Ida Lupino’s acting career in movies was glorious enough to make of her a hall of fame-level screen performer. My personal favorite of the films she acted in is Moontide, a standout example of film noir partly directed by Fritz Lang, co-starring Jean Gabin, and written by Frank O’Hara. But she did so much more as an actor than what shows on her silver screen credits. She was versatile enough to guest star on a variety of different types of TV shows, including some of the better-done programs to ever hit the tube: The Twilight Zone, Batman, 77 Sunset Strip, etc. etc. etc.
She did so much more than just act, too. And it’s not enough to merely state that she also directed, not even enough to point out that she was a film and TV director at times when a woman taking on such duties was newsworthy. In praising her groundbreaking work, you even have to look beyond the startlingly impressive facts that she not only is the only woman to have directed an episode of The Twilight Zone (“The Masks,” one of my faves) but is the only person of either gender to have directed one episode of that fine program and acted in another. No, Ida had even more in her than all of that. She is in the books as the first woman to have directed a film noir. (Damn, Ida!) And with Kino Video having just released a new Blu Ray version of that film – 1953’s The Hitch-Hiker – now is a good time to pause for a moment and reflect on that movie.
Honestly, I’ve struggled to come up with an angle through which to write about this title. There’s tons to be said about it, but a lot of that has already been voiced. The Hitch-Hiker might not be as universally known as a Gone With the Wind, but among film noir buffs, it’s a staple. Many reading this likely already know the rich backstory behind the film: that it is based on the actual tale of Billy Cook, a spree killer who had a black heart, an absence of conscience, and one eye that wouldn’t ever close all the way. At the end of a savage run of carjackings and murders, Cook, with his thumb out for a ride, got picked up in a part of California by two pals off on a hunting trip. The men became the hunted when Cook pulled a gun on them from the back seat, and held them hostage for an insane amount of time.
It’s the duration which those two unfortunate men spent with Cook that is the focus of Lupino’s film. Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy are superb as the hapless victims, but William Talman takes the day in portraying the Cook-like character, who is called Emmett Myers in the film. Talman, who was perfect for the role—not only because he had the same, one-that-won’t-close eye condition as Cook—is brilliantly loathe-able as the unsavory Myers. The movie is tense from the opening scene and, to Lupino’s and the actors’ great credit, never lets the viewer relax over its short run of 70 minutes. The story will scare you, anger you, give you goosebumps, and have you screaming “Can’t you two put your heads together and do something to overtake this psycho?!” as Talman’s character terrorizes the other two guys in a variety of ways after forcing them to drive him into Mexican territory.
“Directing is much easier than acting,” Lupino was quoted as saying near the time of the film’s release. “The actor deals in false emotions, produced on cue. The director has his problems, but they’re all normal. He doesn’t have to smile into a camera while suffering through an early morning grouch.” The screenplay was partly written by Lupino’s then husband/longtime working partner Collier Young; Daniel Mainwaring, a film noir icon if only for his writing of the excellent Out of the Past, although uncredited (due to his being blacklisted), wrote the story the script was based upon. Lupino had directed before, but this was her first attempt at standing behind the camera for a work of film noir. Interestingly, there are no significant female characters in The Hitch-Hiker. Ida had no problem not only hanging with the boys, but leading them.
There are better classic films noir than The Hitch-Hiker. But there are many worse. Having watched a ridiculous number of these kinds of movies, I would personally rate it on the second tier, not on a par with a Detour or Gun Crazy but high above the quality level of the zillions of ho-hum, forget-about–it-five-minutes-after-you’ve-finished-watching-it titles of its kind and from its era. It’s good enough to be remembered as a standout work of the genre. And it’s more notable than that, for being the first of its type to be directed by a woman, and for that woman being the irrepressible force that was Ida Lupino.
Brian Greene's short stories, personal essays, and writings on books, music, and film have appeared in more than 20 different publications since 2008. His articles on crime fiction have also been published by Crime Time, Paperback Parade, Noir Originals, and Mulholland Books. Brian lives in Durham, NC with his wife Abby, their daughters Violet and Melody, their cat Rita Lee, and too many books. Follow Brian on Twitter @brianjoebrain. https://twitter.com/brianjoebrain