What Ever Happened to Jennifer?

Jennifer’s gone missing. She was supposed to be looking after her uncle’s sprawling estate, which appears to have been abandoned since the Great Depression, but no one has seen her in weeks. Did she run off with an unknown lover? Did she swindle an undisclosed sum of money from her previous boss and head to Mexico on a cruise ship? Or was Jennifer murdered by a mysterious killer and buried somewhere on the property? These are the questions that will plague Agnes Langly (Ida Lupino) after she’s hired to replace the missing woman as the estate’s new caretaker in Joel Newton’s low-key thriller simply titled JENNIFER (1953).

Ida Lupino appeared in this unusual low-budget film in-between making The Hitch-Hiker (1953) and The Bigamist (1953). It barely warrants a mention in books and articles about the talented actress turned director but JENNIFER is worth a look for numerous reasons.

First and foremost is Lupino’s tightly wound and introspective performance as the middle-aged spinster Agnes Langly. Agnes has taken the job as caretaker of the Santa Barbara-based estate because she presumably likes her solitude and enjoys spending her time in quiet introspection. When the property owner tells Agnes that the previous caretaker suddenly disappeared she expresses concern but accepts the job anyway. The movie follows Agnes as she moves into the big empty house and discovers Jennifer’s diary, which contains strange passages that suggest Jennifer was being watched and followed. Agnes’s interest in Jennifer soon leads to obsession as she tries to figure out what happened to the missing woman.

Complicating matters is a handsome stranger named Jim Hollis (Howard Duff) who owns the local grocery store and has taken an interest in Agnes. He begins making informal visits to the worn-down mansion regularly but Agnes is quick to avoid his advances. There’s an uncomfortable tension between the two actors who were married in real life. Over time it becomes apparent that underlying Agnes’s preference for seclusion is a streak of paranoia and sexual repression that slowly begins to bubble to the surface during the film’s short 73 minute running time.

So what happened to Jennifer? Agnes discovers many odd clues while she’s searching for answers. Along with her diary there’s Jennifer’s favorite record, a tense and bombastic composition with the telling title of “Vortex,” that sounds as if it was swiped from the soundtrack of a Hitchcock film. And what about all the men that enter and leave the property every week? Besides the grocery store owner there is the nosey deliveryman and the reclusive groundskeeper. Did they have anything to do with Jennifer’s disappearance? Or maybe it’s Jennifer herself that is the real mystery. Is Jennifer’s ghost haunting the grounds and tormenting poor Agnes or is she merely a reflection of Agnes’s own inner fears? The film offers viewers an easy answer to Jennifer’s disappearance as well as Agnes’s obsession during its taut final moments but a shadowy surprise throws a cloud of confusion over the entire affair.

JENNIFER is often referred to as a film noir or mystery due to the casting of femme fatale Ida Lupino in the leading role but the film actually plays out like a slow-burning psychological thriller. It’s a kinder and gentler predecessor to unsettling psychosexual horror films that begin to flourish in the 1960s such as Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961) and Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965).

What drives the film at its center is the various interactions between Agnes and the grocery store owner Jim Hollis. Their relationship isn’t particularly erotic or suggestive but it is at the heart of this atypical movie. Jim expresses his feelings for Agnes in a dry and somewhat confused manner and Agnes continually rebukes him. These two middle-aged adults aren’t looking for a good time as much as they’re eager to find real human companionship and understanding. I appreciated the awkward but tender moments they shared together that are punctuated by Agnes’s unease with her emotions and untapped desires.

Agnes is a woman on the verge of falling apart at any given moment but we’re never sure why. When she finally attempts to tell Jim about her past we don’t get the full story. She is guarding secrets that we’ll never know but Lupino’s sensitive portrayal of the complex character was enough to make me care and wonder about the outside forces that have driven her to an obsession with the elusive Jennifer.

The film was directed by Joel Newton but if his name doesn’t ring any bells don’t be alarmed. Jennifer is the only movie credited to the mysterious Newton and information about the director is apparently nonexistent. It’s more than likely that Newton was a pseudonym for another director who worked on this unusual low-budget movie for Monogram Pictures. According to the information I borrowed from TCM’s own site The Hollywood Reporter had Bernard Girard’s name listed as the director and co-writer of JENNIFER in published production charts but his name wasn’t in the film’s final credits. It’s important to note that the film’s credits are sparse and fail to acknowledge anyone for the screenplay except for pulp author Virginia Myers who wrote the original story that the film is based on. But it is possible that Bernard Girard may have directed JENNIFER as well as written the screenplay. I hesitate to give him complete credit for the film but Girard’s filmography includes some noteworthy suspenseful shockers and unconventional thrillers such as Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round (1966), The Mad Room (1969), What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? (1969) and A Name for Evil (1973) as well as television credits on shows like Alfred Hitchcock PresentsTwilight Zone, and Kraft Suspense Theatre. Some of the themes in JENNIFER as well as similar settings are even repeated in Bernard Girard’s later work, which makes it easy to assume that he had something to do with the film.

JENNIFER boasts some impressive black and white photography thanks to the acclaimed award-winning cinematographer James Wong Howe who makes the most of the sprawling estate at the center of the film. The crumbling mansion seems to reflect Agnes’s uneasy state of mind and as she walks through the winding corridors and across the wild overgrown grounds it’s impossible to ignore the way that the landscape mirrors her inner turmoil.

The film also features a sinister score by Oscar-winning composer Ernest Gold and the popular jazz standard “Angel Eyes” (written Matt Dennis and Earl Brent) made its debut in JENNIFER before it was recorded by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Chet Baker, and Frank Sinatra. If the film’s plot and performances don’t captivate you it’s hard to ignore some of the notable sites and sounds found in the film.

Lupino’s excellent performance along with the film’s unexpected depths really caught me off guard and if you enjoy unusual thrillers with a surprise twist ending you might find the film as fascinating as I did.

by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally published at TCM.com in 2011