January 10, 2018
The Hitch-hiker – U.S., 1953
In Ida Lupino’s 1953 film, The Hitch-hiker, the faces of the lead characters are crucial to the film’s themes of survival and resilience. Perhaps this is why for the first few minutes, we see almost no faces at all, the first one being that of a suspect in a wanted poster. And what a face he has – rectangular; scared by a rough, yet mostly unexplained set of awful life experiences; one eye permanently open, making it difficult to make out whether he is asleep or awake, a perfect symbol of the permanent presence of danger in post-World War II America.
Early in The Hitch-hiker, the villain, later revealed to be Emmett Myers (William Talman), accepts the generosity of two men traveling somewhere near the Mexican border, and their faces are equally telling. When we first see them, their eyes and head seem to hang low, and there is an exhaustion in their bodies and almost joylessness in their expressions. These are men who have been worn down, first by the war and then by the peace. In them, we see loss and perhaps longing. The first smile we see spreads across one of their faces as he thinks about his previous jaunts in Mexico. In other words, the past, not the present, is his source of satisfaction.
As the film progresses, Emmett’s face remains recognizable, giving us a sense of the permanence of evil and credence to the notion that some of those that embrace it are utterly irredeemable. The faces of the two victims, Gilbert Bowen (Frank Lovejoy) and Roy Collins (Edmond O’Brien), become almost unrecognizable, and in the utter disappearance of the features we saw initially, we get an excellent assessment of the mental changes each character is undergoing. In the case of Collins, that change is particularly drastic.
As the film progresses, the focus expands slightly. While the majority of screen time is devoted to the plight of Bowen and Collins, Lupino intersperses their story with the perspective of law enforcement in both the United States and Mexico. We watch as they pick up clues, talk to the few witnesses there are, and form a picture of their location and possible destination. Interestingly, we, as well as Myers, also learn a lot about Bowen and Collins from these scenes, and while the film does not ask us to make a moral judgement of them, it does give their situation an added sense of tragedy. If they had only gone where they told their wives they were going…
In a surprise, Lupino and her writing partner, Collier Young, never fully explain Myers’ ultimate goal. In fact, he ends the film no less of an enigma than he was when it began. To me, this was a wise choice. Without a motive, Myers becomes a symbol, a physical representation of the horrible fate that may await us even as we go about doing what should be safe, routine actions – in this case, picking up hitchhikers. In a way, the film is the horror version of Jack Kerouac’s 1957 novel On the Road, a tale prophesizing the end to Sal Paradise’s “naïve” way of traveling cross-country, as well as an early precursor to Javier Bardem’s killer in No Country for Old Men.
Lupino gets excellent performances from her lead actors, yet what is most remarkable about the film is her crafting of a noir-ish world of light and shadows. At key moments in the film, faces are almost entirely obscured, and what light we do see streaks across just enough of the face to reveal the characters’ eyes or disheveled beards. The result is eerie. We feel as if we are watching something authentic. Add to it, the chilling dialogue that comes out of Myers mouth (at one point, he tells his prisoners that they are going to die – it’s just a matter of when), and the sense of dread is palpable. And it says something about Lupino that she was willing to end the film with ambiguity. Our heroes walk away not into the safety of authorities or the waiting arms of their loves one, but rather into the pitch black night, into an uncertain future, and a world utterly shattered by the ever-present nature of evil.
The Hitch-hiker is often referred to as the first noir film to be directed by a woman. Frankly, we’ve lost too many films for this statement to be verifiable. However, what is particularly galling about it is that it seems to suggest that The Hitch-hiker is some sort of novelty act, one more important for its place in history rather than its quality. Do yourself a favor, and rid yourself of such notions. The Hitch-hiker should not be watched as if it were a museum artifact; it deserves to be seen and felt for what it is – a tense, gripping film that gets under your skin and makes your heart race. I felt for these characters, and I found myself concerned for their well-being. Lupino created that, and in doing so, earned a place in film history not as the first female so-and-so, but as a skilled storyteller and an accomplished crafter of worlds. I can’t wait to discover her other films. (on DVD)
3 and a half stars