — but holds no recollection of the murder or why he committed it.

Confronting criminal insanity — Robert Ryan in Beware, My Lovely (1952)

There is in fact no why to any of the actions of Howard Wilton — and so his immediate reaction to discovering another murder victim is to flee town, jump on a freight train, let the rails work their amnesiac magic — until he finds himself on the doorstep of another isolated woman.

Ida Lupino plays the isolated and war-widowed wife who is targeted by the groaningly insane Robert Ryan, as Howard Wilton. For a somewhat slight story that really only has two acting roles in it, she does incredibly well and carries the film. She acts her vulnerability very well, and seems intelligent and sympathetic in her attempts to deal with the killer home invader's madness.

Escape into America in film noir Beware, My Lovely (1952)

To top the mis en scene, Beware, My Lovely is also set at Christmas time, which was by the 1950s fully emerged as the most suburban of all the year's festivals — the most wholesome and hearth-based expression of the possibilities of the home.

Beware, My Lovely is supposed to be set in 1919, in the aftermath of the First World War, a facet which is intended to offer it the war-widow status of the main character. Were this the real 1950s however, there would have been present a disruptive force as mean as the amnesiac killer in the form of the television. This is because it is one of the deadly strands of home-invasion noir that the private and public space are by this era becoming less well defined.

Robert Ryan in Beware, My Lovely (1952)

Rather, the definitions are made clear by items such as the front door — a barrier erratically controlled by killer Howard Wilton throughout — even to the point of his own forgetfulness. His amnesia and killer madness are so well embedded that the killer within him automatically locks the door and hides the key, while the amnesiac sap within him fails to realise this eventually and does not even know why the door is locked.

The locking of the door in the first place in Beware, My Lovely (1952) is an interesting aside, as it is caused by the mocking actions of a teenage character called Ruth (played by Barbara Whiting) who is straight out of the 1950s. This rather anachronistic performance is highlighted by the teenage girl's attitude to boys, and her dealings with them — which are casual to say the least.

Criminal guilt in the waters in Beware, My Lovely (1952)

The teenager flounces around in fact in a manner which would have been quite unthinkable in 1919, talking about how she seems to flit from boy to boy as per her whims — and it is her rather too-grown-up harassment of the paranoid delusional Ryan that kicks off the home invasion proper. This she does through pure sass and belittlement. 

This fascinating push-over-the-edge occurs as a result of this exchange, which talks typical to one of film noir's greatest ever contributions to the culture — the notion of the weakened male lead.

Howard Wilton: (after Ruth has deliberately sprinkled debris on the floor he's just been cleaning, on his hands and knees) You think I'm funny?

Ruth Williams: Not particularly.

Howard Wilton: I don't like being laughed at.

Ruth Williams: Well, aren't you the bundle of nerves! Listen, you. I don't see many men around polishing floors. It's a woman's job. Who do you think you are? Seems to me there's better ways for a man to make a living.

If Howard Wilton is anything at all, he is certainly a weakened male lead, and it is the greatest fear of any of the weakened male leads of film noir — whether they be in suburbia or are returning war veterans, whether they are released from prison or are compromised by lust, whether they are broken by social circumstances or can't resist some easy loot — the weakened male lead is the sure-fire masculine star of noir.

Robert Ryan in Beware, My Lovely (1952)

Ida Lupino in Beware, My Lovely (1952)

What is even better about this scene is that it starts with the teenager flirting with the psychopath a little, employing her budding sexuality in a mini-femme fatale manner, an action which as we've seen backfires.

The First World War does provide the background for Ida Lupino's character, who is bereaved, moral and strong, and in a way has to similarly function as a back story for the insane amnesiac played by Robert Ryan. His story is stranger still for while he has certainly some post traumatic stress playing across his body and soul, this PTSD was not picked up in World War One — if it had been it would have been too strong a contrast with the moral dead in the form of the absent husband.

Ida Lupino and Robert Ryan in suburban film noir Beware, My Lovely (1952)

It is conversely in fact suggested that Howard Wilton's PTSD is somehow heightened by his being rejected for service, and thus rejected from masculinity, and rejected from his chance to serve, rejected from his chance to struggle, fight and earn respect. Instead it therefore turns out that Wilton is just a dud, a floating failure, for whom there can be no society.

In light of this it is just as well that he's amnesiac, as his inability to recall his crimes is all that keeps him alive, although it does draw into the daylight the question of his morality — for can crime be crime if it is not consciously committed?

Robert Ryan, looming violence in Beware, My Lovely (1952)

In anyone else these may be moral failings, written off by mental health considerations. In this case, in the case of a working-age man, making some vague attempt to live, the amnesia serves

You don't know what it means... like I do... to find myself in the... middle of a room... the middle of a busy street... or in some house I'm working in. A thing like that happens, I wonder where I am... what I'm doing. And sometimes I'm... I'm looking down at someone... somebody that's been hurt. And they've been hurt very badly. And I wonder if I've done it, if what I'm looking at is real or, it's only in my mind. Then I begin to run. I hide. But I don't know what I'm hiding from. It's bad enough to hide, but... not to know what you're hiding from. There are days when I pick up a newspaper, and I see that somebody's been murdered. And I ask myself... could I have been there at that time? Could I have done this thing? Where was I yesterday? What causes these blank spaces? What causes them?

The question of agency can only be mastered in one fashion in film noir, and that is by the fact of who dies in the end. If an actor like Howard Wilton can be said to own agency, then he must die in the end of the film, and if he does not, he may find himself in the arms of some 1950s style psychiatrists. Think of Psycho (1960) which does finally absolve Norman Bates of his evil, by placing him in the hands of some moralising criminal psychologists, rather than finding him shot by the police, or another protagonist, which is the habitual fate of the wicked in noir.

Christmas in film noir in Beware, My Lovely (1952)

Incapable of anything other than the most rudimentary forms of normality, and even then only for brief periods, Robert Ryan's Howard Wilton is a noir psycho for the times. Beware, My Lovely (1952) does remain compassionate, and even experimental, and this is atypical to the style of the era, which would normally play hard on the damnation of the damned, and present the criminally insane as more criminal than insane.

Ida Lupino in Beware, My Lovely (1952)

This compassion may be down in the large part to Ida Lupino herself, who was one of the producers of this film, with her husband, and their company The Filmakers (sic, everyone!)

Interestingly, checking the directs of any of the 12 features presented or produced by The Filmakers may settle arguments about how Ida or anybody else might like to spell that word, for her, it's always with one 'm'.

Ida Lupino actor, producer and director of classic film noir

The Filmakers produced 12 feature films, six of which Lupino directed or co-directed, five of which she wrote or co-wrote, three of which she acted in, and one of which she co-produced. The Filmakers' mission was to make socially conscious films, encourage new talent, and bring realism to the screen. Their goal was to tell “how America lives” through independent B pictures shot in two weeks for less than $200,000 with a creative family, making an effort where possible to combine social significance with entertainment. The main of these films were:

1949        Not Wanted

1949        Never Fear 

1950 Outrage

1951 Hard, Fast and Beautiful

1951 On the Loose

1952 Beware, My Lovely

1953 The Hitch-Hiker

1953 The Bigamist

1954 Private Hell 36

1955 Mad at the World

While the title of Beware, My lovely (1952) is suggestive of something much more traditionally film noir, in the hard-boiled and street-wise killer and hunted manner of many a film noir production, it does sit a little uneasily on top of this picture — although this is something quite normal for the noir canon. What's normal is to offer a great whopping hook of noir excitement, suggestive of killing, threat and the individual — although as here, Beware, My Lovely may be a very good picture, it does not exactly fit with its title. This is however super-state noir normalcy, the fact of offering up a captivating and salacious title, often regardless of content. 

The psycho-thriller as a genre was largely non-existent in 1952 and came into being gradually over the classic film noir golden age, broadening as more and varied killers came and went and introduced their erratic behaviours to the public. Sometimes they were a problem for the police and the low-lifes they co-habited with, but here the psychopath is a direct threat to suburban living. Anxious and unstable, Robert Ryan's psychopath may not make entire sense, but he is certainly frightening.

Killer at Christmas in home invasion film noir Beware, My Lovely (1952)

Probably the best and most effective moment in this Christmas noir is when the killer comes reflected in the baubles of the home's Christmas tree, a master stroke of fearful festive fun.

What is true of many schizophrenics for those around them, is that to get through the day it's often necessary to take part in some kind of humouring. 

One of the more common summations of this behaviour can be found throughout the sub-genre which might well be called amnesia noir.

The way Ryan switches from vulnerable and gentle pathos, to confused and amnesiac victim, to all out violent paranoiac is just great, and although it may not look it entirely from today's standpoint, schizophrenia and such vulnerability was something little discussed with any nuance at all in the era — so credit to Ida Lupino and The Filmakers there.

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