THE HITCH-HIKER (1953)

  • Director: Ida Lupino
  • Writers: Ida Lupino and Collier Young
  • Starring: Edmond O’Brien, Frank Lovejoy, and William Talman
  • Accolades: 2019 BBC Top 100 Films Directed by Women (#22)
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming on Kanopy (library app), free streaming (with ads) on Tubi app, Stream with subscription on Amazon Prime, buy or rent with Amazon Video

The claim to fame one often hears about The Hitch-Hiker is that it is the only film noir from the “classic” era of the genre to have been directed by a woman. Specifically, it was directed by Ida Lupino, who was, during much of her career, basically the only female director making mainstream American movies. She had been able to get into directing because of her pre-existing fame as an actress, but still had to start her own independent studio to get anything made. The thing is, while nominally a “film noir,” The Hitch-Hiker feels like a much more modern, almost claustrophobic, horror-ish thriller. Wasn’t there a movie where Russell Crowe gets road rage that at one point during the pandemic was basically the only movie trying to be in physical theaters, for some reason? This is probably a much better version of that, despite being almost 70 years old.

The plot is very, very simple. Two guys (Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy) are driving in the Southern California desert, heading down to Mexico for a fishing trip. They pick up a hitch-hiker (William Talman), who soon afterward pulls a gun on them and takes them hostage. It turns out the guy is a serial killer whose modus operandi is robbing and killing people who pick him up. In this case, he just wants them to help him get away, intending to get a ferry across the Gulf of California and evade police. The remainder of the very quick 71 minute running time is entirely a thriller between two terrified guys who are pretty sure this guy is going to kill them anyway. Perhaps it is overly patronizing to say the movie is surprisingly effective at what it’s trying to do, considering that it was made in 1953. Today we don’t generally consider movies from that era (at least ones that weren’t directed by Alfred Hitchcock) to be genuinely suspenseful, and so I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t surprised. This is pretty good.

Lupino got the idea for this movie from the real life serial killer William Cook, who murdered six people who picked him at the side of the road in the American Southwest in 1950. He was eventually executed in 1952. She personally interviewed his final two, surviving hostages, and got them to sign over the rights to their story, then changed things enough to get past a Production Code provision prohibiting depictions of “recent crimes.” In fact, many of the details we learn about the killer’s life are, in fact, taken directly from Cook’s story, including the weird deformity that keeps him from closing his right eye (meaning the hostages are never sure if he’s sleeping or not). The movie was made on a shoestring indie budget, with RKO Pictures agreeing to handle distribution. When The Hitch-Hiker garnered good reviews and became a surprise hit, it made good money, but mostly for RKO rather than for Lupino or her production company.

Lupino herself had started as a Hollywood starlet, a position from which a transition into directing was completely unheard of at the time. Born in England to a stage actor father, supposedly Lupino had memorized the parts of every female Shakespearean lead by the time she was ten. After her success starring in pulpy early 40s films like They Drive By Night and High Sierra, Lupino demanded to be taken seriously as an actress, including turning down a series of roles she considered to be “beneath” her. As a result, she spent much of the rest of the decade on suspension from her Warner Bros. contract, as the studio wasn’t going to let its stars call their own shots. 

As Lupino found herself with a lot of free time, she and her then-husband Collier Young decided to start their own studio, “Filmmakers, Inc.,” to produce their own low-budget movies on topics they found interesting. Lupino then used this platform to make a series of B movies that have been described as “proto-feminist,” including some of the earliest movies on hot topics like rape and bigamy. The studio’s first movie, Not Wanted, was supposed to be helmed by veteran Hollywood director Elmer Clifton, but he fell ill during production and Lupino stepped in. After four of these “issue movies” she then decided to to make more of a “fast-paced and exciting” movie, resulting in The Hitch-Hiker.

Though “Filmmakers” did not survive (given its business model seemed ill-served by its one-sided relationships with distributors), the success of The Hitch-Hiker allowed Lupino to start a second career as a television director. She directed episodes of The Twilight Zone, Gilligan’s Island, and Bewitched, along with several of the Western series popular at the time. The movie is also credited with helping along the television career of William Talman, who portrays the villain. His performance got him noticed by the producers of Perry Mason, who hired him to play the prosecutor who often opposed the titular defense attorney. Talman remained in the role for nine years, during which time, according to Wikipedia, his character lost all but three cases.

I feel like I haven’t really said much about the movie itself, but it’s just that it’s a very simple movie. It’s tense and exciting from start to finish, and it’s professionally made despite a relatively tiny budget. At no point do you think about how cheap the movie must have been. You may find yourself surprised, like I was, at how good of a time you have, and how few “allowances” you have to make for this movie.

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