Tagged: based on a true story

GFF18 #11: The Hitch-Hiker (US 1953)

On Wednesday 28th February Scotland was given a Red warning of heavy snow. I was due to go home but found all the trains cancelled. Most of the Film Festival venues closed as Glasgow went into lock-down. But even snow storms can have a silver lining and next day, aware I couldn’t get home, I turned up at GFT to discover that the afternoon shows were on and that I would be able to see more of Ida Lupino’s in the festival’s centenary retrospective.

Ida Lupino was always frustrated under contract at Warner Brothers and in 1948 she set up her own production company, ‘Emerald Productions’ (referring to her mother’s stage name) with partners including producer Collier Young who she married in 1948. Later the company was renamed as ‘The Filmakers’ (sic). During suspensions by Warner Bros for refusing parts, she had learned as much as she could about directing and become an admirer of the tough guy directors like Raoul Walsh and William Wellman. The Hitch-Hiker is one of the seven films that Lupino directed (two of them uncredited) between 1949 and 1954. Her later directing career took her into television, apart from one more film in 1966. Ida Lupino became known as a director who belonged to a modernist school of pre-New Wave auteurs. On a practical level her independent films were all short (70-80 minutes) and made quickly on low budgets of less than $200,000. The Hitch-Hiker lasts just 71 minutes – none of them wasted. It’s a cracker! Made as a co-production with RKO, the film benefits from some well-known RKO department heads including Nicholas Musuraca as cinematographer (one of the great film noir creatives) and C. Bakaleinikoff as music director (again a noir expert). Lupino and Young (now divorced) wrote the screenplay, though IMDb also lists Daniel Mainwaring (writer of Out of the Past and many more noirs) as an uncredited writer. The original story came from Robert Joseph. Mainwaring was one of the writers to suffer from the blacklist – which Lupino didn’t recognise.

Director Ida Lupino on set with Edmond O’Brien (left) and William Talman

The short running time for a film with so much creative talent working on the production is partly attributable to the difficulties Lupino faced with the subject matter. She decided to make a film based on a ‘true crime’ story about the serial killer Billy Cook who was in San Quentin awaiting execution. Lupino visited him there and arranged the rights to his story, planning a film which sounds something like In Cold Blood (1967), the film based on Truman Capote’s ‘faction’ novel. For various reasons, including problems with the production code, the final screenplay changed names and story elements but under Lupino’s direction still retained a documentary, or at least a ‘procedural’ feel. The killer, renamed Emmett Myers, is first seen in California, killing a couple who had offered him a lift and then similarly despatching a travelling salesman and taking his car. When that breaks down he again hitches a ride but this time doesn’t immediately kill the two men on a fishing trip but, holding them at gun-point, forces them to drive him down through Mexico. At some point they know he will kill again. Lupino shows only the killer’s feet and very brief shots of the victims in a swift opening to the narrative before we settle in to the psychological play between the three central characters.

In one of his psychological ploys, the killer forces one of his hostages (Frank Lovejoy) to shoot a can out of his friend’s hand

As the killer, Lupino and Young cast William Talman (who later became well-known as the DA always defeated in court by Perry Mason on TV). Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy were cast as the two hostages. O’Brien was an excellent character actor who appeared again for Lupino in The Bigamist later in 1953. Lovejoy is best known to me as the police officer in Nick Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950). Lupino had a leading acting role in On Dangerous Ground (1950) for Nick Ray and claims have been made that she directed some scenes of that film when Ray was unwell. I imagine Lupino was very well-known in Hollywood and must have had a large network of people she had worked with and could rely on. She was an independent, but needed a studio like RKO to distribute her films so she still had to compromise on certain issues.

One of the noir sequences with careful lighting of the passengers in the car

The Hitch-Hiker is usually described as a film noir and Lupino is often described as the first woman to make a noir – as well as being one of the great femmes fatales in several noirs. I understand why this has happened and it’s true that there are distinctly ‘noirish’ sequences in the film. However, I think it is more useful to consider the film as being in the ‘mode’ of a film noir but drawing on several other genres. Lupino herself was generally interested in films about ‘ordinary people’ – the bewildered folk who find themselves in difficult positions. She looked for that documentary feel. In The Hitch-Hiker there are conventional montages showing newspaper headlines, but also important procedural touches such as the co-operation between the US and Mexican police agencies, the use of radio transmissions to deceive Myers and coverage of the search techniques. I was also struck by how much the narrative resembled a Western, especially in the journey through the desert, the night-time camping and the encounters with small Mexican communities and travellers. It isn’t difficult to imagine the car replaced by horses or a buggy. But the prime generic ‘mover’ of the action is the psychological thriller. Collins (O’Brien) and Bowen (Lovejoy) are ‘ordinary guys’ on a fishing trip. They may well have been in the Second World War (and Bowen is a skilled rifleman) but now they live comfortable lives in the suburbs with wives and families (incidentally this is a very male story – there are no female characters). Myers knows that they can only act together. Neither will risk escaping alone as the other would certainly be killed. He plays games with them and unsettles them at every opportunity. Myers also has a damaged eye that will not close, so it’s almost impossible to tell if he’s sleeping with his staring eye clearly visible.

There are no real surprises in how the story ends but we don’t care because we are taken up with the tension and suspense. We know Myers will be caught but we are still concerned about the two hostages – who are different in their behaviour. I’ve rarely got so involved in a short feature like this.

The film was presented on a 35mm print from the National Film Archive in good condition. Since the railways showed no sign of re-opening, I knew I would have the chance to see The Bigamist the next day – post to follow.