THE HITCH-HIKER

 (Ida Lupino, USA, 1953) 71 minutes

THE HITCH-HIKER

Director: Ida Lupino
Producer: Collier Young
Screenplay: Collier Young, Ida Lupino
Cinematography: Nicholas Musuraca
Editor: Douglas Stewart
Music: Leith Stevens
Edmond O'Brien (Roy Collins)
Frank Lovejoy (Gilbert Bowen)
William Talman (Emmett Myers)
José Torvay (Captain Alvarado)
Sam Hayes (Radio Broadcaster)
Jean Del Val (Inspector General)

Reviews and notes

Festival:
2014 Morelia [Mexico]



By the late 1940s, the superb, husky-voiced noir actress Ida Lupino was growing restless, tired of standing around on set while, in her words, "someone else seemed to be doing all the interesting work." In 1949, she formed Filmmakers, her own production company, with her second husband; over the next few years, Lupino helmed a handful of socially conscious melodramas. But she was just as adept in films about psychopaths, as is amply evident in The Hitch-Hiker (1953), Lupino's finest work as auteur. This taut desert noir — one with no femme, fatale or otherwise — tracks two buddies en route to a fishing trip in Mexico who unknowingly pick up a palsy-eyed murderer. The vast expanses of arid landscape, where captor and captives bunk for the night, are just as confining as the automobile they're stuck in.
- Melissa Anderson, Village Voice.


The history of female directors in pre-1960s Hollywood is slim. From the late 1920s to the early '40s, the only woman helming films in town was Dorothy Arzner, who made her name directing Clara Bow in her first talkie, The Wild Party, an all-girls-school drama with sapphic undertones. After Arzner stopped directing in 1943, it would be seven years before another woman got behind the camera of a mainstream movie. (Though there were certainly others, like Maya Deren, working in underground, independent cinema.) Suspended by Columbia Pictures for turning down a role, English actress Ida Lupino — who had appeared in over forty films since 1931, including High Sierra with Humphrey Bogart — formed a production company with her husband and turned to directing, initially making low-budget films about women's social issues, like the unwed-mother melodrama Not Wanted and Outrage, which controversially explored the emotional aftereffects of rape. Her most celebrated effort is 1953's The Hitch-Hiker, which is generally cited as the first film noir by a woman. While it's not a conventional noir, per se, in that it lacks many of the genre's visual/thematic touchstones — no femme fatale, for instance — it does crackle with suspense, following a deranged psychopath hitchhiking on a cross-country killing spree.

The film was released in the same year that Flannery O'Connor wrote her short story A Good Man is Hard to Find, about a roaming "Misfit" who murders a family traveling to Florida. O'Connor may have been inspired by the true story of Billy Cook, a hitchhiker who, two years prior, killed six people en route from Missouri to California. In any case, Lupino and her husband/co-writer Collier Young definitely patterned the antagonist of The Hitch-Hiker after Cook, down to the infamous criminal's droopy right eyelid, which he was unable to ever fully close.

Actor William Talman — who would later be known for playing district attorney Hamilton Burger for many years on Perry Mason — stars as this deranged Cook-clone, Emmett Meyers, who has slain a series of friendly drivers across the American Southwest. The unlucky guys who pick him up next are Roy Collins (Edmund O'Brien) and Gilbert Bowen (Frank Lovejoy), a pair of middle-aged war buddies who have planned to escape their families for the weekend to do some fishing in Mexico and maybe catch a nudie show or two. As soon as Meyers gets in the back seat — his face menacingly obscured in shadows — he pulls a pistol, tells them who he is, and lets them know exactly what he'll do to them if they don't do exactly as he says.

Jean-Luc Godard once wrote, "All you need for a movie is a gun and a girl," but Lupino proves in The Hitch-Hiker that all you really need is a gun. This is a lean, stripped-down thriller, free of all excess melodrama. There's no romance here, no convoluted backstories — beyond the implication that Meyers had a troubled childhood — and no subplots or tangents. This is a simple story of a man with a revolver, the lone source of authority for an otherwise powerless, broken human being.

Considering our current national debate over gun control, the film is somewhat prescient in its examination of the sort of power that firearms offer those who feel — or chose to be — ostracized by society. With this small metal object, Meyers is able to completely commandeer the lives of the two men who were kind enough to offer him a ride, taking them down and across the Baja peninsula on an aimless journey filled with psychological tortures.

In one scene, Meyers forces Bowen at gunpoint to shoot a tin can out of Collins' hand, a William Tell-like challenge that could've been disastrous. Later, as they camp out in the countryside, Meyers dares them to try to run off, reminding them that he quite literally sleeps with one eye open. It may sound hokey, but this is-he-or-isn't-he-awake question fuels two of the film's tensest scenes, turning Meyers into a kind of monster, a dozing but inescapable cyclops. William Talman is legitimately terrifying in the role — seedy and raw and unpredictable — and his work here overshadows the comparatively low-key performances of his co-stars, whose characters have much less dramatic meat on their bones.
- Casey Broadwater, Blu-ray.com, 18 October 2013.


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