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The Hitch-Hiker

The Hitch-Hiker(1953)


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There's Death in his upraised Thumb!
Tag line for The Hitch-hiker (1953)

Ida Lupino was a Hollywood anomaly. In addition to her career as anintense dramatic actress (with particular success in such films noir asHigh Sierra (1941) and While the City Sleeps, 1956), she was also theonly female member of the Director's Guild in the late '40s and early '50s.With her feature films and hundreds of hours of television work combined,she remains Hollywood's most prolific woman director. And although herfirst films dealt with social issues of particular interest to women -unwed motherhood, rape, mother-daughter relations - with TheHitch-hiker she made a transition to the type of fast-paced,hard-hitting material that would become a specialty throughout her latercareer. More recently fans and critics have reevaluated such "masculine"work in light of its feminist subtext - the way her action films reducedmale characters to the kinds of restless, out-of-control types usuallyplayed by women. Equally impressive was her ability to achieveprofessional quality on extremely low budgets (usually under $160,000),with an off-the-cuff shooting style that made her a one-woman New Wave movement.This has led to the growth of an Ida Lupino cult in whose eyes TheHitch-hiker is considered her greatest accomplishment.

Lupino moved into directing almost by accident. She and her husband,Collier Young, had created Filmways to produce low-budget films on issuesthat interested them. Their first outing, Not Wanted (1949), dealtwith illegitimacy, questioning the social stigma on unwed mothers and theirchildren. Originally it was to have been directed by Hollywood veteranElmer Clifton, but when he developed heart trouble three days into theshoot, Lupino stepped in, with him sitting on the sidelines to offeradvice. She gave him credit for the film, but at Young's urging continueddirecting on subsequent Filmways productions.

After four women's pictures, Lupino took a different approach with TheHitch-hiker. The story was based on real-life serial killer WilliamCook, who killed six people who picked him up as he hitched his way acrossthe American Southwest and Mexico in 1950. He was captured after takingtwo prospectors hostage and sent to the gas chamber in 1952.

Lupino interviewed one of the hostages and obtained releases from bothhostages and Cook himself. She then peppered the screenplay with elementsof Cook's life, including his abusive childhood and a genetic deformitythat made it impossible for him to close his right eye. To appease theProduction Code, which objected to film versions of recent crimes, shereduced the body count from six to three, eliminating the three childrenCook had murdered. But changing the kidnapped prospectors tobusinessmen off on an innocent fishing trip was entirely her idea. Itallowed her to explore the gradual breakdown of two men living a solid,middle-class existence who are suddenly confronted with the killer'suncontrollable psychotic rage.

Work on The Hitch-hiker was complicated by two things. Eccentrictycoon Howard Hughes, who released the film through his RKO Pictures,refused to let them give screen credit to suspected Communist DanielMainwaring, who had written the original story for Young and Lupino.Instead, the story was credited to Mainwaring's pseudonym, Geoffrey Homes.And Lupino suddenly found herself pregnant -- but not by her husband. Sheand Young had been having problems, which had led her to an affair withactor Howard Duff, her co-star in the 1950 film noir Woman inHiding. Before The Hitch-hiker started shooting, she got aquickie divorce from Young in Nevada, then married Duff.

The Hitch-hiker won solid reviews and did very well at the boxoffice, particularly considering its low cost. Helping greatly were thecinematography of Nicholas Musuraca - a film noir veteran who had alsolensed Out of the Past (1947), with Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas and JaneGreer; and The Spiral Staircase (1946), with Dorothy McGuire - and WilliamTalman's tense performance as the killer. Talman would achieve hisgreatest fame as District Attorney Hamilton Burger in the populartelevision series Perry Mason.

The success of The Hitch-hiker actually contributed to the end of Youngand Lupino's production company, Filmways. Unhappy that their distributor,RKO, had reaped the bulk of the profits from the film, Young decided todistribute future films himself, which led to the company's financialfailure. But The Hitch-hiker also opened a new door for Lupino.The film caught the eye of Richard Boone, future star of the TV WesternHave Gun, Will Travel. Remembering Lupino's successful direction ofThe Hitch-hiker's Western location scenes, he recruited her to direct for hisseries, her first television credit.

Producer: Collier Young
Director: Ida Lupino
Screenplay: Collier Young, Ida Lupino, Robert L. Joseph
Based on a Story by Geoffrey Homes [Daniel Mainwaring]
Cinematography: Nicholas Musuraca
Art Direction: Albert S. D'Agostino, Walter E. Keller
Music: Leith Stevens
Principal Cast: Edmond O'Brien (Roy Collins), Frank Lovejoy (Gilbert Bowen), William Talman (Emmett Myers), Jose Torvay (Capt. Alvarado), Sam Hayes (Sam), Wendell Niles (Wendell).

by Frank Miller

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