The following analysis was written for my “Women as Filmmakers” class…
Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker, a low-budget film released in 1953, portrays a story based on real-life events that occurred about two years prior to production. Edmond O’Brien plays Roy Collins, who is driving along late at night with his friend Gilbert Bowen (Frank Lovejoy) on a weekend-long fishing trip. While on the way, they stop to pick up a man who seems to be harmlessly out of gas. It is Emmett Myers (William Talman), a hitch-hiker who is wanted for a series of murders he committed while hitch-hiking more than halfway across the country.
However, it is not your quintessential film noir that involves dark urban streets, the shadowy textures of blinds, and femme fatales. In fact, there are hardly any women in it. The only appearances of women include: the torso and legs of a woman shot to death (by Myers), and a couple who stop to offer help to Collins and Bowen when their tire blew out in Mexico. Otherwise, there are a minimal amount of characters in this film, with the main focus placed on the three men.
While there is a great deal of chiaroscuro going on in the aesthetics (it is still a film noir after all), much of it is heavily seen in the rocky desert landscape, which is beautifully photographed. Despite not being set in the usual confined spaces of an urban city, the constant use of wide open spaces proves to be very agoraphobic, which illustrates another type of anxiety. This can be especially felt when the men are forced to walk through the desert after their car breaks down, and Collins (who is suffering from a sore ankle) is desperate in his attempts to try and get the attention of a passing airplane by flailing his arms and yelling—but his efforts go unnoticed. There seems to be no escape from this nightmare. To juxtapose the open and endless road, the camera is usually restricted on a front-facing position of the three men sitting in the car, with Collins and Bowen in the front seat and Myers in the back: the out-of-control man always keeping control of his hostages. There are also closeups on the characters’ faces, and shots that are faced from the rear window of the car, giving it an equally anxiety-ridden and claustrophobic feeling.
The film itself is very simple, and not done in an over-the-top manner, which allows the story to play out well without any distractions. The answer to how this film might relate and be important to the history, growth, and development of (women’s) cinema could be found in its nuances. Film noir, like almost any film produced at the time, is usually directed and looked at from the perspective of men. While still using men as her main characters, Lupino puts her own touches into the film—in subtle yet effective ways. For instance, Bowen shows the tender side of a father who is facing the reality that he might not get to see his wife and kids again. The anguish is evident on his face as he rides along in the car, with the hitch-hiker occasionally taunting him of this. It isn’t just a one-time display of emotion, however, as Bowen rushes over to protect a Mexican shop owner’s young daughter after she approaches Myers, who shrugs her off with disgust. He holds her tight in a protective embrace, and in Spanish, he tells her, “Go you with God, little one.”
Since the moment both men picked up Myers, emotional layers are peeled back to add more depth to the characters. They are just two ordinary men who have found themselves in a dangerous situation, and one that they decide to face together. Myers mocks them for it, saying one of them could have saved himself and left the other. The decision of the two friends sticking together ultimately proves vital to their survival, instead of the “every man for himself” attitude that seems to be so prevalent in (male-directed) film noir. As a contrast, the machismo psychotic killer ends up being cowardly when his gun is knocked out of his hand and drops into the water. This ties in to an earlier scene when Collins—in a moment of anger—stands up to Myers, telling him that he is “nothing without his gun.”
With Lupino having directed prior films that often dealt with women’s social issues, she made a smooth transition into taking on the role of making movies such as The Hitch-Hiker, which gives “masculine” films an honest look on its characters and the situations they are faced with.