Friday, July 8, 2011

The Hitch-Hiker (1953)

*This* is why you should not pick up hitchhikers!

- Ida Lupino's 1953 B-movie noir The Hitch-Hiker is a hidden gem of the genre. Based on a chilling true story, two pals Roy Collins and Gilbert Bowen on a trip to Mexico are kidnapped by a notorious hitch-hiking murderer named Emmett Myers. Feeding off of his insecure power trip behind the chambers of a loaded gun and his national celebrity as the hitch-hiking murderer at-large, Myers uses his captives to help him make his escape via a Mexican port city - intimidating and playing mind games with them along the way. But Meyers also clues his captives in on the understanding that they should not expect to survive the trip. Collins and Bowen must now stay alive long enough to either be somehow rescued by the authorities or escape from the demented fiend (whose paralyzed eyelid keeps his right eye open as he sleeps).

One of the rare female directorial talents of her day (think there are a lack of female directors in the 21st Century? Look back to the 1950s), Ida Lupino creates a tense, fast-paced film noir with a strong emotional component. Lupino takes the noir genre away from the customary dark city streets – essentially achieving a similar dark, deadly, and desolate tone with the isolating feel of the arid desert. With assistance from one of the great cinematographers who had a hand in defining film noir in visual terms, Nicholas Musuraca (Out Of The Past (1947), Where Danger Lives (1950)), Lupino creates a gloomy film noir world with the sun and sand of the Mexican desert.

The script itself, also co-written by Lupino, is a good one with plenty of opportunities for suspense. The film opens with an unsettling reminder that the events of the film are based on a true story and the viewer themselves could actually be the victim of such an incident. Even though a couple of moments exist in the film where one might question the decisions of the captives, overall it is pretty thrilling stuff. But what makes The Hitch-Hiker a noteworthy kidnapping thriller and film noir is the way that Lupino and company bring a fragile human element to the film. Collins and Bowen grow desperate and crack under Meyers' terror but hold onto the only thing that they have left: their friendship. The film has suspense and action – but the real heart of the picture is the friendship that exists between the two men.

Principle actors Edmond O'Brien (a frequent collaborator with Lupino), Frank Lovejoy, and William Talman are all great surprises in this film. Not exactly an all-star cast, the three leads give very impressive performances in the film. O'Brien and Lovejoy are quite compelling as Collins and Bowen, respectively; O'Brien stews and lashes out as the act-first Collins while Lovejoy hopes and plots with a veil of a resignation to the situation at hand as Bowen. As the deadly Meyers, Talman is great in the film for being an imposing presence but also for simply making his character believable and not going overboard as other actors might have done. Talman also underscores his characterization with a sort of false sense of superiority based in Meyers' own insecurity and delusion that is particularly interesting to watch.

Overall, The Hitch-Hiker is one of the better public domain films noir that one could run into. By successfully wielding suspense and having the great vision and care for what is really substantial in the film's story, Lupino elevates The Hitch-Hiker above what could have been just another forgettable thriller.

CBC Rating: 8/10

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