Bright Lights Film Journal

South of the Chocolate Mountains: Scattered Impressions of The Hitch-Hiker

Ida Lupino directing The Hitch-Hiker

Ida Lupino: Mother of Us All!

“Any rocks up there to give you a problem, darlin’?
Now, Walter baby, while we’re here we might as well take the posse through.
I want my camera here…That’s right. You read my mind, love…
Now the posse won’t be coming through at such a clip.
Start out at a reasonable speed… That’s it, sweetheart…
Now, are we lathering the horses in this sequence, sweetie? If not, we should be…
That’s divine, love. OK, follow Mother, here we go, kiddies!”

It is tempting to read parody into this transcript of Ida Lupino giving direction on a ’60s TV western. But the facts tend to support the legend. She was a director highly respected by veteran crews. She brought shows in under budget. She even had the tag “Mother of Us All” printed on the back of her chair.

Lupino had been in the industry since 1933 and had insider savvy, turning her acting fortunes around by snatching the role of Bessie in The Light That Failed from under Vivien Leigh’s nose in 1939, running an independent production facility from 1949, while continuing to act until 1978. In 1949 she negotiated with the powerful Production Code Administration to get Not Wanted, her risky story of unwed mothers, viable certification. “Like a downtown train, Lupino had moxie,” wrote Rick Donovan in Film and History in 1996. He could have been talking about the producer-director herself.

But the look and feel of her directed work now seems so inflected by the conventions of the industry B picture that we should not get too carried away with the image of Ida the mover and shaker. Indeed, Andre Bazin must have had such a career as Lupino’s in mind when he curbed overzealous Cahiers du cinema auteurists on the one hand, showing them the mystique of mise-en-scene on the other. What remains significant is that a woman managed to direct, write, and produce in the Hollywood of the ’50s. What remains exciting is how her films seemed to embody the music of chance, circumstance, and creativity that Bazin dubbed “the genius of the system.” The evidence of her peers and the evidence on screen bear out what was rash about high auteurism, for here was a vision shaped in the crucible of history.

The Hitch-hiker (1953) recently received a screening as part of a season of Lupino’s work at London’s National Film Theatre. It remains the most widely seen and appreciated film of an oeuvre that, sadly, has seldom received adequate tribute in the UK, Lupino’s country of birth. In it we find the gritty milieu, punchy storyline, and a feeling for social disadvantage that we see in her work as a contract star. The Hitch-hiker owes as much to the poverty row aesthetics that bred Lupino as it does to any auteurist notion of “Lupino.”

Hollywood movies have a knack of dramatizing the system’s workings and cultures. A desert sideshow becomes a metaphor for the old-style picturemaker’s relationship with his audience in Ace in the Hole (1951). A racetrack conceit can be read as a metaphor for the very conceit of picturemaking in The Sting (1973). Why are Julia Roberts and Cameron Diaz called “Julianne Potter” and “Kimmy Wallace” in the star vehicle My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997)? Ronnie Scheib, a Lupino commentator so graceful and intelligent that her commentary itself deserves attention, reads The Hitch-hiker as a metaphor for the director and the directed. In her view, Myers (William Talman), the murderous hitchhiking taskmaster holding up Bowen and Collins (Frank Lovejoy/Edmond O’Brien), intends to “direct” these men to their deaths. But in a further layer of “direction,” the police, whose reports Myers monitors, make him take measures in response to what he hears. For example, when they find their abandoned car, the police assume that Myers has already disposed of Bowen and Collins. Responding to this development, Myers pushes the exhausted men on to Santa Rosalia, where he is subsequently apprehended. It is not difficult to read a metaphor for the studio hierarchy into a scenario in which Lupino directs while herself being “directed.”

Lupino has acknowledged the influence of George Barnes, cinematographer on films directed by Allan Dwan, Raoul Walsh, and Fritz Lang, for whom Lupino also worked. Lupino’s directed works are marked by the narrative drive and no-nonsense visuals associated with these directors. “Events in a crisis are laid out like cards on a table,” wrote Francine Parker in Action in 1973. British critic Mark Cousins appreciates how in The Hitch-hiker: “You just get the bare bones. And that’s very enjoyable.” Shot on a low budget by Lupino’s outfit Filmmakers and distributed through RKO, the film is supremely economical, echoing the gangster programmers made at Lupino’s old employer Warner Brothers. As the credits roll, a glinting black revolver points at the audience. All we get as Myers shoots a woman to death is her handbag emptying itself onto the asphalt, and later a glimpse of her lacy hem as a trooper’s night light passes over the scene. In his introduction to the BBC2 Moviedrome screening in June 2000, Cousins was also impressed by cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca’s way of placing a spot on characters’ faces. Motivated by the production’s cheap sets, the device is consonant with ’50s thriller generics, and makes the most of Talman’s menacing stare.

The film’s use of sound is striking. At one point, a faulty connection sets the car horn off when the men hit a rut. As a farmer ambles by, the Plymouth’s klaxon becomes a piercing soundtrack to rising tension. Later at a filling station a dog barks repeatedly . . . a lone bird call accompanies Collins’ forlorn nocturnal escape attempt.

Whilst The Hitch-hiker returns to the western cordilleras of Lupino’s Warner classic High Sierra (1941), the milieu here has a greater sense of being inhabited than the spectacular metaphor of Walsh’s film. Heat and dust are everywhere. In a “snake-like performance” (Cousins), Talman’s Myers sleeps with one lazy eye open. Lacking human compassion and shocking in his otherness, Myers could be some reptile taken refuge in the car by night. Reiterating the image, editor Douglas Stewart at one point dissolves from Myers’ face to a stream slithering nearby. Daniel Mainwaring wrote the original story and, according to Cousins, was responsible for a good part of the script before losing his credit because RKO’s owner Howard Hughes disapproved of his left-wing sympathies. Detailed locations and, like Lupino, a feeling for the outsider are characteristic of Mainwaring’s work. However loathsome he may appear, there is more than a hint in Emmett Myers of a tough history.

If Mexico is traditionally regarded in Hollywood films as the wilderness beyond the suburbs, liminal space to which Americans go to resolve personal conflicts, think, or get stinko, here the country comes into its own. The script shows genuine respect for ethnicity. At one point, two Mexicans discuss the killer and his hostages in Spanish. Because we know that Myers plans to take them to Santa Rosalia, even if we don’t understand Spanish we can make sense of what is being said because of the way the film is designed. This confers purpose and dignity on the Mexicans and their conversation. Because we see a witness to Myers’ flight, elsewhere we can translate what he tells the Mexican police chief. When we need a translator, Bowen speaks good Spanish. Hollywood films seldom accord Latino nationals such respect. Here it is the Mexican police, in egalitarian collaboration with the FBI, who capture the killer. As Myers orders Collins to drive away from a filling station without waiting for change, we feel embarrassed on behalf of the pump attendant left standing in their backdraft. His exclamation – “Loco!” – brings us even nearer to him since it is a term used by both Mexicans and Americans.

If Lupino’s directed films bear any personal mark, it is perhaps her gentle regard for men and women constrained by misfortune, prejudice, and fear. Ronnie Scheib sees the theme of passivity in the face of tribulation throughout the oeuvre, interrogating the traditionally goal-directed protagonists of classical Hollywood even as Lupino deftly handles the aesthetics. In 1947 she sought potential projects about “poor, bewildered people. That’s what we all are.” In the early ’70s, she had hoped to film Frances Farmer’s autobiography. Sadly, it didn’t happen.