Saturday, July 25, 2015

Stubs - The Hitch-Hiker

The Hitch-Hiker (1953) Starring: Frank Lovejoy, Edmond O’Brien, William Talman. Directed by Ida Lupino. Screenplay by Ida Lupino, Collier Young. Produced by Collier Young. Run Time: 71 minutes. U.S. Black and White Film Noir, Drama, Crime

The Hollywood career of Ida Lupino has many distinctions.The one we're interested here is that Lupino is only one woman who ever directed a classic film noir and the only film noir she directed was The Hitch-Hiker (1953). While she is not the first woman to direct films, she is the first actress to write, produce and direct her own movies in an effort to have a better control over her career.

Actress, writer, producer, director Ida Lupino.

Born in London, her first appearance was in the British film The Love Race (1931). She made British films for Warner Bros. before moving to Hollywood in 1933, for the lead in that year’s Alice in Wonderland. She began to be taken seriously as a dramatic actress after her role in Columbia’s The Light That Failed (1939). With improved roles, she described herself as “the poor man’s Bette Davis” after picking up roles Davis turned down.

One of her big breaks came in They Drive By Night (1940), which led to a contract at Warner Bros. She would appear opposite her They Drive By Night co-star Humphrey Bogart in High Sierra (1940) and opposite the great Edward G. Robinson in The Sea Wolf (1941). But her tenure at Warners was mostly spent on suspension, as she refused roles that she deemed beneath her dignity as an actress, including Kings Row (1942) opposite future President Ronald Reagan.

Her directorial debut was mostly by accident. Lupino and her second husband, Collier Young, set up their own company, The Filmakers, to produce movies for her. When director Elmer Clifton suffered a mild heart attack and could not finish Not Wanted, a film she was co-producing with Young, Lupino took over and even though she didn’t take screen credit, it marked her first time in the director’s chair. She would direct several more films before The Hitch-Hiker four years later.

For this film, she and Young chose a real story to adapt, that of Billy Cook, a murderer who travelled the interstates and highways of the southwest, hitch-hiking and killing those who were nice enough to give him a ride. In 1950, Cook killed a family of five and a travelling salesman before kidnapping a Deputy Sheriff Home Waldrip from Blythe, California. Before Cook was put to death for his crimes, Lupino spoke with him and got his permission to use his story. She also spoke with two of Cook’s victims, prospectors he had held hostage and got releases from them as well.

Filming began on June 24, 1952 and finished late in July. Shot on location near Big Pine and Lone Pine California, terrain that substituted for Mexico’s Baja peninsula, the film was released through RKO Pictures, in March 1953.

The film opens with the warning: “This is the true 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 across the aisle. What you will see in the next seventy minutes could have happened to you. For the facts are actual."

As if to accentuate the danger, the film opens with the robbery and murder of a pair of Oregon newlyweds by a hitchhiker. Even after the police release a photograph of their prime suspect, Emmett Myers (William Talman), a travelling salesman is shown giving him a ride and paying the price with his life. Myers steals the man’s car as well as his wallet and drives until the car gives out.

Newspaper headlines warn about the dangerous hitch-hiker.

Enter two Arizona men, Gilbert Bowen (Frank Lovejoy), a draughtsman, and his best friend, Roy Collins (Edmond O’Brien), the owner of a garage. Away from their wives and family, the two are on a guys’ only fishing vacation, heading to their favorite spot in Mexico’s Baja California peninsula. They pass through Mexicali, a touristy town. Roy tries to wake Gilbert, but can’t so he continues on driving. Not stopping might have put them on a collision course with Myers, who is standing by the side of the road.

Without thinking, Roy pulls over and offers a stranded motorist a ride. Once in the backseat, Myers wastes little time in taking control of the situation, pulling a gun on the two men in front. He admits to being who he is and forces them to pull over to the side of the road. He makes them open the trunk to see what's in there and confiscates Gilbert's rifle and ammunition, before ordering them back onto the highway.
Soon after they give him a ride, Myers (William Talman) pulls a gun
 on Gilbert (Frank Lovejoy) and Roy (Edmond O'Brien) and hijacks their car.

Myers demands to know when their wives are expecting them home and to keep him quiet Roy responds that they are not due back anytime soon.

When they have to stop for gas, Gilbert converses with the attendant in Spanish, which Myers does not understand. Nervous that Gilbert might talk too much, Myers flashes his gun. They obtain a map and at the next stop, they study the map. Myers decides to catch the ferry in Santa Rosalia, a coastal town on the eastern shore of the peninsula, 500 miles away.

He then shows off his skills with a rifle and then forces Gilbert into shooting a tin can that Roy is holding. Gilbert manages to fire and hit the can, but both friends are left shaken by the experience.

Roy is forced to be a human target holder.

On the radio, there is a report about Myers which indicates the police do not know of his whereabouts. That night, the three men camp and Myers warns the men not to attempt an escape. He tells them that one of his eyelids doesn’t close, even when he’s asleep and as such they could never be sure if he was asleep or not. (The real Cook had told Lupino he had the same affliction.) The men don’t try to get away.

The next morning, the men drive into a small down to buy provisions. Once again, Myers is nervous about Gilbert speaking Spanish to the proprietor, something the store keep picks up on.

Later, while they eat lunch, Myers brags to his captives about his toughness and refers to them as being “soft”. The radio broadcasts a news report about Gilbert and Roy’s disappearance. When they’re alone, Gilbert and Roy talk about making an escape attempt. They discuss wanting to keep Myers from listening to the radio. Roy manages to break the horn and when they pull over, Myers watches, to be sure Roy kills the horn and not the radio. While Roy is working under the hood, a man walking a burro walks by, which bothers Myers.

A man walking a burro happens by while Roy is working on the car.

Even under Myers’ scrutiny, Roy does manage to disconnect the radio, a feat that gets him a blow to the head, even while he’s driving, from Myers when he realizes what he’d done. Gilbert tries to convince Myers that the surrounding hills are interfering with the radio broadcasts, and that seems to calm Myers down.

Meanwhile, in a Baja police station, a Mexican official is working with an American agent discuss information they’ve received about the hostages from the store proprietor. They agree that Santa Rosalia is Myer’s most likely destination.

Working together, U.S. and Mexican officials figure out where Myers is headed.

Back on the highway, the trio’s car gets a flat. When a couple passes by, the man driving offers to help, but Myers is adamant that Gilbert and Roy to keep quiet, which makes the man suspicious. Soon afterwards, the man tells Captain Alvarado (José Torvay), who is tracking Myers, and tells him about the suspicious men. He directs Alvarado to the spot where he’d seen the men.

Witnesses tell Captain Alvarado (Jose Torvay) what they've seen on the road.

That night, Myers forces Gilbert and Roy to steal gasoline for the car from a closed gas station. While he’s hand pumping the gas, Gilbert slips off his wedding finger and leaves it next to the pump. The next day, while Alvarado is investigating the robbery, he finds the ring.

Figuring that Myers has the men as hostages, the authorities decide to disseminate false information about Myer’s whereabouts over the radio.

The next night, when the three men set up camp, Gilbert and Roy finally make an attempt to escape, but Myers is too quick for them and catches them before they’ve gotten far.

The next day, Myers takes the men to an abandoned mine shaft and is considering pushing the men in when he hears one of the false reports on the radio about where the police think Myers is. Convinced he doesn’t have to kill them, Myers spares their lives. But they aren’t going anywhere, since the car’s crank shaft has been broken.

Undeterred, Myers forces Gilbert and Roy to walk the rest of the way to Santa Rosalia. He also forces Roy to change clothes with him, so that Roy better fits the description the radio is broadcasting about Myers.

When their car breaks down, Myers forces them to walk the rest of the way to Santa Rosalia.

When Santa Rosalia is finally in sight, Myers insists that they stop on the outskirts rather than in the town, where he is sure the police are already waiting for him. Perhaps, as a good-bye gesture, Myers offers to buy his hostages a beer. But his mood sours when he finds out that the ferry has burned down some time back.

Myers buys his captives a beer before learning the ferry boat has burned down.

They find an English-speaking man who can help them arrange for a boat that evening. But soon after they depart, the man recognizes Myers' face from a wanted poster and notifies the police.

When they arrive on the docks that night, Myers makes Roy walk out ahead of him, hoping the police will take him for the man they’re after. And the police are there, including Alvarado. There is brief gunfire and Roy finally fights back, challenging Myers for the gun. In the struggle, the weapon falls into the water. Stripped of his gun, Myers is forced to give up.

Once Myers is handcuffed, Roy lands a few punches on his former-captor before the police pull them apart. As they lead Myers away, Alvarado tells the two Americans that he will need a full report in the morning.

Given the fact that the film was directed by a woman, there are no significant female parts in the film. The only one is a woman seated in the car that passes while Roy is changing the tire on the car and she never says a word. This is only one interesting twist on the standard film noir. Not only is there no femme fatale in sight, rather than the confines of the city, The Hitch-Hiker takes place mostly outdoors against the bleak backdrop of the desert under the big sky, proving there is more to the dark mood than just environment.

Another interesting twist is that whenever someone speaks Spanish in the film, there is no attempt to translate what they’re saying leaving the audience in the same situation as Roy and Myers unless they understand the language. While the meaning can be interpreted through placement, being kept a little in the dark by the film brings a certain realism to the story.

That sense of realism may be responsible for the change in the perception of hitch-hikers after its release. Gone were the days of the innocent nomads of the highways, replaced by potential killers with every ride. The film’s advertising which contained such lines as: "Have you ever picked up a hitch-hiker--We guarantee you won't ever after seeing this picture”, didn’t help. Hitch-hikers complained to RKO, trying to stop the film, but to no avail.

As a director, Lupino is dependent on telling her story using mostly only three actors: Frank Lovejoy, Edmond O’Brien and William Talman. Since he plays the antagonist, we’ll start with Talman. Like most villains he’s presented as pretty much a one-dimensional character. Angry with the world for whatever reason, Myers is a mean man with no redeeming qualities. Talman, who is best remembered for his role as Los Angeles District Attorney Hamilton Burger on the long-running Perry Mason TV series (1957-66). It was actually his role as Myers in this film that would lead to that role when Gail Patrick Jackson, executive producer of the CBS-TV series, wanted him for the Burger role.

Edmond O’Brien, who tends to act somewhere between wooden and ham, is mostly subdued in his reading of Roy Collins. Mostly submissive throughout, Roy is the weaker of the two men. He is part of the reason why Roy and Gilbert fail in their attempted escape. He seems to take most of Myers abuse and really only fights back at the end. O’Brien, who was no stranger to film noir, having starred in The Killers (1946), Backfire (1950), D.O.A. (1950) and Shield for Murder (1954), would actually win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Barefoot Contessa (1954) opposite Humphrey Bogart and Ava Gardner.

Frank Lovejoy was a versatile actor, appearing on radio, film and on television during a short career that only lasted fourteen years. Of the three main actors, I found Lovejoy to be the most dynamic, at least in this film. His character is not only our best link into the story, but within the film, he is the link between Roy and Myers and the non-English speaking populace they interact with.

Even though this is Lupino’s lone entry in the film noir genre, it is clear that she knows what she’s doing on both sides of the camera. Not only was she a memorable actress, but she knew how to bring out the most from a rather straightforward story. Unlike most other film noirs, this film’s plot is uncluttered by twists and turns so she has to wring the most tension she can out of each situation.

Not a perfect film nor a typical noir, The Hitch-Hiker is still worth watching. It is a shame that this was Lupino’s lone attempt at the genre.

Be sure to check out our Film Noir Review Hub for reviews of other films in this genre.

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