The Hitch-Hiker

Lawrence Russell

The Hitch-Hiker (1953) dir. Ida Lupino | writ. Collier Young & Ida Lupino [adaptation Robert Joseph] [based on material by Geoffrey Howes a.k.a. Daniel Mainwaring] | cine. Frank Murusaca | edt. Douglas Stewart | music. Leith Stevens | art. Walter E. Keller

star. Edmond O'Brien (Roy Collins), Frank Lovejoy (Gilbert Bowen), William Talman (Emmet Myers a.k.a. the Hitch-Hiker), Jose Torvay, Sam Hayes, Wendel Niles, Jean del Val, Clark Howard, Nativadad Vacio

RKO Pictures 70 mins 1953

Buscado: the Hitch-Hiker

|| Ida Lupino wrote and directed this one, an unusual thing for a woman in 1953, even though this was her fourth or fifth film as a director in the masculine world of the B-movie thriller. She was an experienced actress from a theatrical British family, today best remembered for her role in High Sierra (1941), where she plays a bad girl love interest of Humphrey Bogart, the doomed bank robber "Mad Dog" Roy Earle who dies in a shoot-out in the rocks way up above the tree-line. So one is tempted to look for traces of the female sensibility in The Hitch-Hiker, which, despite its neo-realist approach, is a modern Western. A harsh impersonal desert replaces a harsh impersonal city, and large period autos replace horses.

Certainly the machismo is low-key, with no absurd shoot-outs and stunts along the way. In keeping with the pseudo-docu style of the times, the film starts with a quick roundup of the coldblooded highway killings by one Emmet Myers (William Talman), who is presented symbolically as "the Hitch-Hiker", his face concealed from the camera, an anonymous figure rendered as Death in a black leather coat. The style is edgy, not dissimilar to the coarse action of Edgar C. Ulmer's 1945 noir classic Detour.

The first victims are a young couple in a convertible with a 1952 Illinois license plate. They are shot and robbed at night in a wooded grove, left dead in the car by the Hitch-Hiker who casually leans down, rifles the woman's purse which has fallen on the ground. All you see are his boots as he walks away, like an anonymous dream figure in the ambiguous shadows.

Cut To: a spinning image of a newspaper which winds down like a wheel of fortune locking onto a headline which proclaims "Couple Found Murdered..." and the rampage of the highway killer as he moves across America. An effective, if generic, transitional device typical of the genre. Another murder, another headline: "Nation-Wide Search For Hitch-Hike Slayer!" This time the victim is a man in a sedan... and this time the killer decides to keep the car.

Cut To: dawn, and a similar car merging onto the highway from a back road. But this isn't the Hitch-Hiker, although you think it is... until the camera reveals the occupants to be two men in a 49 Plymouth on their way to a fishing trip in the Chocolate Mountains on the California-Mexico border. The driver is Roy Collins (Edmond O'Brien), a mechanic, and his friend, Gilbert Bowen (Frank Lovejoy), a draughtsman. On a whim they decide to revise their itinerary and instead take in a little action in Mexicali, then go fishing at San Filipe, Mexico. But Bowen is already asleep in the passenger seat as they pass through the glittering lights of Mexicali as if he's already in dream mode. Daylight... and who do they see standing beside his stolen auto, now out of gas?

Thus Fate is the Hunter.

The lack of a female character limits a wider human dynamic, even though there are women somewhere in the background, as both Collins and Bowen are married. Lupino sticks (mostly) to a single time & space, which can be applauded as artistic, but like most neo-realist films, is actually a condition of economics. Keep it simple, keep it cheap. One camera, few sets, find nice location settings. In this sense The Hitch-Hiker is similar to Spielberg's celebrated first film Duel, wherein the characters become the virtual hostages of a truck driver who, by his complete anonymity, becomes a personification of Death.

I'm gonna listen to the News

|| It might be churlish to ask why Myers doesn't kill Collins & Bowen at the outset, just as he did with his previous victims... but he doesn't, prefers to sit in the back with his pistol and have Collins and Bowen chauffeur him south through the desert into Mexico's Baja peninsula, monitor his hunt via news bulletins on the car radio. "This car rides pretty good," he says. "Think when I get where I'm going I'll sell it." Baja is a fabulous setting, a rugged prehistoric terrain of giant boulders and lava eggs, as if the world of the dinosaurs has been fossilized and abstracted into the landscape. In the brutal sunlight gravel roads and dirt trails evaporate into the cracked mud of the arroyos and dry ravines. In this way the director Ida Lupino ironically taps the spirit of 18/19th Century Romanticism, which played out its famous dramas & paintings against a gloomy primal landscape of forests, mountains, ruins and supernatural possibility. But here, no castles, just the occasional shabby adobe... no forests, just giant cacti.

Contemporary action drama would have Collins and/or Bowen make an early break for it, no matter how unrealistic, in order to pump the action. Bowen does have a couple of opportunities. First, in the car when they hit a bump, and second, when they stop and open the trunk, when there's an opportunity to grab a rifle. Myers jerks his pistol, says, "Don't even think about it, you'll never make it." Yet the rifle gives the sadistic Myers an idea. Seems he needs a little diversion and maybe an opportunity for some psycho intimidation. He orders Collins to go and stand beside a rock, hold up an empty can as a target for his friend Bowen. Bowen, although reluctant, proves to be a good shot.

The passivity of the characters in fact is true-to-life, an accurate social profile for the times. The action is psychological -- no stunt players necessary. O'Brien -- a favorite of Lupino's in her B-movie auteur period -- is the more resentful of the two hostages, and if he'd been by himself, you know he would've made a quick break or died trying. His anger crescendos in the scene at the well when he snarls, "If you're gonna kill us, kill us, get it over with." When Myers later decides to reverse identities with Collins by switching clothes, the act is not only a physical match but a psychological one.

Hitch-hiking is one of those continuums wherein the victim and the perpetrator can become reversible entities. The element of chance and the cult of loneliness combine to make it a dangerous pursuit. The predator might be behind the wheel or might be the passenger. Like objects set in motion by an invisible force, the conflict between strangers is both existential and historic, like the nomadic desperados of the Old West or the desert wild-life that never socializes, simply eats or is eaten.

William Talman as the Hitch-Hiker Ida Lupino's The Hitch-Hiker

Myers is the classic criminal with an affliction -- a paralyzed or "sleepy" eye that never closes, so his face in certain views is like that of a temple effigy, a demon. This is put to good advantage in the scene where he camps for the night beside an abandoned airstrip, watches over his hostages with his bum eye. The effect is both creepy and chilling, as Collins & Bowen never really know for sure if Myers is asleep when they make their break for it. Visually the scene is very effective as Collins & Bowen are wrapped so tightly in their blankets they look like mummies or spider-food. One eye open, one eye closed... the Spider God never sleeps... and although they roll off into the darkness, their escape is short-lived. He runs them down on the airstrip with the car, and they surrender like rabbits hypnotized by the headlights.

you guys are soft

Myers is a mid twentieth century version of the "Kansas Desperado", presaged by such criminal luminaries as Frank & Cole Younger (Jesse James gang), Ben Hodges, Billy the Kid (Dodge City), George "Machine Gun" Kelly, et. al.

William Talman's subtle though powerful performance as Emmet Myers is best realized in the camp scene when he demands to see Gil Bowen's watch. He's lounging against a tree as Bowen & Collins get a fire going. He examines the watch, says: "I had a watch like this when I was 17... nobody gave it to me... I took it, knocked off a broken-down jewelry store in a jerk town outside of Tulsa. It was a cinch." He draws closer. "You guys are soft. Know what makes you that way? You're up to your necks in I.O.U.s. 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. They never gave me anything, so I don't owe nobody. My folks were tough. When I was born, they took one look at this pus eye, told me to get lost...."

For the most part, though, the action seems a little unimaginative by today's standards. Like many Westerns, the film relies heavily on the magnificent geography of the desert landscape; the occasional cut-aways to some mechanical cop scenes add an unfortunate Keystone tenor to the documentary style, even if the use of Spanish in those exchanges where the Mexican police are involved helps to sustain realism.

Buzzards at the well, a busted oil pan on the Plymouth, patrolling aircraft, a pursuing Mexican Sheriff in a funky torpedo-back [late forties Hudson or Packard]... but no shoot-outs in the rocks. The tension is held completely in the persona of the Hitch-Hiker, who might be a homme fatale but for the fact that he hijacked two men rather than two women. He's a bad man with a gun, but a weakling without it, an indictment that seems simplistic by contemporary standards. The Hitch-Hiker is one of those films that lacks a sub-plot, although this in itself is not an artistic crime. Here, Fate is not a conspiracy... rather, it's a random event. Myers has no plan. He just moves, and when he needs to eat, he kills and robs. When Collins & Bowen become his hostages, he uses them to get food, which is an elementary step up -- dare one say a social act -- and you can imagine him forming a gang. At one point Collins asks him if he ever had a job. Myers is circumspect, grips his pistol, looks at the two chumps with contempt. They're married, socialized, whipped... whereas he's a predator and free.

Ida Lupino produced and wrote five or so films for her production company Filmakers [founded with her second husband Collier Young], then went into contract TV drama, directing & writing for such shows as General Electric Theatre, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Have Gun Will Travel, The Rifleman, 77 Sunset Strip, The Twilight Zone... and Gilligan's Island. These Family Hour dramas with their clean homicides and general buffoonery are quite distant from her brief but productive career as a female auteur dealing with the ugly in society: rape, bigamy, peer-pressure, crippling illness, homicide and the unhappy lot of some women in the post-war era.

Lap-dissolves, side-wipes, omniscient camera angles, generic dialogue, low-key action, great landscape cine, prototypical villain... well worth watching as a period piece, and certainly as part of Ida Lupino's fascinating career. Nostalgia might not be enough to make The Hitch-Hiker hip, even if Ida is.

© LR 3/06


Culture Court | © Lawrence Russell | 2006