The production of The Hitch-Hiker (Ida Lupino, 1953) began with a story written by Robert Joseph, titled “The Persuader”, in which two ex-army buddies on a fishing road trip to Mexico pick up a shadowy male hitch-hiker on a deserted road. The story was based on the latter part of Daniel Mainwaring’s novel Build My Gallows High (1946), which Jacques Tourneur had adapted in 1947 as Out of the Past. Two important personnel from Tourneur’s film were recruited on The Hitch-Hiker: Mainwaring as screenwriter (uncredited) and Nicholas Musuraca as cinematographer.
With Collier Young (and Mainwaring later offering additional dialogue), Ida Lupino did an entire reshuffle of the story, changing its title first to The Difference, then to The Hitch-Hiker, incorporating into the plot a character based on the real-life 22-year-old psychotic killer William Edward Cook Jr. On 28 December 1950, Cook began his reign of terror across the south and south-western regions of the United States; in a two-week period, he murdered six people, including an entire vacationing family in Oklahoma, and kidnapped three others. Cook became the target of one of the country’s biggest manhunts ever launched, overshadowing anything during the prohibition era of “Pretty Boy” Floyd and John Dillinger. Classified by the police as a “spree killer”, a “category of impulsive and emotionally tormented individuals who go on murderous road trips”,1 he spoke mercilessly after his arrest about his motives for slaughtering the Mosser family: “The kids were crying, the dame was hysterical and started screaming. It was too risky. I didn’t want the cops on me, so I plugged them all.”2
In 1949, Lupino had formed her first production company, Emerald Productions, named after her mother, Constance O’Shea, whose stage name was “Emerald”. The company, also comprising Collier Young – Lupino’s husband at the time, who was working for Columbia Pictures as an executive assistant under Harry Cohen – and screenwriter Malvin Wald, changed its name to The Filmakers, surviving as a production entity from 1949 to 1954. The Filmakers was an independent film company specialising in documentary-style social-realist movies, which reflects the style and tone of The Hitch-Hiker’s opening intertitle, superimposed over a grainy shot of a man standing on the side of an open road attempting to flag down a passing car:
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.
A number of factors attracted Lupino to directing The Hitch-Hiker, one most notably being the challenge of directing a gritty, all-male road movie in the style of her mentor Raoul Walsh, who had previously directed Lupino in Artists & Models (1937), They Drive by Night (1940) and High Sierra (1941), and The Man I Love (1947). With a low budget of $200 000, The Hitch-Hiker went into a five-week production period from late June 1952. Location shooting took place around Lone Pine, California, the same location surrounds used for High Sierra.
The film’s esteemed cinematographer, Musuraca, had shot some of the keystones of noir: The Locket (John Brahm, 1946), Out of the Past, Born to Be Bad (Nicholas Ray, 1950), Where Danger Lives (John Farrow, 1950), Clash by Night (Fritz Lang, 1952) and The Blue Gardenia (Fritz Lang, 1953). For the rural noir setting of Lupino’s film, he exaggerated the unstable scorchedness of the fierce desert climate, through his lighting of deep and gothic shadows to suggest its protagonists are as much in battle with the landscape as their unhinged captor. While this is apparent in the outdoor sequences, the wonderfully tense tone of the penetrating close-ups inside the car, through the framing of shadows to both block and foreground the characters is as claustrophobic and foreboding as those from any noir of the period.
Was The Hitch-Hiker the first noir directed by a woman? This is probably true for the US; however, other countries had seen earlier noirs directed by women (in 1949, Norwegian director/actor Edith Carlmar had made Døden er et kjærtegn [Death Is a Caress]). At the time, much was being made of how Lupino’s male cast would respond to a woman giving them orders on set, and this became a tedious question pestering Lupino across her directing career. One wonderfully patronising article from 1958 – headlined “Taking Orders from a Gal Is OK if She’s Ida Lupino” – quoted Frank Lovejoy endorsing his “gal” director: “She’s the prettiest Director I’ve ever worked for. And I’d like to say that it was a pleasure to be able to call my director ‘honey’ and ‘doll’.”3
Intent on making a factual and tough docudrama about the “spree killer”, Lupino visited Billy Cook at San Quentin, where he granted her exclusive rights to his story. However, seeking Cook’s endorsement became the least of Lupino’s difficulties: production of The Hitch-Hiker was opposed by Geoffrey Sherlock, a representative of Joseph Breen from the Motion Picture Association, who objected on the grounds that it breached the Production Code’s prohibition of screen depictions of contemporary notorious criminals. James V. Bennett, an official with the Bureau of Prisons, also appealed to Breen by suggesting that Lupino had obtained Cook’s release of the film rights without having gone through the legal channels of copyright clearance regarding convicted felons. To appease both the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the Motion Picture Association, Lupino and Filmakers had to fictionalise the story, overlooking the gruesome murders and instead concentrating on two travellers, Ray Collins (Edmond O’Brien) and Gilbert Bowen (Frank Lovejoy), who unsuspectingly pick up the crazed hitch-hiker – still with a paralysed eye, but now called Emmett Myers (William Talman).
Despite the produced film being a fictionalised version of events, Howard Hughes’ RKO publicity team ignored this and produced theatrical posters and trailers declaring “The facts are actual. What is shown on the screen could of [sic] happened to YOU!” Lupino also took this tactic of ‘factual events’ when justifying the often-criticised anti-climactic ending: “I wanted realism! Billy Cook was captured by a Police authority just walking up to him and taking away his gun!”4 The paradox is that the plot was not allowed to tell the ‘Billy Cook story’, so any justification for this forcing the narrative into a particular direction was somewhat unpersuasive.
Lupino’s character study of these men is compelling thanks to her ability to deconstruct their macho exterior. Ray and Gilbert bicker and squabble about ways they can hoodwink their captor, stressing that only through their commitment to one another can they both survive. For this reason, the film plays as an intense and surprisingly progressive buddy movie lacking the expected stoic glorification of heroism – more a lesson on survival in the direst of environments, as the heroes show fear, praying for the hand of law to prevail. But it’s Lupino’s fascination with Emmett that deserves the most acknowledgment. While he is uncouth and deliciously nasty, and his inevitable arrest is met with some satisfactory relief, always at work is a sad, volatile vulnerability of a damaged madman whose behaviour can never be easily predicted; in scenes of raw emotional explosion, Talman seems to revel in a performance that is both savage and lucid, marking a career highlight.
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The Hitch-Hiker (1953 USA 71 mins)
Prod Co: RKO Radio Pictures, The Filmakers Prod: Collier Young Dir: Ida Lupino Scr: Ida Lupino, Collier Young, Daniel Mainwaring Phot: Nicholas Musuraca Ed: Douglas Stewart Mus: Leith Stevens
Cast: Edmond O’Brien, Frank Lovejoy, William Talman, José Torvay, Sam Hayes, Jean Del Val