THE HITCH-HIKER directed by Ida Lupino (USA, 1953)
The opening of The Hitch-Hiker says that ‘This is the true story of a man and a gun and a car’ – no mention a girl and aside from the scream (off camera) of the killer’s first victim, women are conspicuous by their absence.
Yet there is the, not insignificant, detail that there is a ‘girl’ behind the camera since this is the first noir film out of hundreds to be directed by a woman.
London born Ida Lupino had already made her name in Hollywood with the glamor and sex appeal to make it bigger save for the fact that she was something of a rebel who was choosy over her parts.
Hollywood knew what to do with the looks but weren’t so accommodating for women with brains too.
Nevertheless, Lupino got her filmmaking break in 1949 when a male director had a heart attack three days into a shoot. The Hitch-Hiker, which came four years later, is her most famous movie.
The story is not so innovative but the treatment of masculinity was ahead of its time.
The plot is based on the story of real-life psychopath Billy Cook, a crazed murderer who also inspired the ‘there’s a killer on the road’ segment of The Doors’ Riders On the Storm.
The movies skips bloodlessly through Cook’s killing spree and focuses on his failed attempt to escape by hitching a ride with two men (Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy) who are on a fishing trip.
Cook’s distinguishing feature (apart from his maniacal tendencies) was his partly paralysed right eye, a detail kept for the character renamed Emmett Myers played with a real sense of menace by William Talman. This drooped-eye means that he seems awake even when he’s sleeping.
A conventional treatment would have been to play up the macho confrontation between these three guys but the two would-be fishermen are patient almost to the point of passivity. The cold-blooded psycho killer is the personification of evil and his lack of heart is effectively contrasted by the humanity of his captives.
The movie is dated of course and lacks a truly dramatic finale but the noirish qualities of light and dark are effectively handled even though most of the story takes place on the road in a “strange race against death” across the desert.
The movie can be seen for free online:
- Ida Lupino: Hollywood Star, Independent Film Director and Queen of Noir (cscapewriter.com)