Spending Time With Turner Classic Movies: THE HITCH-HIKER (1953)

When was the last time you invited death into your car?  This was the question posed to movie-goers by Ida Lupino’s THE HITCH-HIKER, a film noir that is tense, action packed, and unnerving…and one that is more than likely to make you second guess letting anyone into your car.

Citizens beware, a madman is on the loose.  His victims include a couple of newlyweds and a hapless salesman.  Police release the photo of their suspect, ex-convict Emmett Myers (William Talman), but he has already moved on from Central California to Mexico.  It is here that he flags down two men on their way to Baja for a fishing vacation.  Draughtsmen Gilbert Bowen (Frank Lovejoy) and garage owner Roy Collins (Edmond O’Brien) are in for a rude awakening as their helpless hitch-hiker quickly pulls a gun and takes the two hostage.  Myers orders the man to pull of the road where he takes charge of their guns and ammunition and informs them as to his true identity.  Myers then asks when the two men are expected back from their trip and Roy assures him that they are not going to be missed anytime soon, which is of course a lie.

Later at a roadside gas station Roy converses with the owners in Spanish which sends Myers, who does not speak Spanish, into a paranoid snit.  He flashes his gun to warn the two men to keep quiet about what is happening.  Myers then takes a look at the road map and decides that he will catch the ferry at Santa Rosalita which is about 500 miles away.  Forcing the two men to drive him, Myers takes great delight in abusing them mentally and physically.  At one point he forces Gil to shoot a can out of Roy’s hand with a rifle.  He also berates them for being “soft” and tells them tales of his physical toughness.  He also warns them to not try to escape as one of his eyes does not close so they would never know if he was really sleeping or not.  Listening to the radio as they drive the men soon hear a report about Roy and Gil’s disappearance causing Myers to realize that they lied to him about when they were expected back.  Now even more paranoid, Myers becomes extremely agitated when the car horn becomes stuck and forces the men to pull the car over.  Demanding the men fix the horn, Myers becomes even more panicked when a man with a burro comes down the road.  Luckily the man passes them by and the horn is fixed.  Back in the car the radio has stopped working and Myers, convinced the men have sabotaged it, hits Roy over the head with his gun.  Gil convinces him that the mountains are interfering with reception and Myers calms down.

Despite Myers’ best efforts the group has attracted attention, namely of the gas station owner of the last stop they visited.  The owner goes to the police with his suspicions and soon his information is being sent to an American agent who has come to Mexico to work with the police in this disappearance.  The American agent and the Mexican police commissioner agree that the most likely destination is Santa Rosalita and focus their efforts in that direction.  Back on the road Myers is getting even more paranoid and demands that Roy drives faster.  Roy protests but gives in when Myers waves his gun around again.  It doesn’t take long before a tire blows out and Roy barely controls the car over to the side of the road.  Both Roy and Gil are working on a frayed nerve and Roy in particular is starting to lose his cool.  Myers is also coming unglued and this frustration and upset is evident as the men exit the car to fix the tire.  Myers keeps his gun trained on them and when a car begins to pull over to help, he leaps into the backseat and warns  Roy and Gil to say nothing unless they want to die and get the good Samaritans killed too.  Roy and Gil say nothing to the young couple who stops to help and they soon leave but not before becoming suspicious of the strange and silent Americans by the roadside.

Let’s talk about Ida Lupino for a moment here.  While mostly known for being a fine actress, recognized for roles in films like THEY RIDE BY NIGHT, THE MAN I LOVE, DESPERATION, and LADIES IN RETIREMENT, Ida Lupino also had quite a career as a director.  Directing a few major motion pictures and many television episodes, Ida Lupino was the first female director to direct a film noir.  How did this happen, how did Ida Lupino get her start in directing?  In the mid 1940s while on suspension for turning down a role she began to become interested in directing.  But it wasn’t until 1949 that she finally got her chance to put these skills to use but it wasn’t through the best of circumstances.  While making NOT WANTED the director, Elmer Clifton, suffered a heart attack and was unable to complete the filming.  Ida Lupino, who had co-written and was co-producing the film, stepped in and the rest is history.

Does the fact that THE HITCH-HIKER was directed by a woman make a difference?  Maybe, but not in the way that you might think.  THE HITCH-HIKER is a very different noir starting with the setting.  While most noirs take place in dark alleys and rain-soaked roadways, this film takes place in a car riding along a deserted highway in the desert.  This is not to say that there is a lack of atmosphere or tension, in fact there is atmosphere to spare.  The isolation of the desert, the empty highway, the oppressive heat and desolation, the fact that the very environment is trying to kill you, all add up to seventy-one minutes that never let up.  Ida Lupino takes a different spin on the noir though.  Instead of focusing on the “big picture” of it all, instead she examines the more intimate relationships and interactions between the three men in the car.  More to the point she focuses on the effects of the interactions, the effects that Myers’ up bringing had on his psyche, the effects of Myer’s torture on Roy and Gil, the effects of being trapped for days in a car with a psychopath.

THE HITCH-HIKER is not rife with subplots and secondary characters.  In fact the only times that a subplot is brought up it is simply to help move the primary story line along.  Secondary characters come and go so quickly you might be tempted to consider them a walk on role.  But because of this lack of extra padding the film feels lean, sparse, and to the point.  It seems that Ida Lupino had a good story, one based on the real life killing spree of Billy Cook in the 1950s in California and one that she co-wrote with Robert L Joseph and her husband Collier Young, and she let the story speak for itself.  While many other noirs would most likely have played up the police search, the ensuing manhunt, and the search for the missing men, Ida Lupino takes things down to a much more intimate and personal feel which makes the stakes feel even higher and more urgent. The fact that Roy and Gil are so completely ordinary and un-remarkable makes the premise even scarier. These men are not heroes in hiding, not detectives, not even reformed tough guys. These men are just two friends trying to have a fishing trip. They have wives and kids and jobs, and they could be anyone of us.

If you want to hear more about Ida Lupino and her career in acting and filmmaking check out that fabulous podcast from You Must Remember This.  Also, the fabulous Girls Do Film has an equally fabulous post about THE HITCH-HIKER which you should definitely go read!


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