Friday, April 25, 2014

Tonight's Movie: The Hitch-Hiker (1953) at the Noir City Film Festival

Time now to return to the last film on the last evening of this year's Noir City Film Festival, which wrapped up on April 6th, just days ahead of the TCM Classic Film Festival. Consequently this movie is part of quite a backlog of festival films I plan to review!

The "serial killer" double bill on the final night of the series started out with Joseph Losey's excellent remake of M (1951) and concluded with THE HITCH-HIKER (1953). THE HITCH-HIKER is a taut 71-minute kidnapping drama loosely inspired by a true story. It was directed by the amazing Ida Lupino, who was also among those who worked on the screenplay.

Roy Collins (Edmond O'Brien) and Gilbert Bowen (Frank Lovejoy) are longtime pals off on a fishing trip. The good-natured guys pick up a man (William Talman) they believe has run out of gas, intending to help out by dropping him off in the next town, but very unfortunately it turns out he's Emmett Myers, a psychotic killer who has already killed at least three other people that week. It won't be long before Roy and Gil have outlived their usefulness and he's ready to shoot them, too.

THE HITCH-HIKER is extremely well done, as one would expect given the talent in front of and behind the camera, although I must admit it's also more than a little exhausting! The tension is occasionally broken by a switch to Captain Alvarado (Jose Torvay) and others on the hunt for the killer and the missing men, but honestly I would have liked even more cuts away, or perhaps Reed Hadley in his frequent omniscient narrator role to reassure me all would be well.

As someone who enjoys both O'Brien and Lovejoy, I was again impressed by their work as two men who can't quite believe the hand they've been dealt by fate. Their very low-key "regular Joe" normality makes the film that much more relatable and scarier. They struggle through their fear in order to support one another, at times bravely snapping back at their tormentor and struggling to survive, while at other times ready to give up and be done with it.

The movie also makes believable that these two ordinary guys, on the wrong end of a gun, wouldn't at some point try to rush Myers and overpower him.

In recent years I've come to have considerable appreciation for William Talman, who was equally adept at playing crooks (ARMORED CAR ROBBERY) or heroes (ONE MINUTE TO ZERO). His portrayal of the sadistic Myers is absolutely chilling, not least the creepy detail that one of his eyes will never completely shut, so his victims can't tell whether or not he's asleep.

Given how very unusual Lupino was as a female director in 1950s Hollywood, it's particularly interesting that she headed up such a tough, gritty project, directing what is essentially a three-man character drama, with the other actors in the film in much smaller roles. Needless to say, she does a fine job. So fine that I'm not sure if I'll watch this one again! The movie packs quite a punch, and I particularly had trouble forgetting Myers' threat near the end to shoot the men and dump their bodies down a well. Lupino builds the suspense to an almost unbearable level, but the payoff is that the first sight of the barrel of a police gun aimed at the unaware Myers comes as a huge cathartic relief.

The film got me to wondering how stressful it is to make a movie like this. Somehow I can't imagine doing something this intense is much fun, but perhaps the cast members find it a welcome challenge.

THE HITCH-HIKER was shot in black and white by Nicholas Musuraca (OUT OF THE PAST).

THE HITCH-HIKER is available on a remastered DVD from Kino. It can be rented from Netflix or ClassicFlix.

It can be rented for streaming from Amazon Instant Video. Streaming THE HITCH-HIKER is free for Amazon Prime members.

Kim Morgan pays tribute to Ida Lupino and her work on this film at Sunset Gun.

Once again this year's Noir City Festival was a wonderful event! In the span of 17 days I saw 8 films which were brand-new to me and 5 which were repeat viewings. The biggest impressions were probably made by TOO LATE FOR TEARS (1949), HARDLY A CRIMINAL (1949), and ALIAS NICK BEAL (1949), but I enjoyed every single film I saw and am already eagerly anticipating the 17th annual festival in 2015.

Thanks to the Film Noir Foundation and the American Cinematheque for putting on such an outstanding series!

September 2019 Update: THE HITCH-HIKER is being released on Blu-ray this month by Kino Lorber, with extras including a commentary track by film historian Imogen Sara Smith.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh how I would love to see this film on the big screen.
Great review,Laura. And good for Ida Lupino,tackling a noir subject and doing it so memorably.
I too love the combo of Lovejoy and O'Brien.

11:14 PM  
Blogger Jerry E said...

Great little movie. William Talman was pretty scary and a long way from his role as Ham Burger in the long-running "Perry Mason" TV series.

7:48 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

I wish you both could have seen this. The print was just beautiful. One of the things that struck me was that good filmmakers can make a very scary film with no gore. The fear was created by the style (unseen but memorably depicted shootings) and the acting.

Best wishes,

10:35 PM  

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