March 30, 2013

There's No Such Thing as a Free Ride

Poster - The Hitch-Hiker (1953)
Now Playing: The Hitch-Hiker (1953)

Pros: Gritty, suspenseful low-budget masterpiece; Great performances, especially by William Talman
Cons: Requires some suspension of disbelief

You don't see too many hitchhikers on American roads these days. We've heard or read too many horror stories to be picking up strangers on the side of the road, no matter how normal they might look (or on the flip side, hitching a ride with someone you don't know -- "Is that a normal, friendly grin on the driver's face, or is he enjoying the thought of serving me up to his cannibal family?") Even if you could still find some trusting souls out there, a plethora of laws, ordinances and regulations have pretty much done in the practice. Yep, the hitchhiker is a near-extinct species.

It was one thing for dear old Mom to wag her finger and warn about the hazards of hitching, but it took Hollywood to really put the fear of God into hitchhikers and would-be Good Samaritan drivers alike. Ever since the innocent, "carefree" days of the Great Depression and the amusing hitchhiking scene in It Happened One Night (1934), it's all been downhill. Just like going down in the cellar or out in the woods alone, thumbing a ride on the silver screen always ends badly. The protagonists of such varied and sundry films as Detour (1945), The Devil Thumbs a Ride (1947), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and The Hitcher (1986) will all tell you: there's no such thing as a free lunch, and often there's a great price to pay for a free ride.

Frank Lovejoy, Edmund O'Brien and William Talman in The Hitch-Hiker (1953)
Gil (Frank Lovejoy) and Roy (Edmond O'Brien) should have listened
to dear old Mom when she warned them not to pick up hitchhikers.
And then there's The Hitch-Hiker. If none of those other films put you off hitchhiking, Ida Lupino's grim noir classic might just do the trick. Today marks the 60th anniversary of the movie's premiere in Boston, MA. Shot on a lean budget with just three principal actors, the film has held up remarkably well over the years. It deftly manages to be edgy, suspenseful, and at times gut-wrenching, while managing to show very little actual violence on the screen, and no blood whatsoever. (Note to today's filmmakers and audiences: it may seem counter-intuitive, but excessive violence, blood and gore are not always necessary ingredients for a successful suspense-thriller.)

The Hitch-Hiker is a hard-boiled variation on the archetypal Man vs. Nature story, wherein two men, off on a camping and fishing weekend, unwisely pick up what they think is a stranded motorist, and end up battling the desert heat and a force-of-nature all to himself in the form of an armed sociopath.

The film begins with a title card explaining that what is about to transpire is a "[T]rue story of a man and a gun and a car. The gun belonged to the man. The car might have been yours -- or that young couple's across the aisle. What you will see in the next seventy minutes could have happened to you. For the facts are actual." (More on the true story a bit later.) Then the main titles display over a montage-like sequence where we see nothing but the hitchhiker's legs and worn-out shoes on the hard asphalt as he tries thumbing down cars. In long shot -- we only momentarily see the back of his head -- he hops into a fancy convertible in broad daylight. Cut to night, where the car rolls to a stop, the hitchhiker (again, only his legs) jumps out, off camera a woman screams, and a white purse falls at the hitcher's feet. He goes through the contents, then nonchalantly walks off into the night. (Even the aftermath of the crime is hidden in night shadows, as the beam from a deputy's flashlight reveals a corner of the dead woman's dress, and just the hand of her male companion on the steering wheel.)

We finally get to the see the maniac's face, but only as a washed-out photograph under a huge newspaper headline: "Ex-Convict Myers Suspect in Hitch-Hike Atrocities." It's a face only a mother could love. Meanwhile, Myers is at it again, climbing into yet another poor soul's car and roaring off toward a desert mountain range. We don't get to meet the sociopath "up close and personal" until the protagonists of the film do -- and it's a hair-raising meeting at that.

Good friends Gilbert Bowen (Frank Lovejoy) and Roy Collins (Edmond O'Brien) are into the first leg of a relaxing fishing weekend when they impulsively decide to head south of the border instead of continuing on to their usual stateside fishing spot. As they drive through Mexicali in Baja California, Roy is ready to hit the honky-tonks, but his friend is asleep, so Roy reluctantly heads out of town toward San Felipe, their alternate destination. Cut to those legs again, standing in the dead of night next to the car of his latest victim. The headlights of Roy's car illuminate Myers' outstretched thumb, and before you know it, the unsuspecting men are picking up what they think is a stranded motorist.

A face in the dark: William Talman as Emmett Myers
In classic movie monster style, the murderous Emmett
Myers (William Talman) emerges from the shadows.
In a very effective scene, Roy and Gil, lit up by the dashboard like two disembodied heads, try to make small talk with the stranger cloaked in darkness in the backseat. Gil offers the stranger a cigarette, and gets a revolver pointed at him for his troubles. As the two shocked men look at each other, the camera zooms into the blackness of the backseat just as the sociopathic Emmett Myers (William Talman) darts his head forward into the light, his dead eyes sizing up each man in turn as he barks orders at them. It's not unlike a classic horror scene where the monster emerges from the dark of the closet or cellar into the light. 

Gil and Roy should have listened to Mom, but now they're stuck on the wrong end of the gun wielded by a homicidal maniac who is ordering them to drive off into the godforsaken Mexican desert using dirt back roads. The desperate Myers is now improvising, using the two fishing buddies as cover and their car as a taxi to take him to the Baja California town of Santa Rosalia, where, he coldly informs the pair, he intends to dispatch them and catch a ferry across the Gulf of California to freedom. Gil and Roy engage in a deadly game with the sociopath to convince him that they're more valuable to him alive than dead…

While this suspenseful, low-budget noir has never received the accolades of the genre's greats, since its initial mixed critical reception 60 years ago, The Hitch-Hiker has steadily accrued a devoted cult following and belated respect from critics who have reassessed the career of its main author, actress/producer/writer/director Ida Lupino. The Hitch-Hiker is also a significant milestone. According to Judith M. Redding and Victoria Brownworth (Film Fatales: Independent Women Directors, Seal Press, 1997), it was the first mainstream film noir to be directed by a woman. In fact, between the 1930s and the 1960s, only one other woman, Dorothy Arzner, managed to direct films in the Hollywood system.

Ida Lupino was born into a successful English theatrical family, joined the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts at the age of 13, and shortly after that started steadily appearing in films (she would appear in over 100 films and television shows spanning 5 decades, from the early '30s right up to the late '70s). Although her acting career never quite hit the high mark of a Joan Crawford or Bette Davis, she appeared in some of the great dramas and film-noirs of the '40s and '50s with such leading men as Humphrey Bogart, George Raft, Robert Ryan and Dana Andrews: They Drive by Night (1940), High Sierra (1941), On Dangerous Ground (1952), and While the City Sleeps (1956), among others.

According to Redding and Brownworth, from the get-go Ida was a reluctant actress, preferring music and screenwriting to being in front of the camera. At the point where many actress' careers stalled due to waning youth (or perhaps worse yet, they were cast as mothers of males who were only a few years younger), Ida decided that it wasn't enough being an actress, "sitting around on the set waiting for something to do." (Ibid.) She and her husband, Collier Young, founded the independent company Filmakers to shoot hard-hitting issue-oriented movies that mainstream Hollywood studios wouldn't touch. Finally she was producing, writing and directing, as well as standing in front of the camera.

Ida's first directing gig (uncredited) came when she filled in for an ailing director, Elmer Clifton, on the set of Not Wanted (1949), a pioneering movie about an unwed mother that she also co-produced and wrote. As if daring prudish, self-satisfied America to get its collective head out of the sand, she directed, co-wrote and co-produced Outrage (1951), a film about a young woman dealing with the trauma of rape in the midst of a seemingly uncaring and judgmental society (of course, standards of the time prevented the word from being used at all in the film).

While on the surface The Hitch-Hiker is a straight thriller with no pretensions to social relevance, Lupino still adds touches that further humanize the characters -- even the detestable Emmett Myers. In one touching scene, the kidnapper and his two victims enter a dusty Mexican store to buy food. As Gil and Roy fill a box with provisions, the store owner's little pigtailed daughter decides to make friends with Emmet and introduce him to her doll. As she tugs at his sleeve and he glares down at her, Gil (who we earlier learned is a good family man), rushes over to get the girl away from Myers. He hugs her tightly, as if he's just saved his own daughter's life.

Night scene from The Hitch-Hiker (1953)
Is he awake or asleep? Only Emmett knows for sure.
A short while later, over a campfire, Myers turns reflective, telling the fishermen exactly what's wrong with their soft, middle-class lifestyles (and suggesting that perhaps murderous maniacs are made, not born):
"You guys are soft. You know what makes you than way? You're up to your necks in IOUs… you're suckers, you're scared to get out on your own. You've always had it good, so you're soft. Well not me. Nobody ever gave me anything, so I don't owe nobody. My folks were tough. When I was born, they took one look at this puss of mine and told me to get lost."
But perhaps the most effective (and chilling) scene is when Myers calmly informs the fishing buddies not to get their hopes up about rushing him when he's asleep:  "You know you make pretty good targets from where I sit. Anyway, you couldn't tell if I was awake or asleep. Got one bum eye -- won't stay closed. Pretty good, huh?" (Sure enough, the men spend the night nervously glancing over at Myers, who's sitting up, gun in hand, one eye trained on them and the other closed. They decide not to chance it.)

The casting of the three principals in The Hitch-Hiker is pure noir nirvana. By the time of this film, both Edmond O'Brien (Ray) and Frank Lovejoy (Gil) were film noir veterans, appearing in such landmark titles as The Killers (O'Brien; 1946), White Heat (O'Brien; 1949), In a Lonely Place (Lovejoy; 1950), The Sound of Fury (Lovejoy; 1950), and D.O.A. (O'Brien; 1950). They are both excellent. But the film really belongs to William Talman as the reptilian Emmett Myers. With his gaunt face, half-paralyzed eyelid, and quiet menace, Talman's Myers is one of the creepiest noir villains ever. It is an acting tour-de-force. (Ironically, Talman would go on to fame portraying a character on the other side of the law: the smarmy, arrogant prosecutor -- and perpetual loser -- Hamilton Burger in the Perry Mason TV series.)

If The Hitch-Hiker has a weakness, it's a plot device that asks the audience to believe that a desperate murderer -- after quickly dispatching his earlier victims and stealing their cars -- suddenly is willing to take the chance of kidnapping two big, strapping men and using them for several days as cover to make his way over to the Mexican port city. It also seems a stretch that he could keep them at bay at night with just a "trick" eyelid. However, the plot is more or less based on the real notorious case of Billy Cook, who went on a murder and kidnapping spree after getting out of prison. He was ultimately captured by Mexican police with two kidnapped hunters in tow. So maybe it's not such a stretch after all!

Behind the scenes on the set of The Hitch-Hiker
Director Ida Lupino and Frank Lovejoy discuss a scene.
The Hitch-Hiker was Ida's favorite of the seven films she directed, but unfortunately it was not a triumph for her at the time. In his introduction to VCI's special VHS edition of the film, actor Robert Clarke (who appeared in two Lupino-directed films, Outrage, 1950 and Hard, Fast and Beautiful, 1951) details the director's abiding disappointment with how sloppily and carelessly the distributor, RKO, handled her film's release:
"The Hitch-Hiker was released with little fanfare through RKO Studios, which at that time was a pale shadow of the studio it had been in the glory days of the 1930s and 40s. To make matters worse, the release prints were very badly made, printed on cheap stock to save a few pennies on each foot of film. Visually, they lacked all the subtle tones and mood which Ida and veteran cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca had worked so hard to achieve. Desert scenes shot in daylight were supposed to have been overexposed, giving the audience a feeling of oppression and unbearable heat. Night scenes were to be a velvet black, with pools of light and shadow, trapping the characters in their fate. But instead, everything was printed a dull grey, and the prints were hastily released. The Hitch-Hiker played the bottom half of double bills."
However, time and an appreciative, discerning community of critics and film buffs have resurrected Ida's B masterpiece and restored its reputation. The Hitch-Hiker is 60 years young today. Happy birthday!

Where to find it:
Available on DVD

Kino Lorber (includes the Robert Clarke introduction)

Available online

Amazon Instant Video

Sociopath Emmett Myers (William Talman) seems pleased with himself as he listens to a report of his murderous exploits on the car radio:


  1. I've always wanted to see this and now, thanks to your review, I'm even more keen to see it.

    Ida L. certainly was a talented woman. I'm glad to see more people (such as yourself) are highlighting her work.

    1. Ida had been one of my all-time favorites even before I discovered her prolific career behind the camera. The Hitch-Hiker made a deep impression on me when I first saw it in the '90s.

      And she keeps popping up in the "oddest" of places. I've been watching the old Boris Karloff-hosted Thriller series from the early '60s, and sure enough, Ida directed some of the very best episodes.

  2. Ida is my favorite film director -- compassionate, economical, and suspenseful -- this based only on the handful of Filmakers pictures she helmed, as I've yet to see most of her TV directing work. She's even been referred to as "the female Don Siegel." I wish I'd thought to ask Bob Clarke more about her when I had the chance.

    Kevin D

    1. Hi Kevin!
      If you haven't already, check out the exhaustive article on Ida's directing career that I have linked in the top right corner (at the Senses of Cinema site, reprinted from Classic Images no. 248):

      As I mention above, a good place to start for her TV directing work is Boris Karloff's Thriller, which is available on DVD. She directed 9 of the best episodes (and wrote one):

      Trio for Terror (14 March 1961) - Director
      Mr. George (9 May 1961) - Director
      What Beckoning Ghost? (18 September 1961) - Director
      Guillotine (26 September 1961) - Director
      The Last of the Sommervilles (6 November 1961) - Director , Writer (writer)
      The Closed Cabinet (27 November 1961) - Director
      La Strega (15 January 1962) - Director
      The Bride Who Died Twice (19 March 1962) - Director
      The Lethal Ladies (16 April 1962) - Director

    2. I've reada few good books about Ida, one of which (Queen of the 'B's by Annette Kuhn) focuses on her film career *behind* the camera. Fascinating. A really great lady in many ways.