Dracula with music by Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet at Arlene Schnitzer Center, Portland, OR

Friday, January 30, 2015

The Hitch-Hiker (1953)

"Whatever you do, don't pick up strangers." We all remember our mothers (and fathers) telling us those words before we went on a long trip by ourselves in a car. And I never picked up a stranger until a few years ago. Returning from the beach one night, I spied a young man and woman walking on the shoulder of a dark stretch of road. I had seen a car off to the shoulder about a mile behind them. I figured that was their car.  So I picked them up.  The reason I picked them up is I had six other people in my SUV with me. I wasn't worried about getting murdered and cut up into tiny pieces.  It turns out their car ran out of gas.  I took them back to their nearby town so the young man could get a can of gas and his other car. They were very appreciative and he even gave me $20 which I kept trying to give back to him but to no avail. But my little niece gave me the evil stink eye the rest of the way home.

Hitchhikers get a bad rap.  For the most part, they're young (or old) wanderers with little money or no wheels trying to get from one place to another.  It's the people picking up the hitchhikers that you should be more worried about.  But not all hitchhikers are good. When THE HITCHER with Rutger Hauer came out in 1986 (and subsequently remade in 2007 with Sean Bean), I thought to myself why hasn't someone done a film about a psychopathic hitchhiker before.  It turns out someone had.  Actress Ida Lupino directed the film noir-ish 1953 thriller THE HITCH-HIKER. Lupino is a pioneer as maybe the first and only woman to direct a film noir film.

Director Lupino co-wrote THE HITCH-HIKER with her then husband Collier Young (who also produced), adapted by Robert Joseph, based on the true story of killer Billy Cook who went on a murderous hitchhiking killing spree from 1950-51.  Lupino and her actors are all film noir veterans. Actor Edmond O'Brien was in D.O.A (1950).  Frank Lovejoy appeared in IN A LONELY PLACE (1950) with Humphrey Bogart.  And psychotic hitchhiker William Talman had roles in ARMORED CAR ROBBERY (1950) and THE RACKET (1951). Even Lupino starred in ON DANGEROUS GROUND (1951) and played opposite Bogart in HIGH SIERRA (1941). The only character missing in THE HITCH-HIKER is the femme fatale although this time she's behind the camera i.e. Lupino.

THE HITCH-HIKER begins stylistically. We only see the hitchhiker's thumb and shoes at first as he's picked up first by a young married couple whom he murders and robs and next a traveling salesman who meets a similar fate. It's the unfortunate luck of two buddies Roy Collins (Edmond O'Brien) and Gilbert Bowen (Frank Lovejoy) on a guy's weekend fishing trip to pick up the hitchhiker next. Director Lupino still keeps the hitchhiker in the dark literally in the backseat until he pulls out his gun. The men have picked up Emmett Myers (Frank Talman who played Perry Mason's nemesis District Attorney Hamilton Burger in TV's PERRY MASON), also known as the Kansas Desperado. Myers is a sadistic, psychotic murderer.

Myers has the two men take him over the border into Mexico (which apparently was quite easy in 1953 with just a single checkpoint and one border guard). Myers plan is to reach the coast town of Santa Rosalia where he plans to kill the two men and hop a ferry across the Gulf of California to Guaymas on the Mexican mainland. But during the journey Myers and Collins & Gil will wage a psychological game of cat and mouse against each other. Myers, a loner, seems to have a chip on his shoulder riding with these two friends. He challenges Gil to a shooting contest and forces Gil to play a dangerous game, shooting a can out of Collins's hand. Collins begins to crack as Myers picks on him. One night at an abandoned airfield, Collins tries to flee to get help, Gil chasing after him but Myers chases them down with the car. Myers doesn't speak any Spanish which makes him nervous whenever they stop for gas or groceries.

After the bodies of Myers previous victims are found, a Government Agent (Clark Howat) working with Captain Alvarado (Jose Torvay) with the Mexican police begin tracking Myers. They even plant a phony news broadcast for the paranoid Myers to hear, making him think the police are looking elsewhere as they track him south of the border. The men's car suffers a flat tire but Gil fixes that. Later, Collins puts a hole in the gas tank, crippling the vehicle.

Myers makes Collins and Gil walk the rest of way to Santa Rosalia. When they reach the town, they discover the ferry is out of commission (a fire) and will not be repaired for several months. Myers and the two men search the docks for another boat that can take Myers across the Gulf. But the Mexican authorities are waiting and ambush Myers in a tense final showdown.

The more modern THE HITCHER films portrayed its hitchhiker character John Ryder as a nihilist, totally destructive toward his victims, surroundings, and even himself. There was no backstory to Ryder. He was just pure evil. In THE HITCH-HIKER, killer Emmett Myers has more depth. He's a loner, his parents abandoning him at an early age. He has no friends. He seems jealous of Collins and Gil's friendship. He tries to become a wedge between the two men. He has to prove he's a better shot than Gil. He's frustrated when the two men can speak Spanish to the locals and he can't. "You guys are soft, " he says. "You've always had it good, so you're soft. Well, not me! Nobody ever gave me anything, so I don't owe nobody!" Myers has an axe to grind with anyone who's smarter or better off than he is. But he's still bad, shooting a barking dog one night when it annoys him.

Film noir films usually involve detectives and take place in urban settings like big cities. Although film noir began in the 1940's, it was post World War II that filmmakers began to experiment with the genre. THE HITCH-HIKER isn't your typical noir. It takes place mostly on a Mexican highway and rocky desert and sleepy Mexican towns, often in broad daylight. Film noir often have a triangle of characters but usually it's two men and a woman. THE HITCH-HIKER is all men -- a sociopath and the two best friends he kidnaps.

This triangle is the crux of THE HITCH-HIKER. Gil, a WWII veteran, knows that he and Collins need to stick together if they hope to defeat Myers. But Myers bullies the bigger Collins like the hillbillies picked on chubby Ned Beatty in DELIVERANCE (1972). Collins begins to snap. He tries to flee on his own to find help but Myers chases him down. Myers dislikes Collins so much that he makes Collins switch clothes with him hoping if the Mexican authorities do find them, they'll shoot Collins by mistake.

Frank Talman's performance as the murderous hitchhiker Emmett Myers is the key to THE HITCH-HIKER'S appeal. Talman is able to drum up so some sympathy for Myers that the audience never felt for Rutger Hauer or Sean  Bean in THE HITCHER. Myers knows how to get under people's skin and Talman's performance is a precursor for other cinematic sociopath's like  Robert Mitchum's Max Cady in CAPE FEAR (1961). Myers vows to never be caught alive but when the Mexican authorities apprehend him in the film's finale, there's no shootout or final violence (except for Collins landing a couple of revenge punches on his kidnapper). Myers looks like a caged animal, panic in his eyes when he realizes he'll be behind bars again. I kept waiting for the handcuffed Myers to jump into the water and drown himself but THE HITCH-HIKER'S delicious irony is that Myers does not die in a blaze of bullets. He's going back to prison. I was curious why Myers didn't just kill Collins and Gil and take their car across the border but then we wouldn't have a film now would we? In a way, Gil and Collins are Myers only "friends." Myers keeps them alive because he likes their company, even if it's ordering them around.

RKO Studios produced THE HITCH-HIKER and the studio was well known for turning out excellent film noir B movies such as  OUT OF THE PAST (1947). The HITCH-HIKER is a taut, 70 minute thrill ride. Lupino uses the film's low budget to her advantage. She stages much of the story with the three men riding in the car.  She doesn't have to deal with big sets or lots of extras. Most of the film is set on a desert highway. Interestingly, there's some dialogue in Spanish but no subtitles. Either the filmmakers couldn't afford subtitles or they chose to be authentic and not use them. Lupino and Young pretty much followed the real  killer Billy Cook's story so much that they even gave Talman a deformed eyelid just like Cook had. Lupino directed a few other feature films like THE BIGAMIST (also 1953) but she would continue directing plenty of television shows including episodes of THE UNTOUCHABLES, THE TWILIGHT ZONE, and even GILLIGAN'S ISLAND.

Speaking of old television shows, having grown up watching TV's PERRY MASON as a kid, I got a kick seeing William Talman with long hair. My recollection of Talman as DA Hamilton Burger in PERRY MASON was he had a marine type crewcut. Or maybe his hair was just shorter and slicked back. And I knew Edmond O'Brien from Sam Peckinpah's THE WILD BUNCH (1969) but O'Brien's barely recognizable in that film with a thick beard and weathered face. O'Brien's Collins is a man wracked with some guilt. He's the one who took a detour into the border town of Mexicali to check out the local ladies. He and Gil never would have come across Myers if they had just headed straight for their original destination -- the Chocolate Mountains.

In a strange coincidence of 3 Degrees of PERRY MASON, the CrazyFilmGuy's next review is going to be 1957's 20,000 MILES FROM EARTH, a science fiction film starring William Hopper who happened to play Perry Mason's sidekick Paul Drake on the TV show. In this review of THE HITCH-HIKER, I was pleasantly surprised to find William Talman who played DA Hamilton Burger from PERRY MASON. But I will not be reviewing GODZILLA (1956) in the near future which starred none other than Perry Mason himself -- Raymond Burr. That's just too many PERRY MASON references. But nice to see all the actors from the TV show had done well on the big screen too.

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