Ida Lupino, the director of this month’s Five Star classic film: The Hitch-Hiker (1953), was born into a family that had been in the entertainment industry for over 300 years. Originally from Italy, they made roots in England. Lupino’s parents were early music hall performers. Her father actually began work as a very young boy, touring with acrobats. She also began her life in entertainment at a young age, and was accepted into Britain’s RADA (The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) at just thirteen – graduating in 1934, at the age of 16, alongside her classmate Vivien Leigh.
[SIDE NOTE: Future RADA acting graduates would include such luminaries as: Richard Attenborough and Harold Pinter (1940s), Glenda Jackson, Brian Epstein and Peter O’Toole (1950s), Mike Leigh and Anthony Hopkins (1960s), Alan Rickman (1970s), Kenneth Branagh, Ralph Fiennes and Clive Own (1980s), Sally Hopkins and Michael Sheen (1990s) and Ben Winshaw (2000s)].
Lupino moved to Hollywood as teenager, and after a number of films, she was offered a Warner Bros acting contract in her early twenties. At Warner Bros, Lupino was often in trouble for sticking up for herself and refusing crappy roles that were beneath her. She knew her talent and value, and stuck to her convictions. Such refusals would lead to suspensions. Lupino cleverly made the best use of her time when on suspension, and used the opportunity to observe the workings of the studio, including various creative film crafts. Much of her time was spent learning from directors, by studying and watching them at work. After her time at Warner Bros, Lupino went on to work as an actor on a number of films for Columbia Pictures.
By the late 1940s, Lupino had her own independent production company, with her then-husband Collier Young. In 1949, she was co-producing the film Not Wanted, when the director Elmer Clinton had a heart attack. Lupino stepped in to finish directing the film. This would be her directorial debut, though she chose not to take a screen credit. Lupino would go on to direct more films in the late 1940s and early 1950s, which would lead to her acceptance into the DGA (The Directors Guild of America). At the time of her joining the Guild, Lupino was only the second woman in history to do so – and was the lone female member (as the first woman, Dorothy Arzner – a developer of the boom mic – had directed her last film in 1943).
The Hitch-Hiker would be director Lupino’s most famous film, and some film historians credit it as being the only 1950s ‘true’ film noir picture directed by a woman. Let’s look at some of the (warning: spoilerish) reasons The Hitch-Hiker is a terrific Five Star Film …
1. THE SCREENPLAY
In California 1950, a man named Billy Cook murdered six people (including three children), and kidnapped a Deputy Sheriff, who he forced to drive through the desert, before tying him up and leaving him (presumably) to die. He also held two men at gunpoint for eight days. Cook was eventually caught and convicted, then executed at San Quentin Prison in 1952. Blacklisted writer Daniel Mainwaring wrote a story using the real-life case as inspiration, which led to the screen story of The Hitch-Hiker. Robert L. Joseph adapted the story for the screen, and the screenplay was co-written by Lupino and Young. Joseph, Lupino and Young all received screen credits, but due to the fact that he was blacklisted, Mainwaring couldn’t be credited.
In doing research for the screenplay, Lupino interviewed the two men who Cook had held hostage. She somehow got Cook himself to sign a release that allowed her to incorporate facts about his life into the screenplay. In The Hitch-Hiker, the criminal at the centre of the story became the character Emmett Myers (played by William Talman). In the film, two ‘regular guys’, draftsman Gil Bowen (Frank Lovejoy) and garage owner Roy Collins (Edmond O’Brien) pick up hitch-hiker Myers. Throughout the film, Myers terrorises the other two men, keeping a gun to their heads, and messes with them by employing psychopathic mind games – both in the car and outside in the Mexican desert.
Lupino and Young’s screenplay is quite wonderful. In terms on the dialogue, not a word is wasted. Every utterance gives us insight into the state of mind of the characters: whether it’s Bowen and Collins trying to do ‘name, rank and serial number only’ when talking to Myers, or Myers big-noting himself and holding (forced) court as he supposedly ‘tells it like it is’ and admonishes his hostages for being wooses. Also important are the times when dialogue isn’t spoken. The silent moments in the car speak volumes.
2. LEAN AND TIGHT DIRECTION
The Hitch-Hiker is a lean film: a short 71 minutes, with no fat on it whatsoever. Not a frame is wasted. Thanks to Lupino’s deft direction, it manages to feel unrushed and methodical, while simultaneously pacing along briskly. It’s a gritty, chilling, and intimate film. It had a very small budget, but it never looks cheap. There are countless moments that could be singled out as expert directorial decisions, but let’s look at one: the film’s opening moments. We witness a murder, but we don’t see all the gory details. We just hear a scream and gunshots, then see the dirty-booted feet of the killer as he walks away. Next, we see a policeman’s torch on the (faceless) bodies of the victims. It just all arms and legs. It’s unnerving not being able to connect with the victims – and this gets us on edge from the very beginning. Then our killer is picked up by another driver. Next, the action cuts to the killer going through the pockets of a lifeless body (who we presume to be the last driver). In just these first couple of minutes of action – without even one word of dialogue having been spoken – we’re set up for the menacing horrors ahead. Lupino tells us more in those few minutes than lesser crime films do in ten minutes of expositional dialogue.
3. THE BLEAKNESS
Unlike many other film noir classics, there is no femme fatale in The Hitch-Hiker. No detective agencies or dark alleys either. And no heroics or big plot twists. But The Hitch-Hiker is no less bleak than its brethren classics. Where in other examples of film noir, the victim is cornered into a dark room or side street, here the fearful location is the confines of the car. Ominous dark shadows form in the car’s back seat as the men drive along at night. And while the claustrophobic car is its own type of prison, the surrounding expansive desert is just as frightening – representing true isolation. The contrast of close-ups in the car against the wide-shots of the desert makes for nail-biting suspense. When the three men are outside the car as the hostages cook dinner, the captives are no less ‘chained’ then they are in the small car interior. The bleak message is: when there’s a gun to your head, you’re in a prison. A huge open desert expanse may as well be a tiny box – especially when you’re at the mercy of a sicko psychopath like Myers.
4. CRUELTY VERSUS EMPATHY
One of the expertly depicted recurring themes in The Hitch-Hiker is cruelty versus empathy. Perhaps the most perverse example of cruelty is a scene about fifteen minutes into the film, when Myers forces Bowen to shoot at a tin can in Collins’ hand.
Myers takes great pleasure in putting the two other men in a life-or-death situation, and the sick shit-eating grin on his face throughout the incident is stomach-churning. Talman’s acting here is magnificent. Under Lupino’s direction, he is creepily menacing. His expressive eyes tell you that his Myers is a ticking time-bomb.
Myers just can’t understand how his two hostages look out for each other. On a number of occasions, he tells them that they’re ‘soft’ for having each other’s back. He says they probably would have been able to escape early on if they’d not wasted time caring about their buddy.
One exchange in particular highlights the contrast between the criminal and his hostages. When buying supplies in a store, Bowen sees a little Mexican girl, and he pats her on the head and briefly says an encouraging line to her in Spanish. When Myers demands he translate, Bowen begins by saying ‘you wouldn’t understand’. There’s more to it than the fact that Myers wouldn’t understand the Spanish. He also wouldn’t understand the kindness, the moment of human empathy. Because Myers is a psychopath, he’s incapable of compassion.
5. LACK OF SUBTITLES
In The Hitch-Hiker, there re some exchanges, and even a whole scene, where the dialogue is in Spanish. Lupino’s decision not to provide English subtitles for these sections works really well. For non-Spanish speaking viewers, it heightens the mood and feeling of tense isolation. The same way we the viewers may not be 100% sure what’s being said, so too poor Bowen and Collins don’t know what will happen to them. As viewers, it’s refreshing not to always have everything in a film spelled out for us.
Lisa Malouf – follow Lisa on Twitter here: @lisamalouf