The Hitchhiker poster

Ida Lupino's The Hitch-Hiker: The best (and only) woman-directed film noir

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Aug 24, 2018, 3:00 PM EDT

In 1950s Hollywood, Ida Lupino was an anomaly. The daughter of an actress mother and musician father, Lupino's theatrical family paved the way for her to become an actress in British film, where she was dubbed "the English Jean Harlow." She made the move to Hollywood, winning fans and critical acclaim (and briefly dating Howard Hughes) but risked the wrath of studio head Jack Warner when she started turning down roles and making her own script revisions. Eventually, she decided to try her hand at directing and she became groundbreaking in more ways than one.

Never Fear was a striking drama about a dancer whose life is changed when she is struck down with polio. Outrage was one of the first films made in Hollywood during the height of the Hays Code that directly dealt with the issue of rape. With The Bigamist, she became the first woman to direct herself in a major movie. She’s also the only woman who both directed and starred in episodes of The Twilight Zone.

1953's The Hitch-Hiker is widely considered the first mainstream film noir directed by a woman, and some think it may be the only one of this era. Lupino was considered a director of social issues and films typically aimed at women, but with The Hitch-Hiker, she had a chance to make a distinctly masculine film in a genre whose foundations rested upon damaged macho prowess and decidedly old-school ideas of men and women. The result is truly thrilling.

Ida Lupino directing

Director Ida Lupino.

Roy and Gilbert are two ordinary guys, good friends and unremarkable in every way, on a fishing trip to Mexico. On the way, they pick up a hitchhiker whose car has apparently broken down, but of course, it’s never that easy. The hitchhiker, Emmett Myers, turns out to be a serial killer who has left a trail of death behind him as he flees across the border. With the authorities on both sides of the border hot on his trail, Emmett holds Roy and Gilbert at gunpoint to help him evade capture.

For audiences of 1953, The Hitch-Hiker hit a little too close to home. The story was inspired by the true events of Billy Cook, a drifter who went on a 22-day rampage and killed six people while posing as a hitchhiker. The year before Lupino's film was released, Cook was executed by gas chamber in a highly publicized case. Cook’s crimes cast a large shadow over the American consciousness and inspired many a pop culture project, including a song by The Doors. But it was Lupino who made the film.

The Hitch-Hiker is a gleefully nasty film, grimy and nerve-wracking in ways that seem deceptively simple. Most of the action takes place in the car, with Emmett in the backseat clutching to his gun. Most of Lupino's direction is free of unnecessary flair, the dialogue and characterization are sparse, and the basics of the plot almost seem mundane when compared to the kinds of thrillers it inspired (there's no way Quentin Tarantino hasn't seen this film if the crossing the border scene in From Dusk Till Dawn is anything to go by). Yet the tension never lets up for its scant 71-minute running time. There is nothing remarkable about his captives. They’re not secret action heroes who take on Myers, nor are they integral to his escape. They just got unlucky, and the film hammers home how that could happen to just about anybody, as evidenced by the film’s tagline: “Who’ll be his next victim... you?”

A lot of that force comes from William Talman, who plays Emmett Myers like he’s an unexploded bomb that could go off at any moment. With a perpetual sneer on his face and one eye that never quite closes — which makes for an achingly scary night-time scene — Talman spits out over-macho claims about his supposed superiority and strengths. He is a better man than his captors, he claims, because he would never be so weak as to find himself in their situation. Of course, the only thing keeping him at that level is his weapon, and Lupino is savvy enough to show how truly pathetic that is. The moment he loses control of that gun, his turn to cowardice is instantaneous.

Ida Lupino The hitchhiker

The Hitch-Hiker is a film absolutely stripped of femininity. There are only a handful of female characters and they have little impact on the story. For a noir, this is somewhat unusual, as everyone knows the trope of the femme fatale who totes a gun, smokes cigarettes with impeccable style, and is all bad news for the film’s true hero. Many of the expected markers of noir, which was in its peak of popularity in 1953, aren't here. There's no private investigator, no stylized dialogue, no hardboiled voiceover, and no complex takes on morality. There is an edge of sex between the lines as Roy and Gilbert's frequent closeness suggests a relationship beyond that of mere friends, but it's all subtext. Yet The Hitch-Hiker, so cynical and tense, is unmistakably noir. There’s a reason Lupino’s film is one of only seven classic film noirs produced largely outside of the major studios that have been chosen for the United States National Film Registry.

Crime fiction is seldom considered the denizen of women creators, at least in film and television. Women crime authors have exploded in popularity over the decades and next to romance it remains the most widely read genre in publishing. According to The Atlantic, between 60 and 80% of crime fiction and psychological thrillers are read by women. Somehow, however, it remains mostly thought of as a man’s genre. Perhaps it’s because of all that violence, which women are apparently so turned off by? We’ve heard this spiel before with science fiction and fantasy, despite masses of evidence to the contrary. In many ways, crime and noir are the perfect genres for women, who are keenly aware of the appeal of delving into the darkest crevasses of humanity and finding a way out.

Ida Lupino was no stranger to noir. As an actress, she played those parts, but as a director, she got to dive into the heart of what makes the genre so exciting: stripped back style, ceaseless tension, and brutal cynicism that still leaves room for justice. So, we say thank you Ida Lupino, for being the first and only one of your time. Plenty of others will follow in your footsteps.

The Hitch-Hiker is in the public domain and is free to watch now on YouTube.

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