Editor’s Note: This review is the unofficial beginning of a new column we will feature at Cinepunx, called REKT. Each month, one of our contributing staff will recommend ten films in which the rest of us will review, and which may or may not wreck us.
Preface: I asked our very own Adrianna Gober — brilliant editor, author, and all-around cool chick — to give me a list of recommendations of female-fronted horror flicks for Women in Horror Month. Here are some thoughts on one of the films on that list, Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker.
When English actress Ida Lupino was bored on set between takes, she’d watch what the directors were doing with an interested eye. Lupino’s fascination with both the mechanics and art of filmmaking drove her to learn the craft herself, and gave rise to what would become a moderately successful career as a director. Selecting subject matter widely considered controversial for the 1940s and ‘50s, the stories she told approached topics like premarital pregnancy (Not Wanted, 1949), rape (Outrage, 1950), and bigamy (The Bigamist, 1953). And, in 1953, Lupino became the first female to direct a film noir, the hard-but-stylish The Hitch-Hiker, a tale of two men on their way to a fishing trip who offer a ride to a psychotic killer.
Let’s get something out of the way: I wouldn’t call The Hitch-Hiker a horror movie. Thriller? Yes. Crime story? Yes. Film noir? Absolutely. However, there are some horrific elements here that seem unprecedented to unleash upon an early-to-mid-century audience, a based-on-true-events story that presents murder in its real, cold, not-played-for-drama form. In The Hitch-Hiker, we follow two men, Collins (Edmond O’Brien) and Bowen (Frank Lovejoy), as they are continually face-to-face with an ex-con nutcase called Myers (William Talman). All the while, the film shows kidnapping and killing for what they are: senseless violence that could happen to anyone, at any time. And that’s just one thing that makes this film so remarkable. Lupino crafts her story and her characters in such a way that obliges us to keep watching, from resonate visuals to empathetic heroes to a curious villain. The opening credits especially are a clever treat in non-verbal storytelling, with shadowplay that somehow manages to be sinister as well as evocative. The vibe is one of uneasy intrigue; we see a long, skinny late afternoon shadow of our antagonist on the pavement, thumb extended, but face out-of-frame. The camera focuses on the killer’s feet as he climbs out of one of the cars he’s hitched a ride in; we hear a woman’s scream and then two gunshots, and again, the killer’s face is hidden as he rummages through the woman’s purse that has fallen to the ground. All of this is to build the mystery, to build the sense that this horror could happen to any one of us, that any man — regardless of his face — could potentially be the last man you ever meet. Again, pretty heavy stuff for 1953.
Not far into the film, I wondered if this could be a morality tale. The men’s plans are to take a leisurely fishing trip to the Chocolate Mountains in Arizona, but when they reach the highway that will take them there, they decide to turn south instead, and head toward Mexicali, a lecherous border town which happens to be the capital city of Baja California. This crossroads of sorts will prove instrumental in their fate soon enough as they slow down to pick up a motorist who has run out of gas. Of course, we all know who the hitcher is, but now in the backseat of the car, his face is obscured by dark shadows still, letting the audience further settle in with the dread Lupino is building. Soon, though, Lupino guides her actors into simple-yet-effective responses when the killer reveals himself by way of an old-fashioned gunpoint. “Sure, I’m Emmett Myers. Do what I tell ya, and don’t make a lot of fast moves. There’re lotta dead heroes back there that got nervous.” Right then, I think: is this alarming situation the two men have found themselves in a direct result of the choice they made to drive to Mexico instead of Arizona? Is this a tale of two family men who subjectively get what they deserve for giving in to dishonesty and vice? It seems easy to go this route, but honestly, I’m not sure. When the men reach Mexicali and all its bright lights and visible indulgences, they give up on any grand ideas of debauchery and decide to just drive straight through. And it’s only after that fact that they pick up the hitch-hiker.
But let’s keep going with this. Say it was a morality tale. We don’t know much about these men’s lives, if they’re carrying around any secrets or shame. We do know that by chance they decided to take a detour from their socially accepted, planned fishing weekend, a seemingly random decision that set the rest of the story in motion. But we can also guess that decision could have been predetermined to a degree, at the same time as the notion of free will coming into play with that slight allusion to the folkloric crossroads — all of which would help the morality angle of everything. But, as stated before, we don’t see much real evidence that these men are the lascivious type (or at least, they don’t have much follow through), so as a traditional morality tale, The Hitch-Hiker is a bit shaky; at this point, I think I can safely abandon the idea that Lupino is trying to make a comment on the evil that lurks within the hearts of every day men. However, the film is not without its moralistic themes and representations of real human emotions, so let’s dive in to that, shall we?
Let’s start with Myers. He’s a pragmatic killer, only listening to the radio news to find out if the police are on to him, not to gloat. He doesn’t take trophies — just money and valuables — and even remarks to the men, “This is a nice car. When this is all over, I might sell it.” So, he’s not exactly in it for the ego or for the notoriety, but as a means to an end. Myers is not the kind of killer character we see too often. Normally when we have this kind of story, the murderer is treated with more fascination; we want to know how and why he came to be how he is, and we look to him with a subtle sense of morbid enchantment. But through Lupino’s lens, Myers is as stripped of any of that as possible: he’s a bad guy, and there’s not much more to it. That’s not to say this is a flat character, because that’s not the case at all. It’s just that he’s treated as a real person without panache. The character is — how shall I say? — lived-in. He knows what he wants, and he’s to the point. “I know what you’re thinking,” he tells the men. “You haven’t got a chance. You guys are gonna die, it’s just a matter of when.” Lupino is careful to show this is not a killer with cool, that this is not someone to emulate.
One thing, though: Myers is not without his pride. Making camp one night, he gives a speech to the men in which he basically calls them sellouts. “You guys are soft,” he starts, “You know what makes you that way? You’re up to your necks in IOU’s. You’re scared to get out on your own; you always had it good, so you’re soft.” We gain further insight into the character as he continues: “Nobody ever gave me anything. When I was born, they took a good look at this puss of mine and told me to get lost. I didn’t need ‘em. I didn’t need any of ‘em. Got what I wanted on my own. You got the know-how and a few bucks, and you’re fine. You can buy anything, or anyone you like. Especially if you got ‘em at the point of a gun.” Myers may have an argument there. Collins and Bowen do seem soft by today’s crime thriller standards; they retain a calmness throughout most of their ordeal that seems unordinary, but it’s likely them just biding their time until they have a real opportunity to wriggle free from their captor. They’re probably playing into Myers’ sense of personal pride, letting him believe he’s the smartest. After all, we all know the most prideful people are deep down the most insecure.
But let’s further examine Collins and Bowen, our two protagonists, the men who serve as our frightened surrogates. As the movie unfolds, any initial thoughts we may have had about these men being immoral or needing redemption are tossed aside because we see that their characters are indeed built in empathy. Lupino (who penned the screenplay with her partner Collier Young) wrote these men to be everymen, to be relatable. They are general good samaritans, based on their initial willingness to help a fellow motorist out, and their compassion shows when the trio make a pit stop at a small Mexican grocery store, where they encounter a sweet young girl. Myers shoos the girl away, but Bowen scoops her up immediately, crying, “Vaya usted con dios!” during the embrace. This plea for her to “go with God” is Bowen projecting his protective feelings towards his own children onto her, and it’s a highly emotional moment. Later, as the captives are wearing down both physically and spiritually, they’re forced to take to the desert on foot due to irreparable damage to the car’s crankshaft. Collins already has a bum ankle resulting from an injury sustained earlier in their journey, so his physical pain is matched up with his worry and dread about being caught up in this situation. His condition culminates when the three of them spot a plane flying overhead, and Collins begins to desperately yell for help to no avail. Collins is in a moment of absolute despair, and falls to his knees, with Bowen running over to console him. And it’s here where our villain becomes a real and true villain: Myers shouts to Bowen with maximum ridicule, “Leave him alone! Can’t you see he’s praying?!” Myers isn’t some psychopath devoid of emotion, he simply just doesn’t care about empathy or humility. Which makes the story of Collins and Bowen all the more compelling, and their role in the eventual comeuppance of Myers even sweeter.
Lupino presents some awfully scary imagery along the way, too, like Myers sleeping with one eye open as the men camp (“You know, you make pretty good targets from where I sit. Anyway, you couldn’t tell if I was awake or asleep. I have one bum eye. It won’t stay closed. Pretty good, huh?”). And there are some intense moments peppered throughout, like when Myers insists on playing around with target practice, forcing Bowen to shoot a can out of his friend’s hand at a distance. But I think the most startling scene is when Myers shoots an offscreen barking dog as he’s forcing his captives to steal gas from an old-tyme pump; when the police interview the gas station owner the next day, he remarks that the gas wasn’t what was important. “Mi perro!” he cries…and I cried. But, I’m a bit biased towards canines. I wonder if Ida Lupino liked dogs.
Both fortunately and unfortunately, this movie is in the public domain — which means copies of it can easily be found, but possibly with questionable transfer quality. I would love to see a crisp, cleaned-up version; it would do numbers for the already starkly interesting cinematography. Lupino proved her talent and eye for detail in this film, and watching it made me want to check out some of her earlier, pulpier work, as well as dive into her television career (The More You Know: Ida Lupino is the only woman to ever have directed an episode of The Twilight Zone). So, thank you, Adrianna, for recommending this film to me. It didn’t wreck me, but it did make me want to know more.