Expectations that a female-directed movie need to be filled with women-centric stories (and characters) are turned neatly on its head in The Hitch-Hiker, Ida Lupino’s claustrophobic film-noir movie. Released in 1953, it tells the story of Roy Collins (Edmund O’Brien) and Gil Bowen (Frank Lovejoy), two weekending fishermen who have the extreme misfortune to offer a ride to a psychopathic hitchhiker. If the male ‘gaze’ is (and was, even in the early 1950s) a tired cliché, Lupino’s window onto a gritty, all-male world is nothing short of revelatory and proves that when it comes to depicting and emphasising with the opposite sex, female directors have the upper hand.
Although a work of fiction, The Hitch-Hiker is strongly rooted in fact. During a 22-day rampage in December 1950 and January 1951, ex-con Billy Cook murdered an entire family that had stopped to pick him up. The story made headlines across the US, and was immortalised in popular culture in Jim Morrison’s ‘Riders in a storm’, released some 20 years later. Lupino’s film, however, was released in March 1953, just three months after Cook was executed.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the source material, Lupino’s film is dominated by the constant threat of violence, exacerbated by enclosed spaces, entrapment and uncertainty. The hitchhiker (Emmett Myers, played by William Talman) Collins and Bowen pick up feels like trouble from the start, and it’s quickly established that he’s already wanted by police in connection to several murders. Aware of the bounty on his head, Myers forces his captives to take him across the border into Mexico, where he plans to make a getaway. Although much of the film takes place in a vehicle, Lupino successfully manages to constrain the barren, endless stretches of Mexican desert, and makes even these wide-open spaces feel confined.
As a villain, Myers is ruthless and unpredictable. His paralysed right eye makes it impossible for both his captors and the audience to discern when he’s awake. An unimaginative trait, yes, but particularly effective in a film shot at such close quarters, and an effective tension heightener. Myers might not be ‘scary’ in the conventional sense, but Talman effectively captures the intensity and single-minded focus that a lone ‘professional’ killer needs. There’s also something compelling in the way Lupino focuses on his economical killing methods. During the opening credits, Myers kills a lone woman driver, yet all the audience sees is her handbag falling onto the road and later, a glimpse of her lacy hemline under the light of police flashlight.
Economical is a good word for the film in general. Shot on a tight budget, the film clocks in at a fraction over 70 minutes, and, as a result, there’s also something sparse about the storyline, the characters, the chase. There are no distracting sub-plots or plot twist, little unnecessary dialogue, no extraneous scenes to slow down the pace, very few shots lingering on the beauty of the terrain. This is a what-you-see-is-what-you-get movie. In fact, The Hitch-Hiker is characterised by a relentless forward movement that echoes Myers’ determination to reach his destination. Unfortunately, all that forward momentum isn’t fully realised in the film’s climax, which is one of the movie’s flaws – although in its defence, this conclusion is probably better than the overly heroic or saccharine alternative.
Despite its sparseness, The Hitch-Hiker isn’t short on mood or atmosphere. It’s partly created by those aforementioned tense spaces, but also by Lupino’s focus on character and a feeling for disadvantaged individuals. Although clearly the villain, Lupino chooses not to ‘side’ with either captor or captured and, although the conclusion is inevitable, it doesn’t feel like a cheat. Ronnie Schieb reads the film as a metaphor for the director and the directed. Myers intends to direct his captors to their death, an action prompted by the police, who attempt to direct Myers’ actions based on a (sometimes erroneous) series of clues left by him.
Maybe it’s too much to suggest that, by directing a film about men, Lupino was making a comment on wider ideas about how perceptions and understanding are shaped by an external ‘director’ – in that era, usually a man. She was probably just compelled to tell a ‘good’ story, regardless of the gender of those involved, her talent rested in her ability to regard any character without misfortune, fear or prejudice.
Ida Lupino: a product of her time or a product of her sex?
By the early 1950s, Lupino was an industry veteran. She’d acted in several well-received roles, including Marie in High Sierra and Lana in They Drive By Night, and snatched the role of Bessie in The Light That Failed from Vivien Leigh. Lupino’s move into filmmaking was perhaps an (un)happy accident: when Elmer Clifton, the original director of Not Wanted (1949), suffered a heart attack, Lupino completed the production. Her directorial endeavours were often women-centric (most notably 1949s’ Never Fear and 1966’s The Trouble With Angels), but it was the shift to noir that helped her find her true ‘voice’. It’s worth noting that a studio didn’t encourage this ‘voice’. Both The Hitch-Hiker and Outrage (a 1950 release about the violent rape and subsequent psychological unravelling of a young woman) were completed under the banner on The Filmakers, a production company owned by Lupino and her then-husband Collier Young.
For her part, Lupino mostly downplayed her achievements in a male dominated world. The official press notes for The Hitch-Hiker included an interview entitled ‘Ida Lupino Retains Her Femininity as Director’. It included the following passage:
I retain every feminine trait. Men prefer it that way. They’re more co-operative if they see that fundamentally you are of the weaker sex even though [you are] in a position to give orders, which normally is the male prerogative, or so he likes to think, anyway. While I’ve encountered no resentment from the male of the species for intruding into their world, I give them no opportunity to think I’ve strayed where I don’t belong. I assume no masculine characteristics, which can often be a fault of career women rubbing shoulders with their male counterparts, who become merely arrogant or authoritative.
Whilst a depressing read, it’s an interesting insight into Lupino’s strategy. She certainly wasn’t encouraged to direct films by a studio, which thought the novelty of a ‘woman director’, would convert into box office revenue. The desire to direct, to tell and share stories must’ve been something that was built into Lupino, her gender was just a factor that got in the way – perhaps she knew how to play by the rules but subvert them too. Her willingness to give up a career as a fairly successful actress to stand behind the camera is further proof of both ambition and tenacity, alongside a casual disregard for the then-defined roles for women within cinematic practice.
The Hitch-Hiker is available to watch online… it’s certainly worth a look!