Howard (Robert Ryan) has found a body: His employer strangled. Without a moment’s hesitation, Howard flees the scene, runs to the nearest rail yard, and hops aboard the train headed to it-doesn’t-matter-ville. All that matters to Howard is getting the hell out of Dodge. Nothing suggests Howard is the culprit, but why else would a man run? Only someone constantly running from something would make that assumption, and Howard’s been running a long time.

Welcome to Beware, My Lovely, a 1952 noir programmer from RKO Studios. Written by Mel Dinelli and directed by Harry Horner, Beware, My Lovely was the sixth film released by The Filmakers, the independent production company founded by husband and wife team, Collier Young and Ida Lupino. Lupino had been in pictures since the early ’30s (though she started on the stage much earlier), but by the late 1940s, Lupino yearned for more control and interesting stories. Not something her studio, Warner Bros., was going to give her. So she and Young struck out on their own, formed The Filmakers, and tackled the subjects Hollywood studios wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole: Unwed mothers, rape, psychopathy, adultery, mental illness, you name it. And to make sure Lupino got what she wanted in the frame, she stepped behind the camera to do it.

But Lupino, the actress, ensured a better box office than Lupino, the director, so she had to occasionally star in her movies to make sure the cash kept flowing. That was the case with Beware, My Lovely, a claustrophobic Christmas noir with Howard darkening Helen’s door looking for work after fleeing the previous town. Helen (Lupino), who runs a boarding house, needs plenty of cleaning, and hires Howard to help with the odd jobs. But Howard’s psychosis takes over, and he locks Helen and himself inside. Everywhere Howard looks, he sees traps and devils. And whenever Helen looks at Howard, she sees a mad man with the key.

Like other noirs set during Christmastime—It’s a Wonderful LifeKiss of DeathBlast of Silence—there’s an extra layer of irony in Helen’s goodwill toward men. Irony director Harry Horner gets mileage out of in the movie’s climactic confrontation.

Though Lupino directed most of the films produced by The Filmakers, she preferred not to direct herself when she also had to act. So for Beware, My Lovely, Lupino tapped production designer Harry Horner to do the honors. Horner brings a baroque sensibility to both the design and the blocking, and cinematographer George E. Diskant’s deep focus photography imbues Beware, My Lovely with all the hallmarks of noir and women-in-peril picture. And at 77 minutes, there’s a leanness to the proceedings that give Beware’s claustrophobia energy.

It’s good stuff, but Beware, My Lovely never had a chance. RKO studio boss Howard Hughes buried the film, which Robert Ryan assumed was because of his left-leaning politics. Furthermore, the movies of The Filmakers have woefully been underseen thanks to copyright issues, which means either hoping for a repertory retrospective, broadcasts on TCM, or plundering the endless bounty of the internet. Thankfully, you can watch Beware, My Lovely on from a version recorded off TCM. The quality is good enough (the above screenshot come from this version), and any exposure might help move the needle to get this forgotten gem back on physical media.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Beware, My Lovely (1952)
Directed by Harry Horner
Written by Mel Dinelli (from his stage play and short story, “The Man”)
Produced by Collier Young
Starring: Robert Ryan, Ida Lupino, Taylor Holmes, Barbara WhitingRKO Radio Pictures, Not rated, Running time 77 minutes, Opened Aug. 29, 1952