Ida Lupino, 1953
Starring: Edmond O’Brien, Frank Lovejoy, William Talman
Often remembered as the first and only classic period noir film directed by a woman, Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker is much more, a noir stripped bare, confined to the road, and set in the desolation of the American West. Though available in the public domain for many years, Kino have finally brought it to Blu-ray with a fantastic new restoration.
Two men on vacation drive through the desert on their way to a fishing trip when they pick up a hitchhiker. They quickly learn that he is Emmett Myers, a notorious psychopath and highway murderer fleeing to Mexico. Instead of quickly killing them, as he did with his other victims, he forces them at gun point to drive him for several days, psychologically torturing them all the while. They try to plan an escape and hope they can hold out long enough for the police to catch their trail.
In a certain sense, director Ida Lupino’s impressive life and career outshines The Hitch-Hiker. In addition to an acting career that spanned 50 years with films like The Light That Failed, While the City Sleeps, High Sierra, and many more, she was the first (and I believe only) woman to direct a classic period noir and also directed a number of lesser seen early films that dealt with relatively unexplored women’s issues in cinema, such as Outrage, a story about the effects of rape, and Not Wanted, which concerns the plight of unwed mothers.
The Hitch-Hiker triumphs from its stark sets and a bare bones plot, but occasionally suffers from some slumps in action. Overall, Lupino manages to keep the tension going for the film’s short running time - it is barely over an hour - and benefits from not having the men try any ridiculous heroics. While Myers’ first victims - a couple and a lone woman - are quickly killed and barely shown in frame, there is the sense that he must challenge the normative masculinity of the two men and delights in psychologically torturing them to show his supremacy. He calls them soft for being bogged down by things like family, mortgages, domestic life.
There are good performances from the three key actors, Edmond O’Brien (The Killers), Frank Lovejoy (I Was a Communist for the FBI), and William Talman (The Racket, Perry Mason), though Talman steals the film as killer Emmett Myers. He manages to make Talman menacing without going too over the top. His character often seems like a vestige from another era of cowboys, train robbers, and outlaws, men who roamed free in the desert and lived beyond the reach of the law. We first see Myers as a phantom - shoes in one scene, a black leather coat in another - and his lazy eye often gives him a monstrous appearance while he waits, half in shadow, in the back of the car.
Though credited to Ida Lupino and her husband, producer Collier Young, the script was based on a story by Daniel Mainwaring (Out of the Past, Invasion of the Body Snatchers), who was believed to be blacklisted from Hollywood at the time. It is based on the story of real spree killer Billy Cook who killed more people than his onscreen counterpart and supposedly had “Hard Luck” tattooed on his hand. Cook and Myers share a lot in common, including a difficult upbringing immersed in poverty, a life of crime, and a deformed eye.
One of the best things about the film is Nicholas Musurica’s beautiful cinematography. Known for his work with Val Lewton on Cat People and other noir films like Out of the Past, he turns the open wasteland of the desert into a place of isolation, loneliness, and terror. Equally impressive is the imaginative, almost restless camera work and editing, where corpses are only partially framed and dissolves take us quickly between the briefly seen cops and the car ride from hell.
The 1080p MPEG-4 transfer looks wonderful and there is only very minimal damage to the print with occasional scratches and debris. If you take a look at the available public domain print, Kino’s Blu-ray is a huge improvement and definitely presents Lupino’s starkly beautiful film the way it was meant to be seen. The LPCM English audio track doesn’t fare quite as well, but this is likely due to production and not the transfer. It is certainly much clearer than previous editions and the dialogue is always easy to understand. The sound design here is of key importance and helps build suspense at every point. There are the dreaded radio reports that may encourage Myers kill the men if he feels the police are closing in, a faulty horn that shatters the silent car ride, a persistent dog barking while they are trying to steal gas in the night, etc. There are no available subtitles.
Sadly, there are no extras outside of an image gallery and trailers from other recent Kino Blu-ray releases such as White Zombie, Night Tide, and The Stranger. It’s a shame Kino couldn’t have included a commentary track or a feature on Lupino’s career.
The Hitch-Hiker comes highly recommended for all fans of thrillers and noir cinema. It may not have a lot going for it in terms of outright horror, but Lupino weaves a claustrophobic tale of suspense, murder, and desperation. Anyone who is already a fan of the film will be delighted with Kino’s beautiful presentation, which captures the lonely American West in crisp black and white.