Monday, 10 April 2017

AFS Screening: The Hitch-Hiker

Usually my modus operandi with picking Auckland Film Society screenings is to pick movies I have never seen before. I made an exception in this case -- I saw this film about five years ago  but I could not remember anything about it.

The Hitch-Hiker is the most famous film directed by Hollywood film star Ida Lupino. Critically re-evaluated since her death,  Lupino is now better known as one of the major female directors during Hollywood's golden era. Her other films include Outrage (1950), the second Hollywood film to deal seriously with the issue of rape, and The Bigamist (1953), a sensitive, understated story about a man and his two unknowing spouses. The Hitch-Hiker holds the distinction of being the only classic film noir made by a woman.

Two friends, Roy (Edmond O'Brien) and Gilbert (Frank Lovejoy) go on a road trip from California to Mexico for a fishing trip. Their journey takes a turn for the worse when they pick up a hitchhiker who turns out to be serial killer Emmett Myers (William Talman). Myers hijacks the vehicle and demands that they drive him south. While the authorities scramble to find them, Roy and Gilbert try to find a way out of their predicament before the unstable Hitch-Hiker loses interest in keeping them alive...

At a neat 71 minutes, The Hitch-Hiker is a little marvel. Like one of my favourite noirs, The Narrow Margin, this little B-movie packs a hell of a lot into its short running time. Within ten minutes, we have been introduced to our main characters and the plot has been initiated.

Based on a true story, The Hitch-Hiker is a late entry in the cycle of 'realistic' crime films like The House on 92nd Street, Panic in the Streets and The Naked City -- although it lacks the documentary-style aesthetic of those films. In contrast to the popular image of noir, a good deal of the film's action takes place in the daytime.

Lupino's direction is great. The movie is shot and cut in a very dynamic but straightforward style. The movie is paced well, and she finds ways to make every scene visually interesting, but without drawing attention to the style. It's classic studio continuity filmmaking and Lupino directs like an old pro.

The highlight, in terms of direction and impact, is the finale. Having secured a boat to make his getaway, Myers leads his hostages along a shadowy pier. Unbeknownst to the trio, the police have been alerted to his move and are lying in weight to ambush them. Using chiaroscuro and extremely detailed sound design (with no music, thankfully), it is an extremely tense and atmospheric sequence.

The performances by the main actors are all great -- Lovejoy and O'Brien were not stars, but they were great character actors who make for an extremely relatable pair of average joes in over their heads.

    O'Brien in particular stands out for his building resentment toward their captor. The scene where he breaks down at the hopelessness of their predicament is heart-breaking, even with the inappropriate music sting that punctuates his outburst. O'Brien has always been one of my favourite actors from this period (if you haven't, check out his lead performance as a dying man hunting for the men who killed him in 1950's existential nightmare DOA).

    Talman is rather striking as the villain. One eye permanently half-open, he certainly looks deranged, and his performance is effective for the most part. There's something a bit stilted about him that never made him feel as threatening as he could be. The presence of O'Brien immediately made me think of DOA, in which he has to contend with a psychotic gangster played by Neville Brand. Brand played his role like an over-aged kid, hyperactive and sadistic, which feels more like the character as described in The Hitch-Hiker. Talman comes across as too old and traditionally sinister, which makes the character feel a little neutered.

    A few words about the screening experience. The release we watched was the Blu-ray release. It was generally pretty good, but there were some very noticeable sound drop-outs, and a few places where the film was obviously damaged. As far as the movie itself goes, the only flaw is the intrusive music score which detracted from the tension in certain sequences.
    But those are minor niggles. The Hitch-Hiker is a terrific example of classic noir, a forerunner of all your favourite road suspense pictures (Duel, The Hitcher, and Road Games), and a great entry point to the work of one of classic Hollywood's most undervalued talents.

    Previous AFS reviews

    Purple Noon (2015)

    The Servant 

    Eyes Without A Face 

    Night of the Demon (2016)

    Grand Central

    Tales of Hoffman

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