Thursday, 7 April 2011

AFED #96: The Hitch-Hiker (US, 1953); Dir. Ida Lupino

I wish I knew more about Ida Lupino, or at least had the time to research her career more thoroughly. I wasn't even aware until a few minutes ago that she was British by birth, and even trained as an actress  at RADA before heading to the States in the thirties. After working her way diligently through the ranks she progressed to more significant roles by the end of the decade, whereupon she began referring to herself with self-deprecation as "the poor man's Bette Davis".

Perhaps her greatest legacy though was as a pioneering woman director whose modest output blazed a trail for future generations. After a handful of earlier issue-based pictures The Hitch-Hiker represented her first directorial foray into film noir, a genre she'd already graced in a number of films as an actress.


It's a taut little thriller that utilises that mainstay of genre and exploitation cinema: the perils of travelling by car. I've touched upon this before, in relation to Hush (AFED #52), so it seems a little pointless to go over the same ground again. Suffice to say that as the title makes fairly obvious, this is a film about a hitch-hiker; one who's not the nicest character you're ever likely to run into.

Roy (Edmond O'Brien) and Frank (Gilbert Bowen) are two old friends who head to Mexico on a fishing trip. Their good time comes to rather an abrupt end when they offer a lift to a stranger (William Talman) who's in fact Emmett Myers, an escaped convict who's already taken several lives while evading the authorities. With the sadistic and calculating Myers holding them at gunpoint the trio travel along the arid, desolate Mexican highways, listening to radio news reports about the ongoing search for them.

The plot is surprisingly minimal and much time is spent waiting for any kind of significant further development. Given that the evil hitch-hiker theme had already been deployed in The Devil Thumbs a Ride a few years earlier it seemed natural there would be some kind of twist and the result is somewhat anticlimactic. Yet the focus of the story appears to be on the relationship between the two friends; a pair of average Joes, both former wartime servicemen, who find themselves caught up in a terrifying ordeal. Their friendship is at times tested but ultimately it's their loyalty to one another that sees them through.

O'Brien and Bowen both give solid performances although predictably it's Talman's sneering performance as the killer Myers that dominates. Like Rutger Hauer's character in The Hitcher one gets the impression he's prolonging their agony out of pure, sadistic pleasure. At one point he forces Roy to demonstrate how good an aim he is by shooting a beer can out of Frank's hand, while later in the story he even appears to let the duo briefly escape just so he can run them down again.

But Lupino clearly felt that a sense of place and atmosphere were more important than narrative devices.  Besides the landscape another notable facet is that when the story cuts away to check on the progress of the police search, several scenes of dialogue take place in Spanish, rather than some contrived cod English. It's refreshing to encounter a film that doesn't treat its audience like idiots and allows them to work out what's being imparted for themselves.

All in all The Hitch-Hiker may not be the most imaginative or labyrinthine noir but at least it has heart, and that counts for a lot.

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