Sunday, June 23, 2024

Whatever Wednesday: ‘The Hitch Hiker’

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The Hitch Hiker is a straightforward low-budget film with a complex psychological landscape. It is the inspiration for countless low budget thrillers but is itself a noir that breaks free on conventional settings for the genre. It is a taut, assured, study of desperation, and the banality of evil.

Ida Lupino is an actress who became a director and tackled everything from social dramas, to “weepies” and noir. The same year she made The Hitch Hiker she also made another film, The Bigamist. The two films are vastly different with only Lupino’s honed skill to connect the two.

The Hitch Hiker is filmed on a shoe-string budget. Lupino gets around this by cleverly using few interior sets and the surrounding desert landscape. Noirs traditionally take place in cities filled with dark alleyways and moral decay, but Lupino, who co-wrote the script with Collier Young, leaves the city behind in favor of the California and Mexican desserts.

Even with all this open space, Lupino creates an atmosphere of claustrophobia and uneasiness between our characters. The desert is a vast never-ending landscape in which the characters find themselves trapped and alone, battling something they can’t comprehend, and with no help in sight aside from each other.

Lupino and Young adapted the story from a real-life serial killer who hitched across America leaving a trail of victims. Two men Roy (Edmond O’Brien) and Gilbert (Frank Lovejoy) are going into the mountains for a much-needed vacation; until they pick up a hitchhiker Emmet Meyers (William Talman). Meyers then holds the men at gunpoint and forces them to take him to Mexico where he plans to escape to South America, or so we think.

Meyers is a villain without motive. During the opening credits, we see a pair of feet get out of a car. We hear a woman scream as he fires a gun, and a purse falls to the ground. A hand reaches down and pokes around inside, disinterested. He has no motive or real backstory, he just is.

Talman’s Meyers is a prototype, the bad man who is just bad for no reason. He is cruel because he enjoys it. Meyers does this because he can’t think of anything else so why not? But Lupino and Young’s script hint at something darker, something pathological.

Gilbert and Roy are married men with families, who seem not to be all that happily married. Roy suggests skipping the mountains and heading down to Mexicali. “Remember Florabell?” Gilbert nods. “Yeah she’s probably dead, it was a long time ago.”

The weekend is a gateway from their wives and family. To listen to Roy and Gilbert talk it’s been a while since the two men have been able to get away. “You know except for the war this is the first time I’ve been away from Marti and the kids.” Successful and raising families Gilbert and Roy have achieved the American Dream and yet seems despondent and empty. 

Then they pick up Meyers. Within ten minutes Lupino has established context and laid the groundwork the rest of the film will be mining and exploring. She’s also succinctly laid out the plot of the movie which will be two men trying to escape the clutches of a killer.

Lupino is brutal in her ability to succinctly telegraphy information within a scene. One scene has Meyers showing the men how good he is with a gun. “We’re loaded with time,” says Meyers. He asks Roy to take a can off into the distance and place it on a rock. Just as Roy takes his hand away, Meyers fires at the gun.

He gives a rifle to Gilbert and asks him to do the same thing. The scene is tense because Meyer has no real reason for doing this aside from toying with the two. The simple sinisterness of the act, is in of itself, disturbing. 

She mines the scene for all its worth. We begin to see the differences between Roy and Gilbert. Roy is more reactive and sensitive whereas Gilbert is more measured and calculating. Both men however are scared because Myers has a gun and he enjoys using it.

Shot by Nicholas Musuraca and edited by Douglas Stewart, the scene is taut and rife with emotional undertones. Lupino works with Musuraca and Stewart to create a climate of tension and fear. At daytime, the harsh light only exaggerates the sprawling desert landscape. While at night the darkness seems to crowd around the trio, light falling onto the men at diagonals evoking a sense of a nightmare.

Inside the car at night, lights shine from the dashboard, illuminating only the faces. The interior car scenes feel eerie and almost unmoored from reality as Meyers heckles and taunts the men at gunpoint. Lupino works with Musuraca to make the edges of the frame feel like the walls of a cell, making us feel trapped with the men, and longing for some kind of release.

The Hitch Hiker feels repetitive at times but this is the point. Lupino and Young are showing the banality of captivity and mirroring it with how Roy and Gilbert felt about their marriage. They started grateful to get away and by the end, they are all but begging to return to their normal lives.

There’s a bluntness to the visuals of The Hitch Hiker. The way the dock lights swing above at night in one of the final scenes calling to mind the corridors other noir characters have found themselves staggering down during a climax. Only here, they are in Mexico, far from the city, and yet the danger and psychological pain is just as real.

The dialogue has a wonderful pulpish energy to it. The way the newscaster announces the news describing the Meyers latest victim, “Yesterday, the devil thumbed another ride. And William Johnson of Portland asked him to hop in. Now William Johnson is dead.” 

While watching The Hitch Hiker, I was struck by the number of scenes in which Lupino would allow Latino actors to speak Spanish without any interpretation or subtitles. Whole scenes at times are spoken in Spanish, which makes sense, considering how much of the movie takes place in Mexico. But still, it’s a little odd when a low budget film noir from 1953 has more Spanish dialogue and Latino actors than most modern films.

Lupino’s mastery of visual language allows us to, while not speak the language, understand what is going on. She wastes little time either with her scenes or dialogue. Yet, she mines every moment with a keen emotional eye. 

The evolution of the men as they go from biding their time to wondering if their time will ever end and if it does will they end with it. Meyers himself is unsure. Roy and Gilbert just want to get home. Meyers just wants to keep moving. The thought of staying in one place unnerves him, for him the American Dream is the American Nightmare. When Meyers finally is captured, the moment the handcuffs are slapped on him he begins to cry and kick. For him, captivity is civilization itself.

Tired of his threats and confidently boasting about getting away, Roy tears into Meyers. “You haven’t got a chance. You haven’t got a thing except that gun. You better hang onto it because without it you’re nothing. You’re finished.” For some, the gun is all they have, for others it is merely a threat of violence. 

The Hitch Hiker explores the strange border between the powerless and the powerful while also dissecting post-war American anxieties. Lupino deftly shrouds the story in tension and fatalistic dread. The closing image, Gilbert and Roy, exhausted and walking towards the dark is hardly hopeful, but for a noir film, it’s as close as it gets.

Image courtesy of RKO Radio Pictures

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