Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Noir Watch: The Hitch-Hiker (1953)

Watched:  02/25/2019
Format:  BluRay from Kino Lorber
Viewing:  first
Decade:  1950's

I told myself that this year I was going to watch all of the films I could obtain which were directed by Ms. Ida Lupino.

I primarily know Ida Lupino as an actor who sort of radiates a certain razor sharp intellect in roles as hero or villain, whether she's vicious or kind.  She's up there in my list of actors whose films I'll give a go even if the movie isn't to my taste.*

But as she is not *in* the movies she directs (understandably), I've not gotten around to seeing what she did standing behind the lens (less understandably).  Of the films, the most famous is likely the 1953 noir thriller, The Hitch-Hiker, which I recently picked up as a BluRay edition released by Kino Lorber, made from a restoration print struck at the Library of Congress.

The movie doesn't star anyone who has remained a household name - Edmond O'Brien, Frank Lovejoy and William Talman (recognizable to Perry Mason fans as D.A. Hamilton Burger).  Based (loosely) on a true story, the film also mimics the tension of a film like Key Largo or The Petrified Forest, but rather than innocents trapped by circumstance in a hotel or bar with a desperado, our two characters unwittingly pick up a killer as a hitch-hiker, who takes them hostage and into Mexico.

By this film, Lupino had several other movies under her belt as a director.  She's one of two names on the screenplay, and I do wonder how she chose the cast she did - all of whom are solid, but not well-known.  As a producer on the film as well (natch!), she could have come in with some ideas as to whom she wanted.

While a description of the set-up isn't terribly novel, there are differences in how the film's locked-box hostage situation plays out that makes for good character work.  Our two protagonists don't maintain a resolute all-American chin-up while they have a gun pointed at them 24x7 for days - they break.  Heck, the movie even allows their beards to grow over the course of time and their hair to become mussed in 1953, so you know it's a bad time.  While you do keep wondering "if you think you're going to die, surely some action is better than no action?", and the movie *mostly* handles that pretty well, but the instinct for survival and hoping for a perfect shot at their tormentor - as well as protecting each other - keeps them from jumping into the muzzle of a gun.

Talman's villain is nothing but poison, pure narcissism and cruelty.  SPOILER - when Talman's character is finally caught, the switch to the pathetic figure he truly is comes instantaneously, naturally and utterly believably, and made the entire film to that point worth it.  Like, seriously, @#$% this guy - because he feels all too real.  The deluded man-child who thinks everyone else is a sucker...  in ways big and small, we all come up against this guy (or woman) sooner or later.  His come-uppance is utterly satisfying.  END SPOILER

On a different note - Jamie and I were talking after the movie about how unusual it is to see the Mexican authorities treated in a movie as if they don't need American police help.  There's no condescending, even as an American colleague comes down to team-up, he's more or less and advisor or conduit, not the white savior of the north.  It's not a huge thing or the point of the film, but it IS how the movie plays out in 1953, which may say more for Lupino's interest in maintaining and respecting the reality of what occurred - something Hollywood has a very, very hard time doing.

There's no question The Hitch-Hiker is a relatively cheap B-picture, but it works very well.  As the only known noir of the classic era directed by a woman, it's of note.  But it's not just a trivia checkbox or historical curiosity, it's a good movie in its own right.

*and she had dreamy eyes


mcsteans said...

Side note, and something Ryan and I looked at each other with a "what?" afterwards. The Talman character is described in a radio announcement as being 28. Now I know people don't age as much now as they used to, but that dude was nowhere near 28. It was just strange because there was absolutely no reason that character had to be that young. It was a little distracting.

All in all, though, there was a lot to like about this movie. The tension could be felt throughout and I think it also benefited from the short running time. If this movie had been made today, they would have front-loaded it with backstory on our three main characters.

The League said...

That's true. The film runs a tight 71-72 minutes as a B programmer, and like many movies of the era isn't concerned with who these characters were before the incident - which both suggests a sort of "default is white dude in his 30's - you get it" typical of the era's films, but I think the blank slate-ness does work. It gives you an idea it could be ANY of us, which the movie actually specifically says as it opens.