“You guys are soft. You know what makes you that way? You’re up to your necks in IOUs. You’re suckers. You’ve always had it good, so you’re soft.”
“The Hitch-Hiker” (1953) is a taut, nerve-rattling seventy-one minutes of pure cinematic pleasure. There’s not much time wasted on exposition. The tension and suspense is established in the first few seconds and it doesn’t let go until its fast denouement. I had been obsessed with the premise, and its execution for a while, noticing how many times other filmmakers had borrowed from it, including its premise. When I was first introduced to the film when I was in my teens, there was one aspect of it that I had overlooked. The film is directed by actress turned director Ida Lupino, making it the first time that a woman had directed a film noir. It holds up so well.
Lupino was born in England and made over 50 films in Hollywood, including “They Drive by Night” (1940) and “High Sierra” (1941) both co-starring Humphrey Bogart. She was lauded for her realistic acting style. Under contract with Warner Brothers, Lupino butted heads with Jack Warner refusing to take roles that were underwritten or that she found beneath her standards and she was known for making revisions to scripts. The last straw was when she refused the offer to co-star with Ronald Reagan in the 1942 film “Kings Row.” She was suspended. Always curious about what cameramen, editors and other craft people were doing while she was in front of the camera, she spent her time during her suspension starting a directing career.
Her then husband Collier Young, who was a screenwriter, joined forces and created a company to produce, direct and write inexpensive films. In 1949, she found herself behind the camera doing her first helming work when director Elmer Clifton developed heart issues while filming their first production “Not Wanted.” She finished what he’d started but without taking a credit. The topic of the film was an out of wedlock pregnancy and it will become the first of several films that were issue-oriented. It was followed by “Never Fear” (1949) which tackled the subject of polio which Lupino had battled with as a child and “Outrage” (1950) about rape. She will go on to direct six films for The Filmmakers, get screenwriting credit for five of them and she starred in three features. She developed a reputation as a tough fundraiser for her production company, but a gentle force as a director while on set. I read an article that said her director’s chair had emblazoned on its back “Mother of Us All.”
“The Hitch-Hiker” is considered by many to be her best work. The three main characters are male. It was co-written by Collier Young based on a story by Hollywood blacklisted screenwriter Daniel Manwaring who would go uncredited. She based it on the true killing spree of Edward Cook Jr. who murdered six people in 22 days between Missouri and California between 1950-51 and was sentenced to death in 1952. Right before he was captured, everyone was on the lookout for him. He kidnapped two men at gunpoint who were on a hunting trip and made them drive him to the Mexican border town Santa Rosalia. It is this that Lupino dramatizes. She interviewed the victims and based the script on her research. She changed the names. The two men on a hunting trip are on a fishing trip in her version and they’re renamed Roy Collins and Gilbert Bowen. Cook is called Emmett Myers, but Lupino kept one of his famous characteristics. “I have one bum eye. It won’t stay closed,” says the psychopath to his kidnappees. That fact is used creepily and effectively.
It all starts swiftly. Lupino shows us suggestively Myers’ early rampage. We only see his feet at the side of the road as he looks for cars to pick him. And abruptly she cuts to the legs getting out of the vehicle and shooting at the unsuspecting victims. Our two innocent protagonists pick Myers up on their fishing getaway from their families. “Except for the war, this is the first time away from the wife and kids,” says Collins. Starkly and scarily, Myers sits in the back of the car, and Lupino keeps his face in complete darkness until he reveals his intentions and draws out his gun.
The narrative entails them driving towards Santa Rosalia, and it’s action packed. Although we don’t know much about the killer, Lupino creates a sense of isolation with the shots of him on the freeway. Then there’s an atmosphere of claustrophobia the way she shoots the three men inside the car. Significantly, this film noir is shot for most of its length outdoors in daylight in arid landscape that serves as a counterpoint to what’s unfolding. Poignantly the survival of the two men at risk depends on their friendship and their choices to look after each other. Lupino also infuses Myers with the qualities that we expect from a femme fatale in traditional film noirs.
Ms. Lupino deserves more recognition for her groundbreaking and glass-shattering role in cinema.
Title card: “This is the true story of a man and a gun and a car. The gun belonged to the man. The car might have been yours – or that young couple across the aisle. What you will see in the next seventy minutes could have happened to you. For the facts are actual.”
Available to stream on Amazon Prime, Vudu, Tubi, Kanopy, Mubi and Dark Matter.
Screenplay by Collier Young and Ida Lupino.
Adapted by Robert L. Joseph
Directed by Ida Lupino
Starring Edmond O’Brien, Frank Lovejoy, William Talman and José Torvay,
About Actor Edmond O’Brien
Born in New York, O’Brien got his first taste of acting at 16, carrying Lady Godiva’s bathtub across a stage in Westport, Conn. And a bitter taste it was: He staggered and fell into the tub. Within a few years he was playing in summer stock and on Broadway. In the late 1930s he worked in radio and on stage with Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre group. He was part of the famous 1938 radio broadcast based on H. G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds” that caused panic among Americans who thought they were being invaded by Martians. He had his first Hollywood role in 1939, when he was 24, in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” By the late ‘40s, after well-received performances in “White Heat,” “D.O.A.” and “The Killers”– film noir productions that delved into the darker corners of everyday life–he was a star. In 1949, a national poll by the Young Women’s League of America, a group devoted to single living, declared O’Brien to have more “male magnetism” than any other man in the country. As he matured, his stocky, heavily jowled and essentially sympathetic features lent themselves to less sexy and more varied characters…He prided himself on reading a play each day (“I read for fact and information; I find most novels overwritten because I’m so used to scripts”) and on being an actor who could do “a little more than just entertain.” “I’d like to be able to say something important . . . to say something to people about their relationship with each other. If it touches just one guy, helps illustrate some points of view about living, then you’ve accomplished something.” That drive was personified by a 1958 television drama that O’Brien directed and starred in. Written by his brother, Liam, “The Town That Slept With the Lights On” delved into the true story of two Lancaster murders that so frightened the community that residents began sleeping with their lights on. O’Brien, who played a reporter sent into such a city to investigate, said he liked the script because it violated a basic law of television: “I’m not a private eye and I don’t solve the murders. TV is full of private eyes. Even the heroes of the Westerns are really private eyes on horseback solving crimes. But not here.”
…The New York-born O’Brien, who won the Academy Award in 1954 as best supporting actor for his portrayal of Hollywood press agent Oscar Muldoon in “The Barefoot Contessa”…O’Brien was nominated for a second Oscar in 1964 for his role of Sen. Raymond Clark in “Seven Days in May.”…O’Brien, who starred as the beleaguered Winston Smith in the 1955 production of George Orwell’s classic “1984,” and as Casca in “Julius Caesar,” had a range which took him from tough-guy roles in film noir to the classics. He had studied drama at Columbia University and worked with Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater, including the famous radio broadcast based on H. G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds” that caused a panic among Americans who thought the Martian invasion was real. Other film roles included, “The Killers,” based on the Ernest Hemingway story, “A Double Life,” “Another Part of the Forest,” “White Heat,” “The Bigamist,” “The Great Impostor,” “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” “The Birdman of Alcatraz,” “The Longest Day,” “Fantastic Voyage” and “The Wild Bunch.” He also starred in “The Long, Hot Summer” television series. His friends and fellow actors called him “Tiger.”
…He starred in three 1960s television series, “Johnny Midnight,” “Sam Benedict” and “The Long Hot Summer” and directed several other TV episodes as well as two feature films: “Shield for Murder” in 1954 in collaboration with Howard W. Koch and “Mantrap” in 1961. O’Brien suffered heart problems in 1971 and was not able to act after the mid-1970s because of a variety of ailments, his daughter said…He appeared in more than 60 films and television productions. In 1962 alone he worked in four: “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” “Moon Pilot,” “Birdman of Alcatraz” and “The Longest Day.” (latimes.com) O’Brien passed away in 1985.
About Actor Frank Lovejoy
Frank Lovejoy was an American actor in radio, film, and television. He was born Frank Lovejoy Jr. in the Bronx, New York, but grew up in New Jersey. His father, Frank Lovejoy Sr., was a furniture salesman from Maine. His mother, Nora, was born in Massachusetts to Irish immigrant parents. A successful radio actor, Lovejoy was heard on the 1930s crime drama series “Gang Busters.” Lovejoy was a narrator for the show “This Is Your FBI.” He played the title character on the syndicated “The Blue Beetle” during the 1940s, and starred in the later crime drama series “Nightbeat” in the early 1950s. In films of the 1940s and 1950s, Lovejoy mostly played supporting roles. Appearing in movies such as “Goodbye,” “My Fancy with Joan Crawford,” Lovejoy was effective playing the movie’s everyman in extraordinary situations. He was in several war movies, notably Joseph H. Lewis’ “Retreat, Hell!” which portrayed the United States Marine Corps’ retreat from the Chosin Reservoir during the Korean War. In 1951, he had the title role in “I Was a Communist for the FBI” with co-stars Ron Hagerthy, Paul Picerni, and Philip Carey. Lovejoy starred in two short-run TV series, “Man Against Crime” and “Meet McGraw.”… (walkoffame.com)
About Composer Leith Stevens
Born in Mount Moriah, Missouri, in 1909, composer Leith Stevens grew up in Kansas City. After graduating from high school, Stevens conducted local orchestras and accompanied voice students at the Horner Institute of Music in Kansas City. After graduating Julliard in 1930, Stevens was hired by CBS Radio as a vocal arranger, working his way up to staff conductor by 1933. He conducted and arranged radio shows such as “The Columbia Workshop” and “The Saturday Night Swing Club.” Stevens began his Hollywood career in 1939 composing and conducting arrangements for Edward G. Robinson’s radio series “Big Town.” He began composing for film and received his first break writing music for the RKO production “Syncopation.” Some of his most notable works include his experimental and influential science-fiction score for 1949’s Destination Moon as well as his groundbreaking all-jazz background scores for films such as 1954’s “The Wild One” and “Private Hell 36.” In 1954 Stevens helped found the Composers and Lyricists Guild of America (CLGA), an organization that advocated for the intellectual rights of composers. He served as president of CLGA for 8 years. He was nominated for three Oscars, a Golden Globe, and an Emmy over the course of his long career. Leith Stevens died of a heart attack upon hearing of the death of his third wife Elizabeth on July 23, 1970. He will be best remembered for his contributions to the evolution of film scoring. (library.umkc.edu)
About Director Ida Lupino
Lupino was born into one of England’s most-celebrated theatrical families. As a child, she acted in a model theatre built by her father, and she entered the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art at age 13. After her film debut in “Her First Affaire” (1932), she appeared in several inconsequential roles before being cast as a vengeful prostitute in “The Light That Failed” (1939). That led to weighty roles in such films as “They Drive by Night” (1940), in which the actress gave perhaps her best performance, playing an unstable wife who is in love with one of her husband’s employees; “High Sierra” (1941), a classic crime drama starring Humphrey Bogart; and “The Sea Wolf” (1941), an adaptation of a Jack London novel, with Lupino cast as a fugitive and Edward G. Robinson as a brutal sea captain. In the thriller “Ladies in Retirement” (1941) she played a murderous maid, and in “The Hard Way” (1943) she gave an acclaimed performance as a ruthless woman who pushes her sister to pursue an entertainment career in order to escape their small town. With her second husband, Collier Young (her first husband was actor Louis Hayward), Lupino founded a production company in 1949 and began writing scripts, tackling such controversial topics as rape, illegitimacy, and bigamy. Their first project was the unwed-mother drama Not Wanted (1949), which Lupino produced and co-scripted with Paul Jarrico. Director Elmer Clifton fell ill midway through the production, and Lupino stepped in and completed it; her work was not credited, however. She made her official directing debut with “Never Fear” (1949; also known as “The Young Lovers”), a low-budget drama in which “Not Wanted” star Sally Forrest played a young dancer stricken with polio. With that film Lupino became Hollywood’s first credited female director since the retirement of Dorothy Arzner in 1943. In 1950 Lupino also became the second woman admitted to the Directors Guild of America.
Lupino’s production company signed an agreement with RKO to be its distribution arm. Their first joint venture was “Outrage” (1950), a socially conscious tale about the devastating aftereffects of a rape on a young woman (played by Mala Powers); Lupino, Young, and Malvin Wald cowrote the script. Although Lupino and Young divorced in 1951, they continued their professional relationship. Their next venture was “Hard, Fast and Beautiful” (1951), a drama about a teenaged tennis star (Forrest) shamelessly exploited by her mother (Claire Trevor)…Lupino, who continued to act, was then cast as a lonely blind woman who helps heal the psychic wounds of a police detective (Robert Ryan) in the potent crime yarn “On Dangerous Ground” (1951). But she again found herself behind the camera (in an uncredited capacity) when director Nicholas Ray suffered a nervous breakdown. In 1953 Lupino directed her masterpiece, the grim film noir “The Hitch-Hiker”…The film earned acclaim, and it is considered to be the only noir made by a woman. After Lupino and Young parted ways with RKO, she directed and starred in “The Bigamist” (1953), an occasionally maudlin but not unaffecting melodrama with O’Brien as a businessman who marries two women (Lupino and Joan Fontaine).
Although Lupino did not helm another theatrical film for 13 years, she remained busy. In 1956 she began directing episodes of television shows, and she eventually worked on more than 40 programs, including “The Donna Reed Show,” “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” “Have Gun—Will Travel,” “The Fugitive,” “Dr. Kildare,” “The Twilight Zone,” “Bewitched,” and “Gilligan’s Island.” In addition, she also directed several made-for-TV movies. During that time Lupino continued to act, and her notable acting credits included “Women’s Prison” (1955), in which she played a sadistic warden; “The Big Knife” (1955), an adaptation of Clifford Odets’s play, with Lupino as the wife of a cheating actor; and “While the City Sleeps” (1956), Fritz Lang’s crime drama about a serial killer. Lupino was a star (1953–56) of the dramatic television anthology “Four Star Playhouse” and appeared with her third husband, Howard Duff, in the television sitcom “Mr. Adams and Eve” (1957–58); she also was cast in countless television shows as a guest star. In 1966 she directed her last motion picture, the innocuous but pleasant comedy “The Trouble with Angels” it centres on a rebellious teen (Hayley Mills) who makes life difficult for the mother superior (Rosalind Russell) at a convent school in Pennsylvania. Lupino then helmed several television shows before retiring from directing in 1968. Lupino subsequently focused on her acting career, and many of her later roles were on TV series, including “The Streets of San Francisco,” “Columbo,” “Ellery Queen,” and “Charlie’s Angels.” The most notable of her later motion-picture performances came in Sam Peckinpah’s “Junior Bonner” (1972), a drama in which she portrayed the mother of an aging rodeo star (Steve McQueen). From 1975 a series of health problems impaired her ability to work, and she was forced to retire after starring in “My Boys Are Good Boys” (1978). Her memoir “Ida Lupino: Beyond the Camera” (co-written with Mary Ann Anderson) was published posthumously in 2011. (britannica.com)