‘The Hitch-Hiker’ knows where it’s going and cuts right to the chase
How is it that when topic of film noir comes up, most of the names connoisseurs and fans bring up are of the men who partook in the development of this fabled, legendary genre? Is it that the women were less important? Did they not feature as prominently in front of or behind the camera as the boys? While those hypotheses are partly true, lest that encourage people to honestly believe that the woman of the American movie industry in the 40s and 50s did not influence the quality of such films. True enough, what instantly recognizable names some would rattle off are those of actresses primarily who played the femme fatales or the wives and girlfriends of the doomed protagonists. Ida Lupino was one, co-starring in one of this reviewer’s all time favourite movies, noir or otherwise, On Dangerous Ground (for which she was an uncredited director too). Lupino’s film credits stretched far beyond the camera’s field of vision. She was, as a matter of fact, a capable director as well, with one of her best efforts being The Hitch-Hiker from 1953.
There is a sense of panic along the southern border of the United States, particularly in the more rural regions. Creating provocative newspaper headlines is a mysterious hitch-hiker named Emmett Myers (William Talman) who kills the unfortunate souls who pick him up along the roads of the desert highways. His next two victims are longtime friends Roy (Edmond O’Brien) and Gilbert (Frank Lovejoy), who are driving into Mexico for some respite and escape from their ordinary lives. Roy is the seemingly optimistic one, anticipating their upcoming vacation, whereas Gilbert is a more subdued fellow, experiencing something of a midlife crisis, at least judging by the few lines that help describe his life and thoughts on the past. One evening they pick up Emmet, clueless as to his real identity and intentions. The killer rapidly turns their joyride into a hellish one-way road into danger!
The Hitch-Hiker is a funny noir to write about. Whereas so many of the genres entries depend strongly on a sense of recognizable style and on an intricate story that speaks to the complicated nature of the protagonists and antagonists, complications which by the way tended to speak volumes about the state of America in the post-war years, Ida Lupino’s effort takes a different route, to borrow a pun. The plain and honest truth is that the film has very little in terms of story. The brief synopsis above essentially captures what the movie is about: two innocent men who suffer the misfortune of being the torture victims of a psycho killer who poses as a hitch-hiker. Who is Emmett Myers, where does he come from, how long has he been travelling the United States by means of the kindness of strangers, what does he hope to gain in Mexico, etc. None of these questions are ever answered. One may take some guesses, guesses that could make perfect sense in all honesty, but the fact of the matter is that for the purpose of this movie, that type of information is secondary, as are the backgrounds of Roy and Gilbert. The viewer is given some hints, tiny droplets of information at the very start of the picture, just before Emmett stumbles into their lives. Gilbert, played nicely by the always dependable Frank Lovejoy, is apparently discontent with his lot in life. There is something bothering him, whether it is leftover depression of the war, an unfulfilled marriage or anything else, we never get to know, but again, that is not of great importance. The tiniest bit of character development Lupino affords suffices for this story.
Where the film finds its strength is in the situational drama and tension Ida Lupino constructs, like a series of brief misadventures in the eyes of the audiences and more like tests of psychological, physical and emotional strength for the ill-fated Gilbert and Roy. She contextualizes these short endurance tests expertly, taking full advantage of the setting she thrusts her trio of characters in: the dry, deserted region of northern Mexico. Emmett, for example, is an easily annoyed and excitable hoodlum who demands, as all perfect movie villains should, that everything go his way. The few people they cross, on the dusty roads or in small independent provision stores, all speak Spanish, or ‘Mexican’ as Emmett describes it with a venomous sneer. Gilbert understands the language, which annoys Emmett greatly seeing as how his hostages could easily sound the alarms without him knowing it. Then there are the multiple problems they encounter while driving under the hot Mexican sun. A flat tire and a defective honking mechanism might seem like small fry to some, but under the circumstances with a mad man who can easily choose to liquidate the protagonists on a whim, such hurdles prove to be all the more stressful and carry exponentially greater risk. What might otherwise be considered mundane, or mild annoyances, morph into more reasons Emmett might have to kill Gilbert and Roy.
Arguing that the cinematography and setting in The Hitch-Hiker are magnificent might be taking things a step or two too far, but there is something to be said about how the camera captures the treacherous land the group traverses. The heroes, at the start of the film, had the intention of visiting Mexico’s vast landscapes for some much needed relaxation. Hot, maybe, but quiet and tranquil with some pretty impressive sights. Now they would like nothing better than to escape it, yet where would they go? The hills are far between and steep, there are not towns in the vicinity, and, even if they did manage to flee Emmett, they would have to deal with the heat. What’s more, because their captor is so paranoid and prone to assuming anything and anyone is a threat, the precious few people they do in fact meet up with carry equal potential of saving them or getting them killed. The landscape is beautifully brought to screen, although its beauty is indifferent to whether the protagonists ever see their families again.
Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy, two actors who consistently gave strong performances throughout their respective careers, are all around solid in The Hitch-Hiker. Their roles do not require them to flex too many of their acting muscles however as both play the victims. They are tense all the while trying as best they can to cling to hope of survival. O’Brien injects of ironic pathos into his character. At the start, he was the more outspokenly positive of the two, only for that to be reversed near the end when the pressure of the situation has affected his humour considerably, pushing him almost past the breaking point. Clearly, however, this is William Talman’s show to command, much like is the case for his titular murderer, and what a show he provides. It delves close to ‘over the top’ territory on occasion, something that might annoy a few viewers. Still, as far as rotten, downtrodden callous villains go, William Talman makes his mark. The character’s one lame eye, something that could just as easily be scoffed at for being cartoon-like, ends up being a surprisingly effective, eery device.
The Hitch-Hiker is as simple as they come. Emmett Myers may ask his captives to make left and right turns on a whim, but the film is as straightforward as they come in terms of plot. Whenever depth may be in small supply, execution in what little the director is concerned with becomes key. Ida Lupino has a strong hold on things, pumping in as much tension as she can in a short running time and with the simplest of settings. So, dear readers, want to take a ride down Mexico lane?…