Saturday, November 05, 2011

The Hitch-Hiker (1953)



The Hitch-Hiker is a tense film that never lets up for a minute. Clocking in at only 71 minutes, the film is about three men. A crazy killer on the lam and the two men he's taken along for the ride.

The movie is an answer to a trivia question (“What's the only film noir directed by a woman?”) but it should be treasured because it's good cinema -- not just because Ida Lupino was the director (she made the weepy The Bigamist - a borderline noir - around the same time.) For the record, she stepped in to direct when the original director fell ill. Her husband/collaborator Collier Young were producing the film for their production company Filmways for RKO and she slid into the empty director's chair. Future projects for Lupino would have a much more feminist slant - hell, The Hitch-Hiker doesn't have a single woman in it!

Lupino uses two settings to tell this lean story: either in the claustrophobic confides of a car, or outside - on the hot, lost barren expanses of desert. Director of photography is Nicholas Musuraca. Musuraca captures the bleak, featureless desert as well as he photographed the shadowy noir worlds in Out of the Past, Cat People, Deadline at Dawn and Roadblock.

The location shooting plays almost as big of a part in the story as William Talman (as killer Emmett Myers), and Edmond O'Brien (Ray Collins) and Frank Lovejoy (Gilbert Brown).

The Hitch-Hiker's pedigree is even more impressive when you find out Daniel Mainwaring - who's original story the film is based on (it was based on a true story). Mainwaring - persona non grata at RKO at the time- was uncredited. Mainwaring wrote the novel and screenplay for Out of the Past.

The Film Noir Encyclopedia's entry on The Hitch-Hiker credits the writing is what makes The Hitch-Hiker so noir:

“As with Vanning in Nightfall, the upheaval of the lives of Collins and Bowen is sudden, ill-chanced, and impersonal - a typical noir reflection o f the lack of security and stability in everyday living, no matter how commonplace.”

Finally, there's the three lead actors:

Talman as Emmett Myers. Wow. He's handicapped with a droopy right eye that never closes. When he kidnaps the two fishing buddies (after they pick him up hitchhiking) he watches them at night with “one eye open” all the time. The men are terrified not knowing if Myers is sleeping or if he's just toying with them waiting for them to make their move so he can unload his revolver into them.

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Frank Lovejoy and Edmond O'Brien are the two friends. Key to the film is the fact that these two can never can escape or turn the tables on Myers because one of them could be killed. They bicker in hushed tones when Meyers is out of range about how to escape. Lovejoy is his stiff self (he's not one of my favorites) but O'Brien (part of the Noir Hall of Fame for starring in D.O.A.) is very good. He slowly unwinds as Myers constantly taunts him - finally ending with O'Brien going ape on his helpless tormentor at the end. The two actors are bland to look at and a bit soft in the middle. No doubt if the film was made today they'd cast actors 25 years younger with rock-hard abs in the parts. When they discuss a notorious woman from a border town they used to visit, Lovejoy comments, “She must be dead by now” as they drive on. How old are they, anyway?

Without resorting to cliché, The Hitch-Hiker is a gem that has some excellent performances and interesting location shooting. Some online have called the film exceedingly dull - I find it thrilling.

The Back Alley has a thread going now about some unloved, under-appreciated film noirs. This one would certainly be on my list. The movie is in the public domain - which usually means there are some horrible copies of the film out there. DVD buyer beware.

Another cool thing we do at Back Alley is try to pair noirs for double features. This one would go well with Detour or even the twisted 2009 horror-road movie Dark Country.

Written by Steve-O

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