Saturday, November 28, 2009

Review: The Hitch-Hiker (1953)

The review below might read like it has a different tone than my usual reviews. It's actually a report about a movie that was suggested to me by a fellow message board member over at Filmspotting. The full review is a bit on the theatrical side. Below is a condensed version.

The Hitch-Hiker (1953, Ida Lupino)

The Hitch-Hiker is, for the most, what I expected from it judging from the box presentation. The story follows the plight of two American low budget tourists travelling by car (Edmond O’Brien and the fantastic Frank Lovely) who, before ever enjoying the sights and sounds of Mexico, are held hostage by the infamously dangerous hitch-hiker Emmett Myers (William Talman) who needs to make a getaway

I’m tempted to say that The Hitch-Hiker could be categorized as what cinephiles name a ‘slow burn’ film, but upon second thought that is probably incorrect. It isn’t a very long movie and possesses quite an intimate feel and texture. Many of the scenes occur within the claustrophobic confines of an automobile and those which don’t do not feature much high octane action or especially striking moments, with the exception of a few. Nonetheless, whenever it feels like the viewer’ comfort level hasn’t been rattled in the last little while, co-writer and director Ida Lupino attempts to stir things up a bit. What struck the most about the story was its setting, that is, Mexico. Actually, not just Mexico, but the hot, dry, mostly barren Mexican countryside, and not the part where agriculture can be practiced. The more desert-like countryside. Our protagonists and their nefarious captor rarely come across bystanders, which makes their situation all the more stressful and uncomfortable. They can’t just yell at any Juan, Marta and José for help. They are stuck with this monster until they can figure a way to either escape or inhibit him. It’s always sunny and hot, which adds another dimension to their nightmare. There is a ring of bitter irony to their predicament when one thinks about it. They have all that space to run for their lives or drive off to safety, but as long as Emmett Myers has his gun and his eyes locked onto them, they cannot go anywhere. I liked that aspect of the film very much. It’s one thing to have a director’s touch or particular actors involved in a project, but when the filmmakers set things correctly from the start, which involves creating a story and developing a worthwhile setting for that story, then more often than not the film will have my interest. The film makes a clever use of space in that regard, with the risk of death hanging over their heads whether they are feeling each other’s breath inside the small car or feeling the unforgiving Mexican sun when outside.

With a brisk 70 minute running time, it is unsurprising that The Hitch-Hiker offers little in terms of character development. There are a few brief minutes in the early goings where the two American tourists chat about their travelling memories and their families just so we get the sense that these guys are good, regular blokes, but their purpose is served by being the victims of extraordinary and terrifying circumstances. I can’t say that is a bad thing however since it allows a viewer to easily imagine oneself in such a situation. The slate is pretty clean given how we are not familiar with the histories or the baggage of the protagonists. Our hitch-hiker from hell, Emmett Myers, is quite the specimen. Played to the hilt by William Talman, Myers is very much a ‘badass’ villain. He pulls no punches, kills without mercy, barks orders like an ogre and hates it when people ‘speak Mexican.’ Subtlety isn’t the name of the game here, but then again, I guess this isn’t the kind of movie where such an element is a prerequisite. There is a slight defect with his right eye that enables him to sleep with one eye open, literally. How’s that for a villain’s quirk? In fact, with a bit of cleaning up, I could envision this guy as a heavy in one of the earlier Bond flicks. He’s a filthy Le Chiffre. Heh.

More to the structure of the story though. Not every scene involves our bitter trio mind you. Given how Myers is a wanted criminal, Mexican and American authorities work in conjunction to track the car down (they pick up on the fact that our two protagonists have gone missing through and eye witness). I was relieved to discover that these scenes weren’t given half of the film’s running time, which could have easily been the case, because they felt dry, stiff and uninspired. A lot of talk resembling ‘Assuming Myers is heading in this direction…’, that didn’t strike me as all that necessary, or interesting for that matter. The fun is unquestionably found with the three main characters. Their misadventure is less a story with any significant ‘plot’, but rather a series of brief set pieces, some which are clever and effective, others less so. A pit stop at a small grocery store is one of the highlights (more of those ‘Stop speaking Mexican!’ complaints which are hysterical), as is the scene at night when the protagonists attempt to make an escape under Myers’ nose. Great stuff. Other moments work purely in terms of tension, but feel as though they’re working on shakier ground in terms of purpose within the film, such as when Myers forces his prisoners to play a modified version of the William Tell apple game. Interesting, but I was wondering why it was happening. I guess his reputation as cold hearted killer wasn’t enough to make the heroes understand that he is evil. Yeah, a little William Tell apple game should definitely make that clearer by now. I won’t give away the climax, but I was slightly underwhelmed. Without revealing in what context, I was surprised at how overpowering one of the heroes was when facing Myers one on one. It made the villain appear rather week suddenly, which supports his brutish attitude earlier on when he was in control of the firearms, but I couldn’t help but think: hmm, a bit of a pus** this guy is.

Finally, and this will sound anti-climactic, there is the fact that the director is Ida Lupino. The back of the DVD cover states that The Hitch-Hiker is the only film noir to be directed by a woman. Does that translate into anything significant, somehow, in the final product? I really didn’t think so. Truth be told, if the DVD cover hadn’t proudly stated that fact, I wouldn’t have cared at all. I don’t mean that in the sense that I don’t feel that women finding directorial work (especially in the 1950s after all) isn’t worthy of mention, but in this case, the viewer gets an interesting little thriller, no more, no less. I suppose that if one really wants to think hard about it they come up with some variety of ‘oh, but a woman directed a movie with violence and only male characters’ sort of argument, which I imagine meant something in the 1950s, but overall I think the female perspective is a non issue in The Hitch-Hiker. And if I may take a moment to really drill home my point, I think that is in fact what matters most. A woman directed a competent thriller, so what? In a better world, the world I enjoy pretending I live in, that wouldn’t be so extraordinary anyways. There.

Did I find The Hitch-Hiker to be particularly memorable? No. Does that mean it isn’t worth one’s time? Neither. It’s like Fatal Attractions, which was on the tele a couple of Saturdays ago. It was an entertaining diversion while it lasted, and in my book, that’s good enough.

No comments: