The Early Women Filmmakers Blogathon: Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker (1953)

This post is part of the Early Women Filmmakers Blogathon, hosted by Fritzi at Movies Silently. Read the rest of the posts in this event HERE!

I was so excited when Fritzi announced this blogathon. You see, I have a degree in film studies, which I earned back in the early 1980s. I studied at Queens College, which had a marvelous interdisciplinary program, with film classes available across many departments, not just the film department.

I took film classes given by the Comparative Literature, Philosophy, Political Science departments, the various language departments (English, Italian, French, German), as well as the usual classes in film history, film theory, and film production.

It was great, except for one thing.

In all that time, in all those classes, I can count on the fingers of one hand the films shown directed by women:

Meshes of the Afternoon by Maya Deren

Triumph of the Will by Leni Riefenstahl

Cleo from 5 to 7 by Agnes Varda

The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum by Margarethe von Trotta

By the way, I did not see Triumph of the Will in a film class. It was in a communications (my major before I switched to film) class about symbolism.

It’s possible silent movies directed by women were screened in my film history classes—we watched many short films without much discussion about who directed them—but I don’t recall anyone, ever, mentioning that women directing films during the silent era was not only NOT unusual, some were very successful financially. This I learned many, many years later.

Considering that the 1980s saw more women directing films since the silent era, it’s stunning to realize how early women directors were virtually erased when I was in school. I had a lot of gaps to make up in my education.

It was my mom who turned me on to Ida Lupino-directed movies. Lupino’s movies were very popular with the staff at New Yorker Films, where my mother worked at the same time I was in school. I had always been a big fan of her work as an actress, and was especially delighted when I found out she directed a film noir.

Because Lupino refused film roles that she thought were beneath her, she went through periods of suspension at her studio, Warner Bros. During those periods, she spent time observing the directing and editing process. With her husband Collier Young, she created an independent film company and began directing films. At first, she made “woman themed” movies—including Outrage, about rape, Not Wanted, about unwed motherhood, and The Bigamist, about a woman who finds she’s married to a man who has another wife.

The Hitch-Hiker is based on a true crime story and features her first all-male cast. Lupino and Young co-wrote the screenplay, basing it on a story written by Daniel Mainwaring, a blacklisted writer. A fictionalized version of the story of Billy Cook, a sociopath who murdered several motorists during a crime spree, Lupino interviewed Cook and some of his surviving victims while preparing the film. Cook was eventually executed for his crimes.

The Hays office insisted they reduce the number of victims (Cook killed some children as well as adults) so the film focuses mainly on two fishermen on a road trip to Mexico, Roy Collins and Gilbert Bowen (Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy). They pick up hitch-hiker Emmett Myers (William Talman) and quickly find themselves his prisoners. Since they know some Spanish, Myers decides to keep them alive until he makes his destination, a town with a ferry that will take him across the Gulf of Mexico. As the police catch on that Collins and Bowen have been kidnapped by Myers, they try to stay alive long enough to either escape or be rescued by the Mexican authorities.

The Hitch-Hiker diverges from traditional noir in some significant ways: first of all, there is no femme fatale character. Secondly, instead of much of the action taking place on the dark streets of a city, the film mostly takes place in the Mexican desert during the day. (Can’t help but wonder if the film was an influence on “cowboy noir” that became popular during the 1980s and 1990s, including the Coen Bros. film Blood Simple.)

The fatalistic tone of noir is also mostly missing, as there is no feeling of inevitable doom for the main characters (except for possibly the villain). There’s always hope they will escape.

Like many noir films, the style of filmmaking is very economical. (Speaking of Blood Simple, the opening scenes of The Hitch-Hiker remind me of the opening scenes of Blood Simple because of the quick series of shots that immediately establish Myers’ crimes.) Lupino and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca used shadow and light to create the feeling of danger and menace from Myers.

Collins and Bowen are a couple of regular joes who aren’t attracted to the dark side of life, like most noir main characters. Maybe, possibly, they were planning to step out on their wives a little while in Mexico (refusing some hucksters is one reason they end up in Myers’ path). It’s implied both are war veterans.

One of the most interesting aspects of the movie is how it doesn’t presume that two war veterans could easily overtake a criminal with a gun. In fact, Myers taunts them relentlessly and manages to slowly break them down. Because of a defect in one eye, Myers can’t close it completely, so they can never know if he’s truly asleep. It’s a stunning portrait of impotence in the face of danger.

Myers also taunts them for caring for each other (at one point Bowen could have escaped if he hadn’t come back to help the injured Collins) and points out one of them could have got away if they had abandoned the other. They also worry Myers will harm innocent bystanders. The lone female character in the film is a little girl Bowen hugs protectively when he fears Myers will harm her. The film implies that the friendship between the two men and their humanity is key to their survival.

All the actors are great, but Talman is superb as Myers (he is best known for playing the D.A. on the TV show Perry Mason). The cinema landscape is strewn with sociopathic killer characters, but he’s one of the best, and Lupino got an amazing performance out of him.

The film was a very important turning point in Lupino’s life, both on a personal and professional level. She and Young divorced soon after, which ended their professional partnership as well. Young made the decision to distribute the company’s films himself, which turned out to be a bad move and resulted in the company folding.

However, actor Richard Boone, impressed by her work on The Hitch-Hiker, tapped Lupino to direct episodes of his TV series Have Gun, Will Travel. This led to a long career in television directing for Lupino.

Thanks so much to Fritzi and Flicker Alley (the sponsor of this blogathon) for shining a light on early women filmmakers. Please, do consider ordering Flicker Alley’s DVD set Early Women Filmmakers: An International Anthology. Also click on the link above and read the other posts. You’ll learn more than I did when I was in film school!

 

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13 thoughts on “The Early Women Filmmakers Blogathon: Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker (1953)

    1. Agree! Great use of dramatic tension.

      She had a good career in TV, which is nothing to sneeze at. It’s still difficult for women to get jobs directing prime-time TV.

  1. Thanks so much for joining in! Like you, I was shocked to discover just how many women worked as directors during the silent and classic eras. Lupino is one of the most famous and I still recently read an article that confidently asserted Angelina Jolie was the first actress-turned-director. (Never mind Jodie Foster.) Enjoyed your breakdown of Lupino’s splendid noir sensibilities.

    1. Thank you! I loved writing it!

      OMG, you’re kidding about that article, right? How about:

      Barbra Streisand
      Diane Keaton
      Penny Marshall
      Betty Thomas
      Liv Ullmann
      Fanny Ardant
      Sarah Polley
      Sofia Coppola
      Elizabeth Banks
      Maria Luisa Bemberg

      JUST TO NAME A FEW.

      (Entertainment journalists….GGGGGRRRRRR….)

  2. Engrossing article. Ida learned her craft well and brought a lot to this side of the camera. Of her directing work, I find that her films have a staying power; emotions subtly portrayed have buried themselves in my memory. The Hitch-Hiker never lets the tension ebb and viewers cannot look away.

  3. I was really surprised to learn that your film studies courses didn’t include more women. And I liked how you pointed out there were more women directing films in the 1980s than since the silent era. Sheesh!

    Which makes Ida Lupino’s career all the more remarkable, as you said. I feel like a bit of a schmuck for not having seen this film yet, but I did pick it up recently in a film noir set. I’ll be watching it soon!

    1. I hope that’s not true anymore, but just a few years ago I had a–ahem–discussion on a screenwriting board with a professional screenwriter who refused to believe Lois Weber was one of the most prolific and successful directors/producers of the silent era.

      Seriously. Practically accused me of making it up. That’s why events like this are so important.

      Enjoy watching the film, it’s a good one. 🙂

  4. I’m glad you wrote about this one. I found the bit with Tallman’s eye that won’t close very disturbing when I first saw the movie. Ida Lupino managed to keep us all on the edge of our seats. Your essay did the film justice. I went to a very liberal school some years earlier and had the same experience of seeing hardly anything (parts of Triumph of the Will and Olympia and a Maya Derren film other than Meshes of the Afternoon) directed by women.

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