A Noir Journey Into No-Woman’s Land: Ida Lupino’s “The Hitch-hiker”
A rare film noir directed by a woman, this dark thriller is no chick flick.
Consider it: the sad, subverted, but intermittently triumphant history of women filmmakers in America has reached a full century. 100 years since the pioneering work of Alice Guy-Blache, women directors are now reaping accolades, especially in the indie realm: Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right, Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone, and Nicole Holofcener’s Please Give. These three films illustrate another longstanding tendency of films by women: that, quite understandably, they have steered towards being about women. It’s what you think of when you think of women behind the camera, feminist, prefeminist, protofeminist or otherwise: romantic crisis (and oppression), narratives tilted toward emotional collisions rather than action, stories hinging on families and love and empathy and, often, semi-covert rebellion against the patriarchal foot still planted on the throat of modern womankind.
Over the long haul, feminism, depending on how you look at it, can be well-served or mis-served by this phototropic tendency. The exceptions to the rule have made their statement just as clearly. The Hurt Locker’s Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman awarded a best director Oscar with a film almost completely devoid of women, and full of alcohol, tobacco, firearms and explosives. Half a century before her there was Ida Lupino, long-lashed leading lady-turned-postwar-noiriste. Her films are as tough and gnarly as those by any stogie-sucking ex-boxer auteur. Her palm-sized beaut The Hitch-Hiker (1953) has no women in it whatsoever. It is, as the opening titles say, “a true story of a man and a gun and a car.” Empathize with that.
Which she did, of course. In actuality there is one full-fledged female character, a little Mexican girl at the heart of a tense grocery store face-off, but that’s where we get at the fact that Lupino’s film may be all men all the time, but it’s really about the families we don’t see, the wounds that don’t heal, the reality of men who don’t know how to solve problems with guns, the guilt and worry that plague men for the women they disappoint.
The set-up couldn’t be simpler: middle-aged SoCal buddies Edmund O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy, off on a fishing trip but actually, and somewhat guiltily, headed south of the border for hookers, stop in the middle of the night to pick up a hitcher, getting instead a psychopath serial butcher on the run (William Talman), who holds a gun to their heads all the way down to a south Mexican badland where tourists don’t go. Increasingly, as the boys’ car begins to fall apart and civilization drops away entirely, the rocky and horizonless Mexican landscape comes to resemble some Biblical wasteland, complete with plague and oblivious innocents.
It’s a very dark movie: when Talman enters the protagonists’ back seat, it’s a black abyss, and the film grabs onto the very cinematic uneasiness when you look into a man’s shadowed face and see absolutely nothing. Then the gun barrel emerges out of the ink, and the wide world we couldn’t see (the ‘50s were, of course, so much darker than today, especially on the backroads) narrows down to a thrumming chord of tension. Tallman’s drop-eyed, bigoted, trigger-happy widowmaker is the film’s most vivid creation, utterly mundane (as ordinary and dreary, at least, as your contemporary bigot, barking “I don’t understand Mexican!”), but a hard shit of a man who harbors no small serving of they’ll-never-catch-me megalomania. Tallman’s Emmet Meyer is the daemon of the story, a lifelong cutthroat, but The Hitch-Hiker isn’t another existentialist noir parable about bad fortune and men with crushed hearts and a rapacious world consuming the innocent schmuck. Meyer may be one of B movies’ great paradigmatic nutjobs, but he is an aberration, a bad wind come down to Earth, pushing our onscreen proxies far out of their comfort zones.
The film is most confident – that is, substantially creepier – at night. At an abandoned airstrip in the middle of El Nowhere, infinite space compresses into a nothing of blackness. Where the two heroes are in relation to their captor at all times, in a matter of geometrical degrees, is something Lupino pays very close attention to, and never finesses. She wanted it to be real: O’Brien and Lovejoy’s shrugging proles aren’t mannered noir victims but slightly overweight working class guys with hearts who never, ever saw their ordeal coming. The director is only interested in the impact evil threatens to have on two average joes, whose middle-class American lives they only meant to leave behind for a weekend. The narrative, and Meyer, exist to make the culture’s blood boil.
After years with Warner, Lupino (was there a Golden Age actress with a more challenging name?) moved into indie producing and directing in 1950 with her husband Collier Young, and she seems to have ignored everything she learned on the Warner lot except the brooding, vulnerable masculinity she picked up from her four movies with Raoul Walsh. The Hitch-Hiker is a bullet-spray of noir haikus, with one of the most evocative and protracted title sequences of the period: a man standing on a receding highway (just his body, with his head loped off at the frame edge), like a partial figure in a Tanguy painting, a car, feet, a scream, a gunshot, all the while the camera pointed down, identifying nobody but also averting its gaze like a witness who’s been told not to look up. If noir is a great stew of totemic comestibles, all of it singing the dark song of postwar American heebie-jeebies, this sequence is a cube of perfect steak. You chew it, and you can taste the whole meal in its juices.
Michael Atkinson writes on film for The Village Voice, In These Times, Moving Image Source, LA Weekly and The L Magazine. His most recent books are the novels Hemingway Deadlights and Hemingway Cutthroat (St. Martin’s Press).