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The Hitch-Hiker

The Hitch-Hiker

By Simon Powell • May 28th, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 5/5
RKO Radio Pictures

Original release: April 29th, 1953
Running time: 71 minutes

Director: Ida Lupino
Writers: Daniel Mainwaring, Robert L. Joseph, Ida Lupino

Cast: Edmond O’Brien, Frank Lovejoy, William Talman

The Hitch-Hiker

The classic “Film-noir” era saw the Femme Fatale character flourish in American cinema, but behind the camera there was little change in the amount of opportunities for women to make films. The Hitch-Hiker is one of the few exceptions to this situation, and, being directed and co-written by her, and produced by the company she co-owned, helped cement Ida Lupino’s reputation as a true auteur. It’s also an excellent film in its own right; taut, edgy, and gripping, with breathtaking locations, and a chilling and memorable villain.

The plot sees two friends, Roy Collins (Edmund O’Brien) and Gilbert Bowen (Frank Lovejoy) heading off to Mexico on a fishing trip, only to be hijacked by fugitive serial killer Emmett Myers (William Talman). He needs them alive (because, unlike them, he doesn’t speak “Mexican”), and a deadly cat-and-mouse game unfolds as Myers bullies, tortures and provokes the two men. Can they keep their cool and escape before they are no longer useful to him?

Although some Film Noir movies were major Hollywood productions, with A-list stars, many more were shot cheaply and quickly for smaller scale studios, and as a result, made a virtue of the limitations. The Hitch-Hiker is a great example of this, eschewing elaborate sets for the wide-open desert spaces of California, and with no time or money to waste, the script moves quickly, with barely a word or scene feeling extraneous.

The Hitchhiker

By the 1950s, Ida Lupino was an established, respected actress who’d moved into writing, producing, and directing, and deserves her recognition as one of the pioneers of feminist cinema (although, interestingly, in this film, there are no female characters shown at all). Here she makes great use of the desert locations, and far from representing freedom, the wide-open spaces, when juxtaposed with the tiny car the characters are trapped with, only emphasise the claustrophobia of the situation.

Aside from the locations, the real star of the show is William Talman. His ferociously evil and sleazy performance as Myers is underpinned with some original character touches, such his paralysed right eye lid, the upshot of which is that he sleeps with one eye open, daring his captives to guess whether or not he’s watching them. This is typical of the mind games that he plays with the other two, designed to slowly but surely break them. However, this isn’t a one-note performance, and Myer’s cockiness repeatedly shifts to paranoia whenever he needs his captives to act as translators, the one time when he’s completely in their power, and that, combined with his itchy trigger finger leads to some very tense moments.

Film Noir usually revolves around crime and the protagonists are either those who are involved with it professionally, such as cops, detectives or crooks, or ordinary people who are unwittingly The Hitch-Hikerdragged into it, often as a result of a completely random event. These two are not macho tough guys, but utterly normal individuals, family men (“Except for the war, this is the first time I’ve been away from the kids”) who normally do very little that could be considered adventurous.

Their friendship is their greatest asset morally, and their compassion and empathy for each other and the other human beings that they encounter along the way is what sets them apart from their low life tormentor. It’s also, however, the thing that on several occasions sabotages their chances of escape, as they both seem unable to leave the other person behind in order to save their own lives

The ending feels like a bit of an anti-climax, but that’s more a reflection on the intensity of what’s gone on before, and doesn’t spoil what’s an excellent piece of Film-Noir that deserves its place alongside more well-known examples.

The Hitch-Hiker

Simon Powell

Simon Powell

Simon grew up on a steady diet of James Bond and Ray Harryhausen films, but has been fascinated with the horror genre since a clandestine viewing of A Nightmare on Elm Street as a teenager. Since then his tastes have expanded to take in classic horror from the Universal and Hammer Studios, as well as branching out into Video Nasties, Sci-Fi, Silent Comedies, Hitchcock and Woody Allen.

Apart from getting married, one of his fondest memories is buying a beer each for both Gunnar “Leatherface” Hansen and Dave “Darth Vader” Prowse at a film festival, and listening to their equally fascinating stories of life at totally different levels of the industry.

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