The Hitch-hiker (Ida Lupino, 1953)
Two middle aged Cali buds (film noir regular Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy) have their plans of a boys trip away together to Mexico scuttled as they pick up a hitchhiker on the dark desert road who claims his car ran out of gas… only to discover he’s actually the psychopath Emmet Myers (William Talman) who happens to be deep into a murderous crime spree and on the run from the police, headed for south of the border himself.The Hitch-hiker is considered as the first mainstream noir film directed by a woman, that said female being one Hollywood legend Ida Lupino, who had already established herself as a kick-ass bitch in many a crime, heist and noir film of the previous two decades (including as partner of rising star Humphrey Bogart in Raoul Walsh’s masterful High Sierra) when she took on this tough, lean B-style studio programmer (after four “women’s” pics on social issues) as part of her less celebrated though fairly fascinating directing career.
Based on the true story of a serial spree on the California highways just three years before, Lupino apparently went the extra mile to get interviews with some of the actual surviving hostages, as well as a release from the true-life killer Billy Cook (before the State hit the switch and deep-fried him, that is) in order to introduce some of the true facts into the film.
Already her sixth feature film, there’s a directorial confidence that comes through, with the filmmaking and performances elevating the somewhat formulaic nature of the material; as the trio moves deeper into the desert, with our everyday heroes not knowing if they’ll be killed at any moment and the O’Brien character slowly growing enraged as they face humiliation, the tale turns more interesting, as, even though we’re quite sure Talman’s psychopath will get it in the end (one of those things demanded by the censors at the time), it’s hard to tell if one of the others won’t go off the deep end, or get himself killed trying to stop the serial killer.
While I have a tough time seeing the film as more than a semi- (or kinda) noir, a genre (or style, as the never-ending argument goes) which I usually associate with an urban landscape, and there’s no femme fatale in sight (perhaps a decision by Lupino?), it does manage an admirably claustrophobic sense to the proceedings, within the confines of the car they’re constantly stuck in, for instance, and even in the wide open, arid empty desert expanses, which obviously long-time RKO noir – and all those moody and profoundly influential Val Lewton horror films of the 40’s! – director of photography Nicholas Musuraca certainly helped craft.
It’s hard to discern any noticeable feminine touches that would separate it out from the many tough (and consistently of quality) dark and moody crime films that came out of Hollywood in the 40’s and 50’s (with their nihilistic and critical perspectives on American society ultimately helping lead to a wildly irrational backlash in the form of the the establishment of the House of Un-American Activities to stop these damn Hollywood pinkos), but there is some interesting underpinnings going on in the film.
For instance, while Talman manages to wring some wild intensity from a role that isn’t written with much complexity, it’s what exactly the trip between these two average joes is all about that remains intriguing, as their initial conversation opening the film driving the lost highway almost immediately brings into question whether there ever was an actual ‘fishing trip’ planned, or if that was a fabrication between them to get them lost in the hills alone together. Adding that in with how closely they hold each other throughout (including the ending, where, as battered as they are, they still manage to drape all over each other triumphantly)… Hey, nothing wrong with some honest caring between chums but… I was wondering if maybe Ida wasn’t cheekily hinting at a Brokeback Mountain situation going on here.
The Mexican authorities are surprisingly empowered throughout the film, as they determinedly track the spree killer and his captives throughout the country, working to catch up to them before the killer Myers can find a way to escape for good. The presence of White Man authority is there, sure, but in the form of a rather stiff and bland American Agent (Clark Howat) whose scenes are confined to a few conferences with the lead Mexican authority on the case (José Torvay).
It’s a B-programmer, sure, but nicely lean and taut, in early 50’s black and white style. It’s perhaps most notable for having been directed by Lupino, but it’s more than worth a look for any film aficionado, especially if you dig that decade and a a half of tough Hollywood cinema, as I do.