A Gritty Noir From an Unlikely Source

#48:  THE HITCH-HIKER (1953)

Ida Lupino started her own production company, co-wrote scripts, and directed six films when there were no other women directing within the Hollywood studio system.   Zip.  Zero.  None.   This alone would make her an important inclusion in my #52FilmsByWomen project, but Lupino’s career isn’t just memorable because she was the only woman director in her context.  She was a good director, bringing a tough, no-nonsense sensibility to her films, even when dealing with sensational subjects (the fallout from rape in Outrage, a dancer’s battle with polio in Never Fear).  The Hitch-Hiker is considered Lupino’s finest film (although I have happy childhood memories of her last film, 1966’s The Trouble with Angels).  Because of The Hitch-Hiker, Lupino is also given the title of “first woman to direct a film noir”, although considering that she was the only women directing in Hollywood during that period, it seems a distinction without a difference.   Regardless, The Hitch-Hiker is a tight little thriller that stretches the noir form beyond its usual constraints.  There is no femme fatale in this movie, no shadowy rooms, no double-crosses.  The Hitch-Hiker is an exceptionally straightforward story:  two old buddies go on a fishing and pick up a stranded traveler, only to discover that’s a ruthless murderer.  The movie was based on a true crime, the story of Billy Cook a hitchhiker who murdered six people (including an entire family) in a 1950-51 spree before being apprehended by the police.  Little known fact:  Billy Cook was the “killer on the road” referenced in The Doors song “Riders On the Storm”.

William Talman plays the screen version of the “killer on the road” as an utterly charmless sociopath.  Unlike many movie villains Emmett Myers has no charisma and doesn’t seem especially intelligent or cunning.  He’s just vicious and armed.  As one of his hostages tells him in a fit of exasperation, without his gun Myers is nothing.  Lupino transferred one descriptive detail from Billy Cook to his fictional counterpart:  a deformed eye that never closes.  It’s used to chilling effect, as Myers’ hostages can never be sure that he’s sleeping.   That one open eye becomes as disturbing as the eye that never closes in “The Tell Tale Heart” – but in this case, the deformity corresponds to the moral deformity of its possessor.

Fear gives way to desperation and recklessness.  Meanwhile, Myers has the impassibility of horror icons like Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers.  He never sleeps, rarely stops grinning, never drops the arm that points the gun.

Edmund O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy play Rory Collins and Gilbert Bowen, two ordinary Joes who tried to help the wrong guy.  They are doughy and middle aged, without brilliant ideas to effect an escape.  There is nothing especially heroic about them, except for their (almost) unwavering concern for each other.  There survival depends not on them, but on Mexican and American law enforcement officers, following the trios trail.

The Hitch-Hiker was filmed largely in the California desert (passing as Mexico), and the stark landscape heightens the sense of desolation that Collins and Bowen feel.  Myers never pretends that he will allow the men to live:  he only needs them to reach a convenient escape route in Mexico, then plans to kill them.  This knowledge drives what little character arc Collins and Bowen have.  Fear gives way to desperation and recklessness.  Meanwhile, Myers has the impassibility of horror icons like Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers.  He never sleeps, rarely stops grinning, never drops the arm that points the gun.

The Hitch-Hiker is an impressive film; made on a tiny budget, shot in only a month, and with a run time of only 71 minutes.  And yet Lupino successfully created a whole world of violence and dread within those constraints.

Ida Lupino began her career as an actress.  Early attempts to cast her  as an ingenue were unsuccessful, and she was soon playing beautiful but hard women in crime thrillers like They Drive By Night and High Sierra.  The same steeliness that she exhibited onscreen characterized her work behind the camera, too.  I imagine she needed that toughness to survive as a female director in the 40s and 50s.  And though she only made a handful of films, her career didn’t end there.  Lupino shifted her attention to television and worked steadily, directing through the 1960s and acting until the last 70s.