Each week, we recommend films directed by women with the aim of celebrating and highlighting female achievements in cinema. Our rec for this week is The Hitch Hiker directed by Ida Lupino in 1953 during the swells of Golden Age Hollywood.
Ida Lupino was one of the first women to break into the Hollywood studio system as a director of feature films. She rose to fame as a replacement for the headstrong and imminently talented Bette Davis and got cast again and again as a down-on-her-luck, feisty femme. In an anecdote Ida loved to share, she noted that her agent told her that he was going to make her the Janet Gaynor of England “I was going to play all the sweet roles. Whereupon, at the tender age of thirteen, I set upon the path of playing nothing but hookers.” Lupino was the second woman ever to be accepted into the Director’s Guild and she was also the only female director involved with ‘The Twilight Zone’.
“I’d love to see more women working as directors and producers. Today, it’s almost impossible to do it unless you are an actress or writer with power...”
Lupino is celebrated most for The Hitch Hiker, a simple noir plot elevated by good acting and its psychological angle. With a tagline like ‘There’s death in his upraised thumb!’, what rational film fan could resist?!
There is an intense atmosphere of dread sustained throughout this film, with repeated reminders that this could have happened to anyone and these guys were just trying to do a good deed for a stranger.
In switching between tight shots in the car and endless wide shots showing how far they are from help, Lupino sutures us into fear these men are feeling. The two have very different reactions to their predicament; Roy has simmering rage at being victimised in this way but Frank is determined to stay calm and pick their moment to escape. Interestingly, rather than punishing Frank for inaction which we would expect from a Classic Hollywood film, Roy ends up injured through his lack of restraint. This hints that the pressure of masculinity can be damaging in dangerous situations, not the antidote it is often shown to be even in contemporary Horror and Action films.
Roy Collins and Frank Lovejoy build a nuanced portrayal of a friendship between men and the complexities in the foundation of their bond. There is an easy affection between the two which translates seamlessly into fear for each other when loose murderer Emmett Myers enters their lives. But underneath this love and concern for one another, Frank is frustrated with Roy’s reckless desperation to escape and in turn, Roy cannot understand Frank’s desire to wait and see how things pan out.
William Talman as hitch-hiking menace Emmett Myers is a prototype for the charismatic serial killer characters that we find ourselves surrounded with now – I’m holding his excellent performance solely responsible for both Dexter and The Following.
The Hitch Hiker devotes a needless amount of screen time to the 2D detective character, presumably to give us some variety of scenery. You could lift him from the story without anything significantly changing and that is a major flaw. But this is a well-crafted noir whose lasting influence is clear in films such as Funny Games and The Dark Knight, in which criminal characters give monologues about their childhoods to explain away their behaviour.
This post is part of our weekly feature #52Fridays, where we deliver recommendations of films directed by women through our social media accounts each Friday. Once a month we will release a long-form post like this one to delve deeper into films by women.