(Nick Lacey offers his view of this film in an earlier posting here.)
Street Corner was chosen last week by the cineaste Carol Morley for her Friday night online film club viewing. It was directed by Muriel Box and written by Muriel and her husband Sydney from an original idea by Jan Read. Since I’m keen to see Muriel Box films, I followed the link to a free streaming of the film. It’s an interesting film for several reasons. The semi-documentary style and focus on ‘social problems’ as dealt with by women police officers manages to combine elements from Gainsborough’s ‘social’ films of the 1940s (when Sydney ran the studio) and the range of social problem melodramas that appeared during the 1950s. The film also relates to a sub-genre about women in uniform such as The Gentle Sex (1943) about women in the forces in wartime or the munitions workers in overalls in Millions Like Us (1943) as well as Ealing’s later The Feminine Touch (1956) about student nurses in the NHS.
The three stories, which are interwoven in this procedural about four women working from Chelsea police station, each focus on an issue which seems to be particularly ‘suited’ to investigation by women. This reads very differently now but when “cops in skirts”, as the dialogue has it, first appeared, they were expected to deal with certain kinds of cases. One here is a child at risk from negligent and potentially abusive parents and the second is about a young woman who has gone AWOL from her WRAC posting. The third is about a young mother who is caught shoplifting and then seems to be falling into a classic ‘good-time girl’ narrative. This latter story is the most extended and leads into a familiar crime story about a bungled robbery and its aftermath. The Monthly Film Bulletin review at the time is rather ‘sniffy’ and refers to what it calls ‘The Blue Lamp formula’. I think the film has some saving graces but I have to agree that the four women do appear to “have the makings of a good hockey team”. They seem very middle-class.
The main problem for the film, which is technically very good in its use of location work by Box’s long-term collaborator Reginald Wyer, is that attitudes towards women and police work have changed so much since 1953. It’s also quite disconcerting that the cast is awash with actors who would later become very well known in British film and TV. I’ll name some of them here but there are many others. Fans of the sitcom Porridge will be amused to see a young Brian Wilde, already ‘typed’ as a worried man. In many scenes, that woman in the background or at the front desk in the police station will be Dandy Nichols, Thora Hird or Dora Bryan. Terence Morgan is typed as the wide boy/spiv jewel thief, aided and abetted by Michael Medwin in painted ties and light-coloured suits. Michael Hordern appears as a rather bemused Detective Inspector with Maigret pipe. But it’s the female leads who provide the flavour of the narrative.
Anne Crawford was well-known for her upper middle-class roles in both Millions Like Us (slumming it until Eric Portman as a factory foreman sorted her out) and They Were Sisters (1945). Here she is still recognisable as an older WPC. Rosamund John who featured in The Gentle Sex is the efficient Sergeant and Barbara Murray is the younger and more sophisticated WPC, caught in a posh dress shop trying on hats when she spies a suspect. To be fair all the action is around Knightsbridge and Chelsea. The fourth woman is the plain clothes WDC played by Sarah Lawson. Eleanor Summerfield has rather a thankless role as the WRAC but she does well and Peggy Cummins plays the would-be ‘Good-Time Girl’ (the subject of the Gainsborough film with that title featuring Jean Kent in 1948). At one point the Peggy Cummins character is in a nightclub (see above) which a police inspector later identifies as a place where “escaped girls from Approved Schools hang out” – a direct reference to the earlier film (which Muriel Box co-wrote).
Street Corner is credited as a production of London Independent Producers and made at the ‘Gate Studios, Elstree’. But the film is distributed by GFD (General Film Distributors), the distribution arm of the J. Arthur Rank Organisation. The Gate Studio was a single sound stage bought by Rank in 1950 with the intention of making religious films. Sydney Box decided to go independent when Gainsborough closed but he initially needed Rank for distribution. Muriel Box directed three films for the new company before working on films for other producers. She was in many ways the most prolific woman, as both writer and director, in the British film industry during the studio period.
I’m not sure what to make of Street Corner. It’s lively with some very good action sequences and I found it easy and enjoyable to watch. My main complaint is about the tone of the four women police officers. Rosamund John apart, the other three sound like head prefects talking down to younger girls who should know better. I’m surprised at this because the Boxes had great experience with social issue pictures and working-class characters at Gainsborough and before that for Sydney’s Verity Films. It occurs to me that perhaps the portrayals are realist in terms of the kinds of women who were recruited by the police in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The Metropolitan Police was the biggest employer of women officers of all police forces but still had only around 200 women who were given specific roles and segregated from male officers in terms of ranks and facilities until the 1970s and the Equality Laws of the period. The Met is thanked for its co-operation in making the film on the credits. Certainly the film is important not just as a film directed by a woman in the early 1950s but also because of its depiction of working women, using their intelligence, bravery and range of skills in capturing criminals and resolving some social problems. The film was re-titled for the US market (possibly to avoid confusion with an earlier film titled Street Corner). But Both Sides of the Law is not a good title for me – it implies possible police corruption.
The Wild Goose Chase was in competition at Cannes in 2019. I think that the Cannes competition place was won because this is a French co-production of the fourth film of writer-director Diao Yinan, a filmmaker who began as a writer for the Sixth Generation director Zhang Yang in the 1990s soon after his graduation from drama school in Beijing.
His previous film, the thriller Black Coal, Thin Ice (China 2014) won the Golden Bear at Berlin and was released in the UK. I’m sorry I missed it. This new film is described in the French press notes as a polar and US critics have described it as a film noir, but I’m grateful for the press notes in which director’s own statement suggests a hybrid of polar and wu xia (martial chivalry film). He refers to that rather wonderfully envisaged concept of the jianghu or ‘marginal world’ where things and people are not quite what they seem. I think I remember this concept as worked out in A Chinese Ghost Story (Hong Kong 1987) and The Bride With White Hair (Hong Kong 1993) both featuring the much-missed Leslie Cheung. The polar provides the battle between police and criminals and the jianghu describes the ‘marginal world’ in which the action takes place. As Diao himself puts it, the police are not in uniform, they are disguised in this night-time world where all kinds of things can happen, especially on the misty lake and in the chaotic backstreets of the town.
The film begins with a meeting at an underpass beneath a railway station on a dark and wet night. The central character Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge) is waiting for his wife, but a mysterious woman Liu Aiai (Kwei Lun-Mei) in a slinky red top appears and tells Zhou that she has been sent instead. Several flashbacks will then reveal why this meeting is taking place before the narrative moves into the inevitable noir/polar ending. I must confess that I found some of the jumps in time between sequences slightly bewildering so I’m having difficulty trying to discern a linear story. I don’t think that would worry the director. He suggests that he is more interested in ‘movement’ through the dark world than a psychological study of the ‘doomed man’ and the femme fatale. The opening is in fact quite slow but things soon speed up, moving into a series of sometimes surreal and always fascinating set pieces and chase sequences. Diao suggests that each of them has a basis in reality – a news story or something he himself had noticed. One sequence presents a ‘conference’ of local criminal gangs, meeting for a demonstration of how to steal motorbikes and a subsequent re-organisation of territories for each gang. But the aspect of the film that really caught my attention were the scenes on the ‘Wild Goose Lake’ itself where prostitutes posing as swimming beauties ply their trade. I can think of a few American films noirs where a couple are in a small boat on the water in the fog, but the most striking image I remember is the boat trip in Mizoguchi Kenji’s Ugetsu Monogatari (1953).
At points the film becomes a police procedural but the central plotline focuses on the large reward offered for Zhou’s capture. Zhou himself decides that if anyone is to get the money it will be his wife and child. But how can he ensure that this happens and who can he trust?
The key to the unusual locations is the regional setting of the film in Wuhan, a major city region and large urban sprawl in Hubei province. Diao searched for locations around the many lakes in a 200 km radius from the centre of Wuhan on the Yangtse River. He then decided to use local Wuhan dialect rather than standard Mandarin. Kwei is Taiwanese and she had to learn the dialect, as did Hu Ge. Most of the large cast are local actors or non-professionals. The production must have been relatively expensive because of the many nights (50) of shooting complicated action scenes. It seems strange that Diao would create a film for which most Chinese audiences would need subtitles. The international audience will have subtitles anyway and won’t appreciate the local dialect. So is this a rare hybrid genre-art film. Obviously this works for the South Korean auteurs such as Bong Joon-ho or Park Chan-wook, but their films are blockbusters at home as well as arthouse/specialised hits abroad. From the Unifrance website (all French films listed) it looks like the film could be distributed in the UK by MUBI so I’ll be watching out for it on my stream and hoping it gets into at least a few cinemas.
I’ve enjoyed researching the film and I think now that I’m beginning to understand a bit more. There are some extremely violent incidents (which are also quite unusual) to go alongside the surreal sequences. Overall the film is exciting and fascinating for anyone interested in Chinese cinema and that distinctive blend of Chinese and French crime genre ideas. I’m intrigued to see that this has now become an aspect of mainland cinema. I’d be interested to know what HK filmmakers like Johnnie To make of this film. Which brings me to Hu Ge. He is quite distinctive as a tall Chinese whose looks certainly equip him for the role. One review I saw suggested that he had a presence like Robert Mitchum in RKO noirs. I’m not sure that is quite right, but he does reming me of other actors in crime noirs. This is definitely a film to look out for.
Article 15 opened the recent London Indian Film Festival and went on to win the festival’s Audience Award. It took me a few days to realise that it was also released in UK cinemas and fortunately I managed to catch it before it disappeared. Like most contemporary Indian ‘independent’ films it seems to have struggled in Bradford. That’s a shame because this is a hard-hitting drama that had me pinned to my seat for 130 minutes. The title refers to Article 15 of the Indian Constitution of 1950 which lays down equality in the eyes of the law for all Indian citizens irrespective of religion, ethnicity, caste, gender or place of birth. In reality it has been very difficult to uphold the rights enshrined in Article 15, especially in village communities where traditional values prove difficult to challenge.
Writer-director Anubhav Sinha and his co-writer Gaurav Solanki have written a script which sees the familiar figure of a sophisticated urban police officer (an officer of the IPS – Indian Police Service) sent to rural Uttar Pradesh to take charge of a district police station – only to find himself immediately embroiled in a case which challenges all his beliefs. (The suggestion is that his posting is some form of ‘punishment’ by the Home Ministry or senior management of the IPS.) The IPS is an ‘All India Service’ that operates across the Union and provides senior officers for state police – I think the officer here is a Superintendent of a Rural District. The narrative is loosely inspired by two historical cases of gang-rape in 2014 and public flogging in 2016. Three young teenage girls go missing but two of them are soon discovered murdered and their fathers charged with honour killing. The new police chief is suspicious about the swift resolution of the case and the subsequent failure to find the third girl. He discovers that caste discrimination is at the centre of the problem which further involves exploitation of child labour and communal tensions around election campaigns. The narrative develops as a police procedural with political interference.
The film has a very distinctive look, ‘feel’ and sound design. Cinematography by Ewan Mulligan on his third shoot for the director is extraordinary. Many of the scenes take place from ‘dusk to dawn’ so that the villages are constantly dark and dim, lit by torches or fires. As one journalist puts it: “Even the weather becomes a metaphor for the fog of lies in the village” (Gayle Sequeira, Film Companion website). When there is full daylight, the image is often de-saturated so that the world is reduced to tones of grey, green and yellow and mists shroud scenes. Mulligan cites Tarkovsky and Gordon Willis as his inspiration. Both cinematographer and director were aware of the likely comparisons with American narratives about crusading cops going into the Deep South and grappling with traditional communities. The ‘feel’ of the film comes as much from horror films as from procedurals (Mulligan has a background including horror shoots). The use of music in the film is both unsettling and unusual. Much of the time the use of music cues to emphasise shocks and a general feel of ‘dread’ seems overplayed. The film opens with Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ and closes with a rap number. In between, the credits suggested several songs but I don’t remember hearing them – there is far too much going on. The title credits suggest two main production companies for the film, the private company Benaras Mediaworks (which also produced Sinha’s two previous films) and the TV/Music company Zee Entertainment. I’m not sure if Zee’s involvement makes this a mainstream film, but ‘Bollywood’ it ain’t. It’s getting increasingly difficult to distinguish what might be an Independent or ‘Hindie’ film.
Language itself is one of the key elements of the film. Though most of the dialogue is in Hindi, the central character of the senior officer Ayaan Ranjan (Ayushmann Khurrana) speaks English at key moments and there is a joke about his use of ‘Fuck’, uttered when he is angered by what he finds. In a confrontation with the senior CBI agent sent to take over the case, Ranjan’s background (private school, time spent in London) and his use of English is criticised, suggesting he doesn’t understand the locals. He is advised to use Hindi but he retaliates by suggesting that the agent speaks Hindi as a second language. (The agent is played by the Tamil actor Nassar.) One of the strengths of the film (and possibly a weakness in appealing to mainstream audiences and non-Indian audiences) is the detailed dialogue exchanges about caste and about politics. I was intrigued to learn that it is an offence to ask someone what caste they belong to. This matters little in the investigation and Ranjan gradually uncovers the the hierarchies that exist in the villages and how they are present among his police officers. I would have been more lost if I hadn’t spent time learning about Scheduled Tribes and Castes in studying other Indian films. One of the key images in the film is the extraordinary sight of a man lowered into an overflowing drain and emerging completely coated with filthy material. I was reminded of Court (India 2014) and Jai Bhim Comrade (India 2011) films which explore the injustices and discrimination suffered by Dalits.
Although the central theme about caste discrimination and corruption in the police and local government is prompted by gang-rape, the violence towards women is not really explored in detail. Ranjan has a partner Aditi who is an activist/journalist but for most of the film she only communicates with him by phone/text though she does join him towards the end of the narrative. There are also a couple of significant female characters in the district who are key to Anjan exposing the corruption. It’s also important that the rapes are presented as being about power – over the women, over all workers and power used to maintain caste discrimination. I don’t think it would have been possible to explore the legal framework around rape in the necessary detail in this film. I hope it will be explored in similar films in the future.
The performances are are all very good. I realised later that I had seen Ayushmann Khurrana’s first film role as the lead in Vicky Donor (India 2012), a very different kind of film, though in its own way a challenge to the mainstream. I’ll try to find some of his other films. I’m not sure about his hair style for Article 15!
The film may have struggled in Bradford but it has made a big impact in India and in other international markets. It had grossed Rs 34 crore (nearly $5million) after just a week on release in India with over $1 million overseas. In the UK it just missed the Top 15 with 55 screens earning £50,000 in the first weekend. I noted that it screened without an Intermission in Bradford, whereas Indian reviews suggest it still had one there. I think an Intermission might have diminished its power, but on the other hand it might have enabled some reflection on what was an intense first half. Reading various reviews, the one that stands out is the Sight and Sound (August 2019) review by Naman Ramachandran who argues that the Indian state was long seen as ‘secular’ but that Narendra Modi’s two election victories have seen the rise of the ‘Hindu state’. In this context, the failure of the state to enforce the rights of all and to in effect allow caste discrimination is a truly terrifying prospect. The film’s resolution suggests the possibility that the community can come together to search for the missing girl but doesn’t promise that such cases won’t arise again.
Official trailer (no English subs but a reasonable representation of the visual style):
The Blue Lamp is one of the best-known Ealing films, but it’s also an unusual film in some ways. It begins as an early example of what would become a familiar British film genre, the ‘social problem film’ and it is directed by Basil Dearden who would specialise in such films over the next dozen years (Michael Relph, the co-producer would become Dearden’s partner on social problem pictures). The writers include T. E. B. ‘Tibby’ Clarke, an ex-policeman, and Ted Willis who would later become one of the most significant names associated with the genre. But Willis and the film’s lead players, Jack Warner, Jimmy Hanley and Dirk Bogarde (all three contracted to Rank) were not generally associated with leading roles at Ealing. Jack Warner did appear in several Ealing films but his stardom at the time was mainly because of the success of the ‘Huggett family’ franchise. The social problem, spelt out in a voiceover at the beginning of the film, is the growing problem of young criminals who are ‘clever enough to plan criminal acts, but lack the adherence to the code of behaviour adopted by older criminals’. Because of this the young thugs are more reckless and liable to be shunned by established criminals. (I note that some commentators date the beginnings of the social problem film as much earlier during the war, but I think that the core films, in which there is some form of public service authority figure investigating and attempting to solve the problem, start around the end of the 1940s).
In its second section the film becomes more of a ‘social-realist’ police procedural with Hanley’s ‘Andy Mitchell’, a younger policeman, being taken in by PC George Dixon (Warner) and his wife (Gladys Henson). A line of dialogue suggests that George and Em’s son was killed in the war and would have been Andy’s age by now. Andy represents the sensible younger man (‘up from Kent’) who can be contrasted with the ‘tearaways’. Jimmy Hanley had been playing this type of younger man for some time – he was actually in his early thirties. During this part of the narrative, the police team at Paddington Green begin to investigate a robbery at a jeweller’s. The crime is committed by Tom Riley, the Bogarde character, and also involves his male partner ‘Spud’ and Tom’s girlfriend, 17 year-old Diana (Peggy Evans). Inevitably the first crime leads to a second and in the process PC Dixon is shot. This pushes the narrative into a new form in which Ealing Studio’s well-known use of realist location shooting is used to create a very exciting car chase around the Paddington-North Kensington area and ending with the murder suspect running into White City Stadium during a greyhound racing meeting. Although similar scenes had already been seen in earlier Ealing pictures (e.g. It Always Rains on Sunday, 1947), the intensity of the police chase with radio cars seems to be much greater on this occasion. Many commentators, especially in the US, relate the final chase sequence to the Hollywood ‘semi-documentary’ of the late 1940s, picking out Jules Dassin’s The Naked City (1948). I think there is something in this, although Fritz Lang’s M and other earlier British crime films are also an influence. The other oft-quoted reference is to film noir and there are certainly several noirish scenes in the film. On the other hand, many Ealing dramas of the period use familiar noir lighting and camerawork for a range of narratives in this period, most of which are not films noirs as such but rather crime melodramas or straight dramas.
The Blue Lamp proved to be very popular with audiences when it opened in 1950 and in 1955 the BBC famously resurrected George Dixon and made him the avuncular older copper at a local London police station in Dixon of Dock Green. This TV series lasted for an astonishing 21 years (by which time Jack Warner was 80 years old) and became something of a laughing-stock alongside contemporary police dramas like Z-Cars and Softly, Softly. The sense of the TV series as ‘cosy’ has, I think, coloured views about The Blue Lamp. The earlier film offers a quite detailed view of the London streets around Paddington, the Edgware Road and the Regent’s Canal and it’s interesting to consider it alongside It Always Rains on Sunday and Pool of London (1951)(DoP Gordon Dines worked on this film as well as The Blue Lamp)as well as the more sensational crime melodramas associated with Gainsborough and other studios. I think that the commentators who pick out the ‘community’ ethos of Ealing as a key factor are on the right lines. Community in this case means the police in the local station, the criminal community of established small-time crooks and the disputatious but still genuine community relations between the ‘bobbies on the beat’ and the people they meet on the street. It is these three working together who nail Tom Riley as an anti-social figure (and an unusual Ealing character). This can be seen as a cosy and perhaps naïve view of community, even in the 1950s, but the scenes of police on a night ‘beat’ certainly resonate with older viewers. Once the police got into patrol cars, the world and the images of the crime film changed. I’ve seen comments that critique the film by pouring scorn on the police officers’ choir rehearsals and darts matches. I think these were genuine activities that happened in most local ‘nicks’ in 1950. Those police choirs that performed at football matches at half-time in the 1960s had to rehearse at some point. I have no doubt that there were occasional bent coppers and pockets of corruption in 1950 just as later, but the bonding of men (female police officers were kept separate then) over sports and recreation was important in the way that police work was conducted. We might argue that contemporary police procedurals push too far in the other direction in order to be ‘exciting’.
But it is also true that The Blue Lamp was sanctioned by the Metropolitan Police and the organisation is thanked in the credits. The film also got past the BBFC and was certified ‘A’ (suitable for adults) with no cuts required. This suggests that the film’s representation of the police didn’t in any way contravene social norms in 1950 – something which by the 1970s was certainly questionable in terms of the police canteen culture in the Met and the various attempts to clean out corruption. At that point it did indeed come over as rosy nostalgia. Today it is very rare to meet a police officer on the street and the common perception of the police is governed by quite different forms of TV crime fiction. As for Ealing, the appearance of Dirk Bogarde is unusual and his performance really singles him out as playing the bad boy. I think he is actually more disturbing when he is cleaned up and wearing what appears to be a ‘spiv’ tie. Tom Riley is a young punk, but Bogarde, who had begun in the theatre was 28 when he made the film. His image was changed again a few years later when he became Rank’s ‘matinee idol’ in the successful ‘Doctor’ film comedies.
The Blue Lamp is well worth watching on Talking Pictures TV and if you want a more informed viewing experience, there is a Blu-ray available with several extras including comments by Charles Barr, one of the leading Ealing scholars.
The Nile Hilton Incident is an intriguing film, not only in its presentation of an exciting crime thriller in a precise location, but also as a film production which invokes a specific kind of response. In its own way it’s the perfect case study for ideas about global film.
This film is a product of a familiar Nordic co-production set-up. It’s a Swedish-Danish production with German co-production money. The writer-director Tarik Saleh is Swedish and so is his leading man Fares Fares (who was actually born in Beirut). The female lead Mari Malek is a Sudanese refugee who spent four years in Egypt before gaining asylum status in the US and building a successful career as a DJ, model and actor. The film is photographed by Pierre Aïm, whose early success shooting La haine in 1995 marked him out as a filmmaker to watch. Much of the cast is Egyptian but also features North African actors and others from Arabic-speaking diasporas in Europe. The film’s dialogue is almost completely in Arabic and the original intention was to shoot the street scenes in Egypt. But, presumably because of the plot’s dénoument in the Tahrir Square protests of 2011 and the portrayal of State Security forces, permission was denied by the Egyptian authorities. The production was forced to transfer to Morocco with interiors shot in studios in Sweden and Germany. With all these ingredients the film might have struggled to achieve any form of coherence, let alone represent the crowded streets of Cairo. But based on my experience of watching Egyptian films and walking the streets of cities elsewhere with a similar feel, it all worked for me.
The trick in a film like this is to manage to combine a story with universal elements and enough aspects of local culture to be convincing. One of the few ‘popular’ Egyptian films to get a UK release in recent years is Clash (Egypt-France-Germany 2016) and The Nile Hilton Incident doesn’t look out of place in such company. Police officers appear in both films but otherwise the genre frameworks are a little different. Noredin (Fares Fares) is a middle-aged police officer with a degree of seniority in a police district close to Tahrir Square in Cairo. He is shown doing his rounds by car with a younger sidekick Momo. He accepts bribes from street traders and eventually we realise that the district is the fiefdom of Noredin’s boss (and uncle) Kammal. When Noredin is called to a murder scene he discovers the body of a glamorous nightclub singer in a Hilton hotel bedroom. The police already there don’t seem too concerned but Noredin believes the murder is the work of a professional killer.
The film’s narrative becomes familiar as soon as Noredin spots a clue and begins to pursue it. It will lead him eventually to another singer and to a seemingly respectable politician. He will also recognise that the hotel maid is a crucial witness. Noredin himself is a sad figure and he operates as a kind of modern Chandleresque investigator. He’s no white knight and his sense of honour is compromised by his acceptance of baksheesh, but he’s still our hero and we want him to come out on top even though he makes plenty of mistakes. Noredin could also be a Jo Nesbø character or any one of the police investigators across the world who try to deal with celebrities and politicians and find that their bosses don’t always support them. The maid is Salwa, a Sudanese worker whose status could be easily undermined. This character and her narrative importance again situates the film in line with Nordic noirs – the asylum seekers who shouldn’t be working (as maids or trafficked as prostitutes) and who won’t usually co-operate with police because of fear of deportation. In this sense Cairo is a city with an élite who need an ‘invisible army’ of illegals to keep them in comfort – as in most major Western cities.
In the final section the narrative becomes more specifically ‘Egyptian’ when it involves demonstrations in Tahrir Square. The trouble erupts on Egypt’s National ‘Police Day’, the starting point for the Egyptian version of the ‘Arab Spring’. The other scene that intrigued me is when Noredin visits his contact, the Lebanese singer, in a nightclub. While this is another familiar element in a US/UK/French etc. film noir, it is also an element in Egyptian films in which any excuse for a song or dance performance is usually taken, especially that of a Lebanese singer who is a beautiful woman. I’m sure Tarik Saleh wants his film to be shown in Egypt. Given the shooting ban this seems unlikely, but perhaps audiences will still find it via streaming services, satellites etc. I have no idea how the film would fare in Egypt – would the mix of Arabic dialects be a problem? Outside Egypt any audience with a love of film noir should enjoy the film immensely.
Here’s the UK trailer:
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.
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.
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.
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.