We are six minutes into the film, when the hitch-hiker gets into the back seat of the car, his face in dark shadow. By this stage we know a great deal about him. We have seen one killing told in bits: feet, car number-plate, dead victims, no faces. These are all ‘accidents’ of the hitch-hiker’s persona. So do we then get to see his substance, namely his face? Well, we get it at one remove when we are shown a photograph of the man on the front page of a newspaper under the headline, “Be on the lookout for this man!” and we learn his name, Emmett Myers.
Next, we see another killing, same pattern: shadow of hitch-hiker on road, car pulling up, hitch-hiker getting in (but no face) then night, a dead body being rifled, hitch-hiker’s feet walking away, car driving off. It turns out that this is all overture to the main event: away from home on a fishing trip, Bowen and Collins are planning to stop in Mexicali. They should have, but chance decrees they drive through it and out of it, chance metamorphosing into fate. The camera dissolve shows feet, then cuts to headlights, the silhouette of a hand hitching a lift, the car coming to a halt, the hitch-hiker getting in. (Note that by this stage it is not ‘a silhouette’ or ‘a car’ or ‘a hitch-hiker’. We are being forcefully told how this drama is going to unfold.) In a front view we see Bowen and Collins, with the hitch-hiker in the back, his face still in the dark. Bowen offers him a cigarette, and in reply a gun in close-up comes into view, glinting in the light. Only at this point do we get to see the face, the soul of this demon: the camera dollies in onto the hitch-hiker’s face moving into the light.
Pulp fiction at its sharpest. A man’s feet introduce us to someone who is always on the move, the part standing for the whole. But it is a cheap shot too, since you only need to do one take of a man’s feet standing by the side of the road. The concept gives speed and low cost, essential B-movie film-making. Second, you show his face except you don’t since it is in the dark. The close encounter only comes when you show the face harshly lit up as he moves forward on his seat. It’s kinda mean, to put it in mild terms. This is chiaroscuro film portraiture that grabs the attention.
This is how The Hitch-hiker begins, a quintessential black-and-white film from 1953. The face moving into the light is the idea probably (but who can be certain?) of Nicolas Musuraca, a high-quality film-noir cameraman. Hats off possibly also to Harold Wellman credited with ‘photographic effects’. The synecdochic opening, plunging you into the story even while the credits roll – as near to in medias res as you can get – is the work (probably) of the director Ida Lupino, one of the very few pre-feminism women in Hollywood playing a creative role behind the camera. It feels telling to me that ‘The Kings of the Bs’, an excellent anthology of material about Hollywood B-movies published in 1975, does not even mention Lupino in its list of directors. Definitely Kings not Queens.
Back to Emmett Myers, robber, murderer, hitch-hiker, into whose clutches the innocent Collins and Bowen fall. In the Westerns of the 1950s – I think especially of Budd Boetticher’s cowboy universe – the decent hero outwits the bad man. But this is a film noir, not a film blanc. Myers has complete mastery over Collins and Bowen, not just physical because he has got a gun and they have not, but psychological: he has the evil brains and nerve to bend the two innocents to his plans, and refashion American manhood not in a heroic but a Satanic image. Musuraca and Lupino let the camera revel in the situation.
Lupino directed five films between 1950 and 1953 but then went into television. More’s the pity, she could have been a contender.
Although the titles at the beginning credit the screenplay to Ida Lupino and Collier Young and an adaptation by Robert Joseph, IMDb says Daniel Mainwaring wrote the story for the film uncredited. If this is true, he is a link to Musuraca since both had worked on Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947).
One intriguing sequel to the film is this. When I saw Myers’s face I thought I recognised it. Only when I spotted that he was played by William Talman did things click into place. Talman became well-known on TV as Hamilton Burger, the hapless DA who is regularly outwitted by Perry Mason in the TV series. (Mason was played by Raymond Burr, himself turning over a new leaf like Talman, having previously been the terrifying heavy in Anthony Mann’s Desperate and Raw Deal.) In the TV series, Talman’s face becomes familiar and therefore ordinary, so it took Lupino’s innate intelligence to see what his face could really convey, and Musuraca’s brilliant lensing to fix it on film.
-The film is on YouTube in a reasonable enough albeit imperfect copy: go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8UqbNhnArJ4&t=962s
-Lupino’s credits as a film director include:
- 1949: Not Wanted (uncredited; co-produced and co-wrote)
- 1950: Outrage (also co-wrote)
- 1950: Never Fear (also produced and co-wrote)
- 1951: Hard, Fast and Beautiful
- 1953: The Bigamist (also starred)
- 1953: The Hitch-hiker (also co-wrote)
– Two other posts on film portraiture from 2018 are at 15 April and 3 May 2018.