Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Trailer Tuesday: THE HITCHHIKER (1953)

Directed by: Ida Lupino.
Written by: Ida Lupino, Collier Young, Daniel Mainwaring (uncredited), adaptation by Robert Joseph.
Starring: Edmond O'Brien, Frank Lovejoy, William Tallman.
Director Of Photography: Nicholas Musuraca.


THE HITCH HIKER is a low budget film from 1953 that just kicks all kinds of ass. Basically it’s three men, a car, and the great outdoors... but like the three person, two rooms ALICE CREED, you never notice that it’s a low budget movie because it’s so well made, well written, and intense. They gave a damn when they made this film! They knew they didn’t have money, so they made up for it with suspense and drama and some amazing *ideas*. A great idea costs nothing, but has a ton of production value. The amazing idea here is... an eyelid that is scarred so that it permanently open. Yes, that actually is a great idea. Wait until we get to it, and you’ll see its brilliance.



The film opens with a title card telling us this is based on a true story, and that this same thing could happen to you. So I did a little googling and discovered it really was based on the true story of Billy Cook, a notorious killer. Cook’s mother died when he was five years old, and his loving father took all of the children to live in an abandoned mine and fend for themselves while Daddy exercised his new found bachelorhood. Billy and his siblings were eventually discovered by child protective services and put into foster homes... except for Billy. Because Billy had a deformed eyelid... it never closed. The whole side of his face was a mess. He ended up under state care and eventually tried his hand at crime and was arrested at age 12 and sent to a reformatory for boys. He enjoyed hurting others, and when he turned 17... was transferred to a state prison. While in prison, he beat a few fellow inmates with a baseball bat... showing really poor sportsmanship. He was released at 22, found his father and told him he planned on buying a gun and making his living through robbery, armed. Billy drifted into El Paso, TX just before Christmas, 1950, bought a gun, and went out to the highway and hitchhiked. He robbed and killed anyone who would pick him up, stealing their cars until they ran out of gas and then hitchhiking for a lift into the next town to buy gas. He killed an entire family: father, mother, three kids and a dog, near Wichita Falls, Texas and dumped the bodies in a mineshaft in Missouri. He hitchhiked and killed to Blythe, California, where he killed a traveling salesman from Seattle and threw his body in a ditch. By this point in time he was wanted throughout the USA and every cop in the Southwest was actively looking for the hitchhiking killer. Hitchhiking, Billy kidnaped two men on a hunting trip, James Burke and Forrest Damron, and forced them to drive him south and across the border into Mexico... and on to Santa Rosalia. Once they reached Santa Rosalia, Burke and Damron knew they would be killed, but an odd thing happened: The Chief Of Police of the small Mexican town had been reading the American papers and recognized Billy Cook and captured him without a gunfight. Handed him over to the FBI, and he spent the rest of his life in prison. Cool true story, huh? And... that eyelid!



The film changes the names to protect the innocent and guilty, turning Billy Cook into Emmett Myers (William Tallman, DA Hamilton Burger on PERRY MASON) but keeping that creepy deformed eyelid. The movie opens with a (face unseen) Myers hitchhiking, getting picked up, killing the drivers and taking off in their cars. Again and again.

Then we cut to garage mechanic Roy Collins (Edmund O’Brien from DOA and THE WILD BUNCH) and his best friend draftsman Gil Bowen (Frank Lovejoy from IN A LONELY PLACE) getting away from the wives for a week of fishing and camping, tooling along the back roads of California, when they spot a hitchhiker next to his car... and stop to pick him up. Hell, it’s *miles* to the nearest gas station and this is a back road. Who knows when another car will pass by?

The Hitchhiker sits in the darkness in the back of the car, not very communicative. When they ask about things like a gas can he becomes argumentative, but people can be grumpy if they’ve been standing there waiting for a ride for a while. It’s frustrating. Bowen decides to offer him a cigarette, but when he turns around he sees the gun pointing at him. They have picked up the notorious Emmett Myers who kills *all* of his victims. It’s only a matter of time before they are dead.

But Myers has made the most wanted list and needs to get across the border into Mexico... and since everyone is looking for one man, he figures he has a better chance as one of three buddies going on a fishing trip. He keeps the gun on Collins and Bowen and makes it pretty clear they are alive only as long as he needs them. This begins the road trip from hell, where Myers does everything he can to torture the two on their way south of the border to Santa Rosalia where a ferry boat will take him to the Mexican mainland... where he can vanish.



Simple story, but what makes this work are great performances by Tallman (who can go from unassuming gangly guy to crazed psycho in an instant) and the other two leads who are regular guys faced with a terrifying experience, plus intense pacing. This story comes up with a million things that can spark violence...

When they stop for gas at a service station, Myer demands minimal conversation... but the service station attendant is friendly and that means they have to be rude to him. Then they drive off without taking their change.

When they pull over in the middle of nowhere so that Myers can chart his path to Santa Rosalia with the least chance of being caught, he has Collins pop the trunk... and in there with the fishing equipment is a rifle. As Collins reaches for it, Myer *taunts* him to try something... he’ll be dead before he gets it out if the trunk.

The gun belongs to Bowen, who was in the army and says he’s an okay shot. So Myer arranges a little target practice. He has Collins walk way out in the desert with a tin can, and when Collins tries to set it on a rock, Myers tells him just to hold it... no, hold it closer to your body... closer. Then sees just how good a shot Bowen is. He either shoots the can out of his friend’s hand from hundreds of feet away with a 22 calibre rifle, or Myer shoots him. Bowen has no choice but to shoot... and hits the can! Of course, Collins practically pisses himself. Myers keeps having Collins hold the can closer and closer, and you just know that one friend is accidentally going to kill the other. Really intense! But all a game to Myers, who laughs and takes control of the rifle.

Though Myers is no criminal mastermind, he’s also not an idiot. He has a method to get both men in and out of the car so that he can keep the gun on them the whole time and they have little chance of escaping or trying to overpower him. He has thought this through. They keep to back roads in Baja, avoiding cities or large towns. And they pull way off the road to camp...





And here’s where the tension kicks in. Because due to that eyelid defect, Myers always sleeps with one eye open. Who knows if he’s asleep or awake? There are three camping scenes, and each one is filled with tension as they can’t figure out if they should make a break for it or not. The always open eye is starring at them. Every time they think they might be able to sneak away because it seems like Myers is sleeping, that always open eye looks right at them! The three scenes are filled with tension just because of the *idea* of that defective eyelid. Yes, it's from the real guy... but realizing that it could be used for scenes like this was purely the work of the writers. Cost of all of this suspense? A little make up around the eye.

Some of the other fun: Stopping for provisions at a Mexican grocery store: Bowen speaks Spanish but Myers doesn’t want him to be speaking any Mexican to anyone! Except the store owner speaks no english. Bowen almost gets shot, as does the store owner's cute little girl who wants to talk.

Myers takes Bowen’s expensive watch.

When they hit a bump, Collins hits the car horn and it *sticks*, drawing attention to them! Now Collins has to stop the car and repair the horn under the gun (literally) so they can get back in the car and zoom off before a man with a donkey reaches them.

Collins gets pistol whipped when he can’t find a working radio station in the middle of nowhere that has US news bulletins so that Myer can find out if the police are closing in one them. Collins is beaten so bad he can no longer drive and Bowen has to take over.

Myers wants them to move faster, and the car gets a blow out and almost wrecks... then they have to change the tire and a young Mexican couple driving by asks if they need any help (and almost gets killed). Again, Collins and Bowen have to be very rude to them in order to get them to drive away.



Things escalate until Collins just loses it. He breaks and becomes such a loose cannon that Bowen is afraid Myer will just shoot him. But Myers *loves* that Collins has broken under the pressure: proves Collins is weak and Myers is in control. That night when they camp, Collins decides to make a break for it and Bowen goes along. They wait until Myers’ eye is closed, worried that the other eye is still staring right at them. And race into the bushes... but Myer’s other eye pops open, and he chases the two running men... in the car! A great low budget NORTH BY NORTHWEST scene, and then Collins is hit by the car and they are recaptured.

They drive to an abandoned water well, and Collins and Bowen are sure they are about to be killed and dumped into the well. Lots of tension. But eventually they move on, by foot after the car’s gas tank is torn open by a rock, and get to Santa Rosalia, which both men know is the end of the line for them. This is where they die...

Made on a very low budget, this film with a limited cast that takes place either inside the car or in the desert has all kinds of thrills, May seem tame compared to THE HITCHER, but still intense. Lupino is one of my favorite directors, a great actress from the golden age who gave an Oscar calibre performance in one of my favorite films THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT, was amazing as the *tough* blind woman in another favorite film ON DANGEROUS GROUND, and the tough bank robber’s girl in HIGH SIERRA... who decided to direct and stepped in when the director of a film she was starring in became ill. From that point on, she and her husband (magazine and screenwriter Collier Young) formed a production company The Filmakers, and began making films with Lupino as director. She just did it. Their first films were social issues movies that are still relevant and kind of shocking. OUTRAGE is a movie about rape that is more cutting edge and honest than any film on the subject made since. Somewhere along the line she worked with another one of my favorite directors, Don Siegel (DIRTY HARRY, THE LINE UP), and learned all of his cinematic tricks... and she became what she called “the poor man’s Don Siegel” making hard hitting crime films like this. (Siegel's other protege was an actor named Clint Eastwood.)



Her direction style is like Siegel’s: deceptively straight forward. Nothing showy or flashy, yet still completely in control of the story, using angle and composition and movement to amplify the emotions. She also knew how to create suspense and tension, and soon on THRILLER Thursday we will get to her amazing episode GUILLOTINE. In HITCH HIKER she manages to give the film a documentary feel (it *is* based on a true story) and still use cinematic techniques to amp up the tension. For a film made on a budget it still packs a punch.

Oh, and I guess I should mention this film was secretly cowritten by my favorite screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring (OUT OF THE PAST... now on BluRay! and the original INVASION OF THE BODYSNATCHERS, and from Oakland!) who had his credit snatched away by producer Howard Hughes because Mainwaring did not share his politics (he was a friend to blacklisted writers and “fronted” for a couple of them). Lupino and Young ended up with screenplay credit. So here we have one of my favorite directors with one of my favorite writers and a buck fifty budget making a nifty little low budget thriller. Hey, it’s public domain, so you can watch it free!

Bill

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