Thursday, Oct. 10, 2013

The Hitch-Hiker

Psycho-killer classic on Blu-ray

By David Luhrssen
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  We first see the killer in The Hitch-Hiker as a shadow across the asphalt. And when he first kills, an open car door obscures the murder: we hear a woman’s scream followed by a gunshot, and see a purse fall from the car seat to the ground. Even when the protagonists offer a ride to the murderer, he remains in shadow in the backseat for the first mile—until he pulls his gun and announces, “Sure, I’m Emmett Meyers” the wanted criminal.

The Hitch-Hiker (1953) is one of several movies directed by Ida Lupino in an era when few women sat behind the camera. Her star power secured RKO studio’s stamp—its logo of a beaming, beeping radio tower astride the globe opens the picture—but The Hitch-Hiker was actually an independent production. It’s film noir, “the facts are actual,” co-written by Lupino with a screenwriter blacklisted for his politics, Daniel Mainwaring. The topic was disturbing at a time when many Americans thought nothing of sticking their thumbs out along the roadsides. The Hitch-Hiker is evidence of the fraying social contract between strangers.

The protagonists, Gilbert (Edmund O’Brien) and Roy (Frank Lovejoy), are a couple of ordinary guys on a fishing trip—or so they’ve told their wives. They may have had other ideas as the near the Mexican border, but being kidnapped by a hardened criminal never figured in their vacation plans. The script isn’t flawless but the tension throughout is palpable. O’Brien plays his part like a stoic member of the Greatest Generation, calm under fire, while Lovejoy responds more emotionally. William Talman plays the killer, a leather-jacketed thug dealt some low numbers at birth but too remorseless for much sympathy.

The Hitch-Hiker is a road picture and the trio drive on and on into the land of the dead, a desolate Mexican desert sparsely populated, studded with sharp rocks and crowned by mountains. The gunman’s right eyelid is partially paralyzed; he stares at the world through with one eye always open, like a monster from Greek mythology. And he spouts the rhetoric of the self-made man. “Nobody ever gave me anything, so I don’t owe anybody,” he insists. “I got what I wanted my own way.”

The Hitch-Hiker is out on Blu-ray, mastered in high definition from a 35mm print at the Library of Congress.

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