Bright Lights Film Journal

Ida Lupino’s American Psycho: The Hitch-Hiker (1953)

“In The Hitch-Hiker, Lupino offers an unusually sustained visual examination of the average male body that is then contrasted against the anarchic body of the Psycho. Myers is often shown from a low angle, perched on the car, looking down at the men as he taunts them, the spider savoring the anxious prey. At the same time, Myers demonstrates an onanistic fascination with his own gun, which he frequently and lingeringly looks down at.”

Directed and co-written by Ida Lupino and shot by Nicholas Musuraca, whose credits include Siodmak’s The Spiral Staircase (1945) and Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947), The Hitch-Hiker (1953) is a taut, compelling, and at times brilliantly suggestive film noir-thriller. The film showcases Lupino’s idiosyncratic strengths as a director while offering an unusually direct and cogent critique of American masculinity’s investments in and estrangement from a culture of fraternity and brotherhood. At the same time, it is an indelible cinematic portrait of a long-standing movie figure that I call the Psycho, as I will elaborate

Richard Widmark as Tommy Udo in Kiss of Death

The Psycho, who emerged in the films of the late 1940s was a character who flouted any conventional form of authority — the law, family, social mores — in a particularly spectacular fashion. The kinds of murderous violence that had once occurred offscreen gained a new visibility when the first truly significant American movie Psycho, Richard Widmark’s maniacally grinning Tommy Udo, pushed the wheelchair-bound Mildred Dunnock down the stairs in Hathaway’s Kiss of Death (1947).

From the 1920s to the 1940s, the “homicidal maniac” was usually associated with physical deformity, outlandish bodies, and sinister occupations such as somnambulist; if played by a “smoothie” such as Basil Rathbone, the crazed character would be given at least one onscreen meltdown, an explosion of facial tics, and other telltale signs of madness that alerted the audience to the madness within.1 Kim Newman locates the emergence of the “modified” Psycho in the indelible pair of 1960 films Psycho and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom. The new Psychos these films showcased were “withdrawn, vaguely effeminate, neurotic, apparently harmless men.” The average, unassuming appearance and manner of these new kinds of psychotic males represented a break with earlier forms of screen villainy.

If the psychotic male was a character type in transition, a blur of the foreigner and/or English type of scientist or pseudoscientist who performed hideous experiments in secret and this later, nondescript, seemingly normal character of the kind Newman describes, characters such as Tommy Udo, Anthony Perkins’s Norman Bates (Psycho), and Robert Mitchum’s Max Cady (Cape Fear) are notable in their deep Americanness. They evoke regional identities while seeming like they could have only bloomed in such twisted fashion on native soil. Most importantly, while threatening to male authority, they are especially threatening to women, whom they alternately murder and terrorize with sexual violence.2

What is most interesting about the Psycho of Lupino’s film, Emmett Myers, is that he upholds no law or code or institutional value. Throughout, he is an unclassifiable presence that threatens to explode the male status quo. He violates the codes of male bonding and exposes masculinity as a form of gender drag, as I will show.

William “Billy” Cook captured by Mexican authorities

According to Frank Miller, “After four women’s pictures, Lupino took a different approach with The Hitch-Hiker. The story was based on real-life serial killer William Cook, who killed six people who picked him up as he hitched his way across the American Southwest and Mexico in 1950. He was captured after taking two prospectors hostage and sent to the gas chamber in 1952.”

Lupino interviewed one of the hostages and obtained releases from both hostages and Cook himself. She then peppered the screenplay with elements of Cook’s life, including his abusive childhood and a genetic deformity that made it impossible for him to close his right eye. To appease the Production Code, which objected to film versions of recent crimes, she reduced the body count from six to three, eliminating the three children Cook had murdered. But changing the kidnapped prospectors to businessmen off on an innocent fishing trip was entirely her idea. It allowed her to explore the gradual breakdown of two men living a solid, middle-class existence who are suddenly confronted with the killer’s uncontrollable psychotic rage.3

Among those murdered by the real-life killer Billy Cook, who posed as a hitch-hiker, was the Mosser family from Illinois. In contrast, The Hitch-Hiker commences with an oblique depiction of the murder of a newlywed couple, their bodies left inside and along with their car on the side of the road. Immediately, the film suggests that the killer, Emmett Myers (William Talman), is an enemy of all of the trappings of society at its most hopeful and normative, the young and newly married heterosexual couple embodying promise and reproductive futurity.

James Burke and Forrest Damron

Cook kidnapped two American men, James Burke and Forrest Damron, amateur prospectors from El Centro, California, who were on a hunting trip to Mexico when Cook captured them after they offered Cook a ride. The men later explained that they never attempted to escape because they could never tell when Cook was sleeping, due to his right eye that never closed, which made them feel he was constantly watching them. “Holding them at gunpoint, Cook forced the men to drive their maroon 1950 Studebaker deeper into Mexico . . . For eight days and nights, Billy kept his prisoners at bay while camping out in the deserted frontier of northern Mexico.” On the day that Cook was apprehended — after forcing Burke and Damron to drive him to Santa Rosarito, “a small Mexican fishing village on the Gulf of the Baja coast,” the young police chief Francisco Kraus Morales recognized Cook from international wanted posters and arrested him without incident — he told the arresting officers who shackled him, “I hate everybody’s guts and everybody hates mine.”4Pace Frank Miller, Lupino did not invent the story of Cook’s capture of two male hostages. But she and her fellow screenwriters — her husband Collier Young and Robert L. Joseph, who adapted the original story by Daniel Mainwaring, the blacklisted screenwriter of Out of the Past, who did not receive screen credit for The Hitch-Hiker — seized on the specific portion of Cook’s killing spree that involved his capture of two men, and it is this focus on male-male relationships that gives her film its distinctiveness and oddly urgent volatility.

Gilbert Bowen (Frank Lovejoy) and Roy Collins (Edmond O’Brien)

The ex-convict Emmett Myers is a wanted man, the killer of two Oregon newlyweds and a salesman; unfortunately for two Arizona men, Gilbert Bowen (Frank Lovejoy), a draughtsman, and Roy Collins (Edmond O’Brien), a garage owner, Myers is the hitch-hiker they pick up on their drive across the California-Mexico border to a fishing vacation in Baja California, one of the 31 states that comprise the 32 Federal Entities of Mexico. Lupino introduces Gil and Roy, Roy at the wheel, traveling through the desolate, mountain-encroached desert in the ominous darkness. When they get to the next intersection, the following conversation takes place:

Gil: “Why don’t you turn south.”
Roy: “The Chocolate Mountains are east.”
Gil: “Who needs the Mountains? Why don’t we go to San Felipe?”
Roy: “Nothing to do in San Felipe but fish.”
Gil: “That was the idea, wasn’t it?”

They talk of getting a drink at the Alhambra club in Mexicali with “Floribel,” and the tone shifts, with the livelier Roy encouraging the now more taciturn Gil. Gil then reflects that it was so many years ago since they saw Floribel that she is probably dead. “Poor old Floribel.” “Well, we might as well drink a toast to her,” Roy says. The entire exchange appears to be a stylized form of mutual encouragement toward the excesses of “boys will be boys,” a wild night in Mexico, under the guise of reasonable decision making. Gil then muses, with an ambiguously wistful tone, “Except for the war, this is the first time I’ve been away from Maudie and the kids . . . Mexicali is starting to sound good.” But when they pull up to a nightclub, whose promoter encourages them to come in and see a Juanita’s famous “fan dance,” and Roy excitedly turns to Gil, he discovers that Gil is fast asleep. Resignedly, Roy drives away with the sleeping Gil. But then Gil surreptitiously opens his eye, revealing that he has been pretending to be asleep. Gil, the family man, is clearly enmeshed in a push-pull relationship to his own desires, desirous of fraternal excess but too guilty about “Maudie and the kids” to act on these longings. Interestingly, Gil’s closed, secretly open, eye links him to the killer Myers and his extravagantly symbolic all-seeing eye.

“Morally, the men are closer to Myers than they think.”

After the men pick up the hitch-hiker, he immediately reveals his identity as Myers to the men, suggesting that he will likely murder them; to convince Myers that no one will be looking for him and Gil, Roy assures the killer that the friends told their wives, nonchalantly, to expect them whenever they happen to get home. In a later scene, Myers confronts them about lying to their wives about going to the Chocolate Mountains in Arizona, “near home.” “That’s what you told your wives,” Myers gloats, standing above the trapped, optionless men “And then you came to Mexico. What for? Dames? You guys ought to be ashamed of yourselves, causing all that trouble, telling lies. They got everybody and his brother looking for you in them mountains.” What seems to have been their spontaneous decision to go carousing in Mexico rather than to the mountains becomes, in Myers’ narrativization of their actions, a more considered and intentional ruse. In other words, morally, the men are closer to Myers than they think, as Myers surmises.

Sadistic, antic Myers’ tormenting of the men includes a perverse scene of shooting practice while they are all in the desolate, rock-strewn desert during the day. Roy acidly comments, “I guess we won’t be eating rabbit for dinner” after Myers shoots at, Sand misses, the animal. In retaliation, Myers forces Roy to walk up to some large boulders in the distance and place a beer can on one of the rocks, which Myers immediately shoots at with his gun, knocking off the can. Myers then forces Gil to use his rifle to shoot at the can once again placed on a rock. But then Myers ups the ante, forcing Gil to take an even more difficult shot in which he must now hit the can in Roy’s upheld hand. Gil does manage to shoot the can, but this sustained torture scene clearly pushes the men to the breaking point, as Gil’s grim expression conveys.

Myers (William Talman), Gil, and Roy

In the shot of Myers leering and pointing his gun at Gil as Gil laboriously aims his rifle at the can in Roy’s hand, Lupino creates a visual allegory of a culture of male violence and of men during war that also parodies these male-inflected phenomena: the peaceful Gil is forced to shoot at another man, his brother-like old friend, not by Uncle Sam but by a perverse, anarchic presence outside the law. The backdrop of the Korean War (1950-1953) was surely an influential factor here, charging this tableau with added significance. The film picks up on the sense of a national ambivalence over this unpopular war, deepened by a post-World War II weariness. Lupino brilliantly thematizes the compulsory carnage of war by depicting Myers’ sadistic manipulation of the men, their helpless acquiescence to his arbitrary whims.

Santa Rosalia

Further acts of brutality include Myers pistol-whipping Roy because the radio, which Myers obsessively listens to for status updates of the police manhunt for him, stops working. (Earlier, they had stopped the car so that Roy could repair the car horn, giving him the opportunity to sabotage the radio.) On their way to Santa Rosalia, the men stop at a gas station and steal fuel. Gil manages to leave behind his wedding ring, which the police discover; cannily, the police then proceed to mislead Myers by broadcasting the news that they do not believe he is heading for Santa Rosalia with Gil and Roy. Throughout their ordeal, Gil maintains a steadier control over his emotions than Roy, who even goes so far as to say that the captive men should split up and each take their chances, a plan the more cerebral Gil rejects. But later that night, Roy attempts to escape, and Gil follows him into the vast nighttime desert.

Myers, due to a birth defect, can never fully close one eye; he has had this eye, whose powers of surveillance he boasts about, on the men, and easily tracks them down once they attempt to escape. Roy stumbles on a trap, and Gil attempts to help him as the car Myers drives roars to a stop, its headlights mercilessly exposing the men in the darkness with inescapable light. The men, as helpless as infants, huddle when Myers bears down on them.

In the morning, Myers brings the men to a deserted mine shaft, with the intention of plunking them down into its nearly bottomless depths (as Billy Cook did to the family he abducted and murdered); but then, hearing the false information being disseminated by the police, Myers believes he is not being pursued on his way to Santa Rosalia and even considers freeing the men, only to discover that the car’s crankshaft no longer works, as Roy is only too pleased to tell him. Despite Roy’s injured ankle, Myers forces the men to walk the rest of the way to Santa Rosalia. To add insult to Roy’s real injury, Myers forces him to switch outfits with him. Roy now wears Myers’ dark leather jacket, while Myers wears Roy’s outdoorsy ensemble.

At the cantina

Myers buys his hostages beer in a cantina, in an incongruous note of generosity. Told that the ferry he was planning to catch has burned down, Myers arranges, with the bartender’s cousin, whose friend has a boat, for a boat ride to Guyamas that night; the cousin, however, sees a wanted poster of Myers and notifies the police.

When they arrive at the nighttime dock, Captain Alvarado (Jose Torvay), who has been working with the American authorities to capture Myers, and his men are lying in wait, but they initially mistake Roy, dressed, after all, as Myers, for the killer and nearly shoot him. Gil and Myers struggle, Gil managing to wrest the gun from him. Once Alvarado and his men capture Myers, he still puts up a terrific struggle; Roy delivers a series of punches to the captured killer, who is taken away by the authorities at last. After Alvarado tells the men, apologetically, that he will need a full report in the morning, Gil and Roy, Gil’s arm around Roy, walk slowly out from the dark pier.

Huck Finn and Jim as interpreted by Thomas Hart Benton

Leslie Fiedler’s famous essay “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!” was published in Partisan Review in 1948 and, immediately controversial, provoked a great deal of critical discussion. Fiedler argued here and in his most famous book, Love and Death in the American Novel (1960), that male relationships were central to American literature and that these relationships were shot through with what Fiedler problematically, on several levels, referred to as “innocent homosexuality.” Duos such as the white boy Huckleberry Finn and the runaway slave Jim and the white man Natty Bumppo and the “Mohican” Chingachgook were key examples for Fiedler. The Last of the Mohicans emblematized “the pure marriage of males, sexless and holy, a kind of counter-matrimony, in which the white refugee from society and the dark-skinned primitive are joined till death do them part.”

Nineteenth-century works such as Cooper’s frequently defy Fiedlerian paradigms, exploring deep levels of ambivalence in male-male relationships, but Fiedler’s contention that American men want to flee the “gentle tyranny of home and woman” is borne out in consistent depictions of this theme in representation and American culture generally, as the “road” movies of the 1950s, the buddy films of the 1970s, and Judd Apatow’s endless spate of “beta-male” comedies such as Knocked Up exemplify.5 While Lupino’s film engages with several themes and tensions within Fiedler’s work, it also provocatively enlarges our understanding of an earlier and equally indelible paradigm about American literature. In his 1923 Studies in Classic American Literature, D. H. Lawrence wrote, “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.” The next line states: “It has never yet melted.”

Ethan Edwards (John Wayne): “friendless and cut off from family by his own choice at the end of the film”

Emphasizing fraternal bonds, brotherhood, and male friendship, American culture has historically relegated the frightening isolation of the “essential” American soul to the sidelines, or to genre productions such as the Western (John Wayne’s legendary Ethan Edwards in Ford’s The Searchers, friendless and cut off from family by his own choice at the end of the film), horror, and film noir, which foreground and explore male isolation. The “killer” instincts of the hard isolate stoic male figure—which culminate in his profound resistance to community — faces off against the seeming suture of male friendship in The Hitch-Hiker.

Long before the emergence of the term bromance, Lupino’s film depicts male friendship as an attempted escape from the demands of not only the family but coupled life. Roy has a wife, but no family is mentioned; he seems, if anything, even more eager to get away and have an adventure than the family man Gil. The suggestion subtly made is that when Roy stops to pick up the hitch-hiker, who turns out to be Myers, he is looking for a companion who will more avidly share in his adventurous escape from responsibility.

Myers reveals his criminal identity once Roy offers him a cigarette, to which gesture Myers responds by pointing a gun at the men. The gift of the cigarette, which establishes friendly rapport between male strangers and promises potential community, is met with the explicit violation of implicit codes of bonding across the lines of anonymity and class, since the drifter Myers seems to occupy a lower class status than Roy, who, as a garage owner, is presented as being of lower class status than the draughtsman Gil.

Indeed, part of the socially disruptive threat of the Psycho lies in his penchant for making such implicit tensions explicit. Myers openly announces that Gil, being more educated than Roy, is also smarter than he is. “What do you do for a living?” he asks. “I’m a draughtsman, he runs a garage,” answers Gil quietly. “So that makes you smarter,” Myers responds, adding, to make sure the threat he poses is palpable, “or does it?” The men’s stoic expressions during this exchange convey the sense that they are keeping all of their reactions to Myers at bay. A strong class discourse informs the film, in that the “smarter” draughtsman Gil contains and controls his emotions much more effectively than the garage owner Roy, given to emotional impulsiveness, does; in this manner, Gil reads as much more middle class, Roy as working class, conventionally. Roy seems far more connected to transgressive pleasures than Gil, who wistfully desires them but sleeps through his opportunity to experience them.

“a figure enshrouded in Stygian darkness”

Nicholas Musuraca’s Expressionistic style initially presents Myers, sitting in the backseat, as a figure enshrouded in Stygian darkness whose face emerges out of the darkness that continues to engulf his body. Lupino frequently maintains a focus on the three principal actors’ faces, so that the film becomes a meditation on the varieties of the male face. None of the actors are movie-star handsome, and indeed they seem to have been chosen for their average-Joe realism as well as their acting skills. But the focus on their faces and the contrasts in their physicalities force us to contemplate the specific and distinct aspects of the men’s features and bodies.

This film offers us a diegetic world largely devoid of women. The intent, claustrophobic, almost invasively intimate focus on the men, often shot in close-up, foregrounds cinematic male physicality Myers, with his rabid energy and freak-show eye that refuses to close, rendering him a cinematic Cyclops, commands the screen, inciting the gaze. It is he, not the woman of conventional film narrative, who connotes “to-be-looked-at-ness” here. The queerness of the film emerges from the spectacle of anarchic masculinity that is always offered in contrast to average masculinity.

Gil and Roy

The average bodies of the men, emphasized by their clothing, particularly Roy’s fishing cap and more obviously outdoorsy outfit, in contrast to Myers in his classically coded sinister dark leather jacket and pants, seem an interestingly odd fit for the camera’s fascination and probity. In Kathryn Bigelow’s surfer-crime classic Point Break (1991), her languorous fixation on the bodies of the men, who are not only surfers but skydivers, emphasizes but also draws inspiration from their resplendently beautiful, toned, honed physicalities. In The Hitch-Hiker, Lupino offers an unusually sustained visual examination of the average male body that is then contrasted against the anarchic body of the Psycho. Myers is often shown from a low angle, perched on the car, looking down at the men as he taunts them, the spider savoring the anxious prey. At the same time, Myers demonstrates an onanistic fascination with his own gun, which he frequently and lingeringly looks down at.

Lupino directing The Hitch-hiker

While a great deal more should be said about the film, in conclusion I want to argue that, along with the earlier Kiss of Death and the later Psycho and Cape Fear, The Hitch-Hiker offers in its depiction of Myers the Psycho as a socially disruptive force who stands outside of the law and the family. What marks Lupino’s film as especially distinctive in its representation of the Psycho is that here the character principally terrorizes other men. Myers’ own sexuality is left completely ambiguous, with no suggestion that he longs for female sexual spoils; indeed, his interrogation of the men assigns heterosexuality squarely to them (Dames?).

While dispensing with Fiedler’s paradigms of male friendship as a valorized escape for domesticated men, Myers only partially upholds Lawrence’s model, being stoic, isolate, and certainly a killer, yet in no coherent way a “hard” form of masculinity. In his amorphously disorienting, fluid presence, Lupino’s Psycho is an ectoplasmic threat, the raw unprocessed material of an unclassifiable form of male sexuality that intersects oddly with the emergent and today all too familiar figure of the spree killer whose murderous rampage stems from total disengagement with and from the social order.

  1. Kim Newman, Nightmare Movies: Horror on Screen Since the 1960s (Bloomsbury, 2011), 120-1. []
  2. Psycho, given Hitchcock’s inherent queering of all narratives, is in a category quite distinct here: Norman Bates remains forever sui generis. Perhaps the most important Psycho of post-classical Hollywood is Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) in Scorsese’s great 1976 Taxi Driver. As I have argued elsewhere, the Psycho character of contemporary films like Phone Booth, One Hour Photo, Saw, and Hostel is oddly moralistic, upholding normative values. These characters evoke Travis Bickle, especially in his outsider, social-pariah qualities, but the films do not offer Taxi Driver‘s blistering social critique. See Greven, “American Psycho Family Values: Conservative Cinema and the New Travis Bickles,” Millennial Masculinity: Men in Contemporary American Cinema, edited by Timothy Shary (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2012), 143-62. []
  3. Frank Miller. “The Hitch-Hiker: There’s Death in His Upraised Thumb!” http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/78138/The-Hitch-Hiker/articles.html Accessed on November 6, 2013. []
  4. Harrell Glenn Crowson, Almost Eleven: The Murder of Brenda Sue Sayers (Friesen MPress, 2013), ii-iv. []
  5. For a discussion the beta male comedies of the Judd Apatow school of masculinity, see Greven, “‘I Love You, Brom Bones’: Beta Male Comedies and American Culture,” Quarterly Review of Film and Video 30.3 (May 2013), 405-20. []