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Release Date(s)1953 (October 15, 2013)
Studio(s)RKO (Kino Classics)
You and your buddy are off for a weekend to see the country, camp a little, fish a little, away from the wives and the kids and the stresses of everyday life. You’re driving along the open road when you see a fella with his thumb raised. It seems his car is out of gas, so you offer him a lift. He then points a gun at you, and your lives are changed from that moment forward. Such is the premise of director Ida Lupino’s taut 1953 thriller The Hitch-Hiker. “This is a true story of a man and a gun and a car... What you will see in the next seventy minutes could have happened to you. For the facts are actual.” So reads the disclaimer that opens the film, recently issued on Blu-ray in a “35mm Archival Restoration” from Kino Classics. Also a respected actress, Lupino was one of the few female filmmakers of the era. With her husband Collier Young, she also penned the screenplay to The Hitch-Hiker, and clearly patterned it after the real-life story of Billy Cook, a drifter who killed six travelers (including three small children) hitch-hiking between Missouri and California in 1950-1951. Cook, who was executed by the State of California in 1952, had a right eyelid that never closed completely; this trait would distinguish the murderous Emmet Myers (portrayed by William Talman) in the film.
The Hitch-Hiker is often considered the first and only classic film noir directed by a woman, but it doesn’t neatly fit into the noir box as defined by, say, the presence of an urban setting, a hard-boiled private eye or a striking femme fatale. There’s no erotic tension as in many noirs, either. But putting aside the debate as to what actually defines a film noir, The Hitch-Hiker is a gripping, suspenseful crime drama and adventure. Lupino‘s direction is stylish but not flashy. Talman’s troubled, psychotic Myers is first introduced from the waist-down; when he victimizes the passengers of one car, we hear two gunshots; a handbag and pack of cigarettes fall to the ground. His face is revealed on a newspaper photo, but when the camera follows him, his visage is cloaked in shadow. Talman, best known for portraying D.A. Hamilton Burger in the television series Perry Mason, is unsettling in his plum role as the sadistic killer. As sadistic as his character may be, there’s always the sense in his performance that something even more evil lurks under the surface.
As the two men he forces to accompany him through Mexico, Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy do their best to create compelling portrayals despite the script leaving very little room for subtext or deep characterization. They’re stand-ins for the audience members, and more than once, you’ll find yourself asking, “What would I do?” O’Brien as Roy Collins and Lovejoy as Gilbert Bowen fare particularly well in one nerve-wracking sequence in which Myers places a loaded rifle in Bowen’s hand, and instructs him at gunpoint to shoot a tin can out of his friend Collins’ hand. Another scene of mounting tension occurs when Collins, Bowen and Myers stop to get some sleep. Is Myers, with his one eye perpetually open, really sleeping? There are numerous close calls throughout The Hitch-Hiker, all expertly staged by Lupino, such as when they visit a grocery store or a gas station. Talman’s level of discomfort when his character meets a young Mexican girl is bone-chilling. When he reveals his troubled past, this outcast is rendered with just enough empathy by the actor portraying him. Lovejoy is commendable conveying Bowen’s stoic nature, while O’Brien is believable as Collins teeters on the verge of a breakdown.
The Hitch-Hiker focuses on its three central characters, intermittently cutting to the outside world as the authorities track them to their destination of Santa Rosalia on the Baja California peninsula. By keeping the focus tight, Lupino maintains a quiet tension throughout the short running time. It’s all very straightforward, but absorbing. When Collins explodes, “You haven’t got a thing except that fun... without it, you’re nothing,” he keys in on the film’s central exploration: of the power of the gun and how that power can be misplaced in the hands of a troubled individual. More than fifty years after The Hitch-Hiker premiered, guns – and their availability to those afflicted with mental illness – are still the subject of national debate. Presenting a case inspired by real life, the movie feels all too relevant and realistic even today. (Only the series of coincidences that lead the police to Myers come across as a bit convenient.) At its conclusion, following a climactic showdown on a dock, Lupino makes it clear that all three men’s lives have been irrevocably changed.
As with other recent Kino releases, the video quality – “mastered in HD from archival 35mm elements preserved by the Library of Congress” – is solid. Kino has clearly taken a good print, transferred it to high definition and undertaken restoration work that remains true to the print. As a result of this subtle restoration style, there are blemishes, scratches and other spots of damage that you’d be less likely to find on, say, a Criterion Collection release. Kino’s treatment is superior, however, to the overly processed style that leads to an artificial quality. There is visible grain in this 1080p presentation which retains its cinematic look, and the black-and-white colors are nicely delineated, especially with much of the picture (including the final sequence) taking place in the evening. The linear PCM 2.0 audio track is similarly decent on both dialogue and Leith Stevens’ dramatic, thunderous score. The only deficiencies come from some odd moments when Talman’s voice becomes obviously muffled as if poorly dubbed in post-production. It’s unfortunate that Kino has included no subtitles whatsoever. (There are even some scenes spoken in Spanish that could have benefitted from translation.)
No bonus material has been appended to The Hitch-Hiker other than a trailer gallery (for Kino’s White Zombie, The Night Tide and The Stranger) and an image gallery of lobby cards and the like. Despite the lack of bells and whistles, this is a quality presentation of a low-budget B-thriller that otherwise might have slipped through the cracks or remained available only in cheap public domain presentations. One could do much worse than spend 71 minutes with Ida Lupino’s tense road movie-turned-nightmare.
- Joe Marchese