“This is the story of a man and a gun and a car. The gun belonged to the man. The car might have had been yours – or that young couple across the aisle. What you will see in the next seventy minutes could have happened to you. For the facts are accurate.”
In the late 2010s, it’s still depressingly rare for a female director to land a substantial Hollywood production. In 2017, only 8% of the Top 100 film productions were directed by women, a number that has been showing no improvement despite increased scrutiny on the issue. It’s always incredible to me, then, when I discover films from female directors in the distant past when men’s stranglehold on the industry wasn’t even a topic of wide discussion, but just a silently accepted inevitability. Pictures like The Red Kimona from the silent era feel like total anomalies, as it’s almost unfathomable how a woman would have been able to get her foot into the door of Hollywood’s boys’ club back then. 1953’s The Hitch-Hiker is another such anomaly, especially as it participates in the traditionally macho noir genre. Director Ida Lupino worked her way into the industry by directing movies with strong moralistic warnings, message pictures. The Hitch-Hiker finds her using that pronounced moral finger-wagging as an excuse to participate in & mutate the crime thriller genre, restricting the movie’s direct messaging to just a few minutes of screen time and busying herself for the rest with crafting nonstop tension & suspense. This picture is credited as being the first noir directed by a woman, a distinction that adds pressure for Lupino to prove herself as a creative force, something she achieves with a tight grip & gritted teeth.
Two men on what’s supposed to be an innocent fishing trip lie to their wives and change course to check out girly shows across the Mexican border. On their new route, they’re overtaken at gunpoint by a crazed hitchhiker who’s quickly revealed to be a notoriously violent escaped convict. What develops is a hostage crisis in motion (like an AIP precursor to Speed), as the three men perilously evade trigger-happy cops on the way back to California, two of them under constant threat of the hitch-hiker’s pistol. There’s a moderate amount of guilt laid on the wandering husbands for their duplicitous ways, but most of The Hitch-Hiker is instead focused on building tension in both the close quarters of the hostages’ car and the vast, isolating expanse of the desert terrain. It’s in the nighttime drives where the film most resembles a typical noir. The escaped convict is an absolute terror in the shadowy backseat, where he keeps a constant eye (and gun) on his two victims. We’re first introduced to him in a montage detailing his earlier crime spree, jumping from car to car, stolen wallet to stolen wallet, as cops discover his previous victims in flashlit crime scenes. These nighttime noir set pieces are in stark contrast with the harsh sunlit desert setting of the daytime, but Lupino finds plenty ways to terrorize her audience there as well, most spectacularly in a forced game of William Tell. The movie is light on plot & thematic soul-searching, choosing to instead strive for 70 straight minutes of pure, cruel, nightmarish tension.
The small cast and cheap locations of The Hitch-Hiker remind me a lot of Corman’s early work for AIP, even though this was a slightly more substantial RKO production. Its aptitude for Corman’s genre thrills is only part of the story, however, as the picture is much, much crueler & tenser than most of AIP’s more traditionally entertaining catalog. The audience hardly has space to breathe as Lupino maintains a stranglehold on our throats, walking us through each reluctant step toward impending freedom or death. I’m not well-versed enough to say for sure how many women-directed noirs are out there at all, only that this is reported to be the first. The film would remain significant even without that distinction, though, as its command of minute-to-minute tension and the terror of its randomly applied violence feels like a real-life threat more than most, slicker noirs could. The moral of The Hitch-Hiker seems to be less that you shouldn’t cheat on your wife by slinking off to the strip clubs than it is that this could happen to anyone at any time because life is chaotically cruel. Anyone with an affection for dark, tense genre cinema should find plenty of value in that conceit, especially anyone who wishes their noir was a little rougher around the edges or their Corman cheapies were a little more willing to go for the jugular.