The 1953 film 'The Hitch-Hiker' would likely be recognized as a well crafted, enjoyable, and visually striking film noir on any account, but considering actress, writer, and filmmaker Ida Lupino directed it, the picture suddenly becomes a noteworthy piece of film history as well.
Working from a treatment by Daniel Mainwaring – a successful mystery novelist who wrote under the pseudonym Geoffrey Homes and was later blacklisted – Lupino and her ex-husband Collier Young penned the script together, then split filmmaking duties with Lupino directing the film and Young serving as it's producer. More interesting still, is that in addition to Mainwaring being blacklisted, there was an issue with the film's plot, which was partially inspired by real-life events, forcing 'The Hitch-Hiker' to be independently produced. In fact, the film itself starts off with a warning about picking up hitchhikers saying, "For the facts are real," before segueing into some barely off-screen violence perpetrated by the film's primary antagonist.
So right off the bat, Ida Lupino's atmospheric noir has enough going for it to garner at least some attention by those interested in film history. When looked at from less of a historical perspective, however, 'The Hitch-Hiker' still manages to be an entertaining film that is actually rife with comments on class, race, and ethics, and it even sports more than a few allusions to the tropes of other genres, which Lupino either utilizes in the same way or subverts in an effort to turn what could have been a simple hostage/road film into an observation – at least partially – on moral decay and shifting political and social views.
Lupino really begins her film after we witness the titular hitchhiker Myers (William Talman) commit a string of highway robberies and murders of those unlucky enough to have given him a ride. With all that menace hanging in the air, we are introduced to the two main characters, Gilbert Bowen (Frank Lovejoy) and Roy Collins (Academy Award winner Edmond O'Brien). Lupino eschews giving the men a typical backstory in favor of ingratiating them with the audience through details in their conversation, as they embark on a road trip to San Felipe. Lupino and Young's script gives the audience clues as to who these two men are and very subtly lets us know that at least one of them is leaving behind his family for the first time since the war, and although the two are headed across the border into Mexico, his family thinks he and Collins are headed for a camping trip in Arizona's Chocolate Mountains.
As the two men go deeper into the desert, Lupino seems to be equating that dry dusty place with the lawlessness of America's past and the pending chaos of Bowen and Collins' future, eventually winding up with Myers pointing a pistol at them from their backseat. Myers is unquestionably the villain in this situation, but the film isn't shy about pointing out the fact that the two men were likely up to no good either – insinuating early on that ethics and principles are found back home and in society, while it's the lawless outsider who drives all night on dusty roads to towns in Mexico.
During the ride, Lupino sheds light on Myers with a set of well-crafted scenes in which he continually questions the two men, uncovering Collins' work as a mechanic, while his more educated friend Bowen (who the criminal frequently refers to as "smart guy") is a skilled draftsman. Myers regards the blue-collar worker as somehow beneath him, while attempting – in his own menacing way – to assert himself as Bowen's equal, especially when they take turns demonstrating their sharp shooting skills. At this point, Myers and his perfectly villainous face, complete with a partially paralyzed right eyelid that forces him to literally sleep with one eye open, becomes even more a symbol of immorality and skewed, anti-social thinking. His malfunctioning eye seems to simultaneously explain his wayward path, and yet its eternal observation keeps his prisoners not only from attempting escape, but also from committing any of the transgressions they may have been tempted by in their travels.
Later, as Lupino's focus begins to shift toward better understanding the criminal's motivations, the screenplay paints Myers as a lost individual who, rather than see himself as a loner and outcast, believes he is instead a self-made man who simply lives outside the boundaries of ordinary society. The film makes several more references to this idea that living outside of society and not taking part in or adhering to the laws of a civilized place can only lead down the path to ruin and corruption. At one point, a poor man asks Myers about living in "El Centro," telling him he lives there sometimes and that its nice – intimating that a return to the center is possible for anyone, regardless how wayward they have become. This notion is bolstered by plenty of allusions to what the director seems to suggest is the need for collaboration and group effort, something that's seen in Bowen and Collins' staunch refusal to abandon one another – which, given the time it was released might have seemed positively communistic to some.
Ultimately, 'The Hitch-Hiker' at first appears to be a simple, run-of-the-mill noir film, but upon closer inspection of its subversive tropes, fascinating and sometimes overt symbolism, and relentless tension building, Ida Lupino's dark road movie reveals itself to be so much more.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The Hitch-Hiker' comes from Kino Lorber as a single 25GB Blu-ray in the standard keepcase. The insert features some striking original artwork for the film and touts the 35mm Archival Restoration from elements preserved by the Library of Congress.
Presented with a 1080p AVC/MPEG-4 transfer, 'The Hitch-Hiker' manages to look superb for its age, despite some telltale signs that time hasn't been particularly kind. Although the film has a level of clarity and detail that is a very nice surprise, there are also plenty of screen flickers, scratches, and a few persistent lines throughout. While these elements would be unforgivable on a film released just 10 years ago, here they're actually part of the movie's charm and, in fact, act to elevate the presentation some. When you're watching the movie, the era in which it was made is unmistakable, and the few scratches and dings that remain simply become a part of its charm and character.
For the most part, though, fine detail can be a little spotty; this is likely due to the film using "elements" preserved by the Library of Congress. Certain bits of the film look incredibly clear and bright, and even manage to have a significant amount of detail in the actor's faces and the textures of their clothing or even the Southwest landscape in which the plot unfolds. Contrast levels are typically very good, though there are some instances where black levels feel a tad weak and the image has a washed out feel to it.
Overall, considering the film's age, this transfer looks remarkably good and should deliver a terrific viewing experience for those watching.
The film's Linear PCM 2.0 track does leave something to be desired, as it occasionally sounds like the actors' voices are being delivered over a phone line on some kind of disastrous looping done in post production. Whether that's an element of the transfer process, the original recording or the passage of time is unclear, but whatever the cause it does detract from the film.
Most of the time, however, the dialogue is generally clear and free of scratches or hissing that can sometime plague a film this old. There are some instances, however, where some popping is rather distinct, which slightly tarnishes the audio further. Elsewhere, though sound effects and the score come through very clearly, they are not balanced well with the one another or the dialogue, resulting in transitional or pivotal moments that are far too loud, followed by quieter than normal dialogue.
Overall, this is a disappointing sound mix that seems to experience problems stemming from the film's age, as well as issues with balance that should have been resolved in the transfer process.
Trailers for other Kino releases
'The Hitch-Hiker' is a terrific little noir film that is notable not only for the fact that it was directed by a woman, but that its text is so rich and multi-layered it is open to many different interpretations. Featuring terrific performances by Edmond O'Brien and William Talman, the movie has a lot to offer for fans of crime films and film history geeks as well. Although the image isn't magnificent, the sound could use some work and there are no special features to speak of, the movie is good enough on it's own to be worthy of a recommendation.