10/40/70 #25: The Hitch-Hiker


This ongoing experiment in film writing freezes a film at 10, 40, and 70 minutes, and keeps the commentary as close to those frames as possible. This week, I examine The Hitch-Hiker, directed by Ida Lupino (1953):

The Hitch-Hiker was made by Ida Lupino, the only woman directing mainstream narrative films in Hollywood in the 1950s. What does this mean? Is there evidence of her female-gendered gaze in the film? What would that evidence look like? Is this even an appropriate question to ask? Should we assume that a woman’s film is different from a man’s? If we expect a difference, why do we expect a difference? And if we look for difference will we find it because we hope to find it?

10 minutes

Ray Collins (Edmund O’Brien) and Gilbert Bowen (Frank Lovejoy) have picked up the wrong man, a very bad man, Emmett Myers (William Talman). In this frame, he is in the back seat of the car, playing with his gun in a threatening way. You can’t help think phallic symbol. That’s okay. This is the Fifties. Freud has gone Pop. Those eyes. Bored. The look of cool before cool, punk before punk. William Talman was born in Detroit, and that gives him the right. He knew what was coming down the pike. He is so bored it doesn’t seem like he is acting at all. How can a sociopath be so tired? Tiredness and danger don’t seem to mix. That’s what makes this film creepy: Emmett is a sluggish killer. He talks slowly and not dramatically. Two years later he appeared in a movie called Crashout that nobody cares much about but that is good and eerie and strangely-rhythmed in a Barry Hannah sort of way.

Against the hysterical music, Emmett drops lines:

I told you my name, what’s yours?

When are you due back?

You got wives, huh?

There’s a checkpoint. Slow down.

This car rides pretty good.

Give me the map.

Pull up. Keys.

The redundant confessionalism of our time. 1975 saw the publication of filmmaker and theorist Laura Mulvey’s atomic bomb essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”: “The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female form which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.” Mulvey’s article had the good sense not to use the first person: “This article will discuss the interweaving of that erotic pleasure in film, its meaning, and in particular the central place of the image of woman.” Today, the use of first person—in film criticism, music criticism, book criticism—has become its own auteur theory. “I” is the calling card of the social network. “I” says, I am one of you, join me. “I” is a lie because it gives the illusion of leveling the distinction between the auteur writer and the reader. The reader is not the writer.

40 minutes

In Mexico. A Mexican police officer spots a patch of leaked motor oil in the sand from the hijacked car, touches it with his fingers, and runs back to his car. This is the shot of the officer back in his car, about ready to speed away to the police station to report his finding. In a sense, all films are documentaries of their era, and The Hitch-Hiker is no different. In creating a false reality to tell a story, a film captures the material reality of its time. Here, at 40 minutes, the natural world through the car’s windshield, and the car radio, and steering wheel, and of course the man who is driving. They are all parts of a narrative, a “made-up” story, and yet they also happen to be true, material evidence of the specific time and place of the filming of the film. Even a completely computer-generated film like Toy Story is a record of the physical reality of its making, a documentary of its own technology.

70 minutes

The movie is 71-minutes long. Emmett has been apprehended by the Mexican police, and Ray and Gilbert, who have been living at the edge of death with the sociopath, try to reassure themselves that everything will be okay. The shot, saturated in black as if it had been raining India ink all night, drenches the end of the movie in some sort of wicked fatalism. The ending is so anti-climactic and economical that the guys almost seem disappointed that Emmett’s been caught. Maybe that’s the point. Film noir’s “restoration of order endings” never really did recuperate the radical, criminal middle parts, where criminals ran loose and there was adultery to be had. Lupino’s radical gesture here (she also co-wrote the screenplay) is to completely take the spark out of Ray and Gilbert (who had been leaving the suburbs to get out and “fish”) once Emmet’s captured. Their silent walk off-screen into blackness at the end seems more like a walk to the death chamber.


What does it mean that there are no women (except for a waitress) in this film directed by a woman? There are no female characters. Did Ida Lupino make better men’s pictures than men? Did someone like Jacques Tourneur (a contemporary of Lupino’s who directed Cat People and Out of the Past) make better women’s pictures than someone like Lupino? Maybe part of us wants to say, gender doesn’t matter; a good movie is a good movie. And yet everything about personal identity matters today. The Social Network is not a movie, it’s us. The Network has made irrelevant the idea of a generation gap. It’s a playful notion now. Difference itself is a playful notion: gender is a choice. Not without consequences, but a choice. The Network, in its very wiring and technological architecture, validates choice as superior, even, to content or to being. The idea of choosing. The fact of Ida Lupino directing in Hollywood in the 1950s is a reminder of a different sort of choosing against a system so totalizing that, even today, the number of women directors in Hollywood is between 7 and 9%.


Click image to enlarge.

Nicholas Rombes can be found here. More from this author →