Welcome to Silver Screams! Every month, I’ll guide you through a deep dive into a classic horror film or hidden gem and reveal its history and juicy behind-the-scenes secrets, as well as its legacy and influence on modern horror.
In honor of Women In Horror Month here at Nightmare on Film Street, we’re celebrating the women in front of and behind the camera and their contributions to the horror genre. No discussion of old Hollywood women in film would be complete without a look at the indomitable Ida Lupino. The groundbreaking director shattered the restrictions of her time, and her films still challenge our notions of female filmmakers today. Her films looked head-on at taboo social issues affecting women — real-world horrors including the mistreatment of unwed mothers, rape, and exploitative patriarchal structures. But her most significant contribution to the horror genre is the 1953 thriller The Hitch-Hiker. While often categorized as a noir, The Hitch-Hiker is not so easily definable. Its facets of true crime, survival horror, and its searingly realstic depiction of the psychology of both killer and victims make it a precursor for the gritty thrillers of the modern era.
A Creator Ahead of Her Time
Ida Lupino was in many ways an accidental trailblazer. Her irrepressible talents and refusal to bow to the studio expectations of her era pushed her from the path to stardom as an actress and into the realm of directing and producing. Yet through directing, she brought a unique point of view to cinema that cemented her legacy as the most prominent and acclaimed female director of the height of the studio era.
Lupino began her career as an actress, pushed into the business by her father. Stanely Lupino was a famous British music hall comedian, the latest patriarch in an acting family that had been in the performing arts since the Renaissance. Lupino had his daughter touring with theater companies by seven years old. Later in her life, Ida would admit that she pursued acting to please her father, without particularly enjoying the performance herself.
“[The Hitch-Hiker‘s] facets of true crime, survival horror, and its searingly realstic depiction of the psychology of both killer and victims make it a precursor for the gritty thrillers of the modern era.“
Despite her discomfort with film acting, Lupino was a gifted performer who won acclaim for her raw and realistic portrayals of complex women. Some of her fire may be due to the fact that she wasn’t invested in her success as an actress. She famously clashed with Jack Warner during her time under contract at Warner Brothers. She would frequently turn down roles at a time when actors were under the complete control of their studio. Refusing roles was virtually unheard of, as was an actor revising their own scripts. Lupino was known for both small rebellions, making her a frequent target of reproach from Warner. After rejecting a role in Kings Row (1942) for not being up to her standards, she was suspended from Warner Brothers.
But Lupino’s talents weren’t so easily stifled. While on suspension she reacquainted herself with an interest in filmmaking. As an actor she often found herself wishing she could be behind the camera, where she felt the most exciting work was being done.
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Lupino and her husband Collier Young soon established their own independent studio, which they named The Filmmakers — a bold move in the studio-dominated landscape of post-war Hollywood. Lupino originally intended to simply write and produce the issue-based films she wanted to see in mainstream Hollywood. But when one of her projects, Not Wanted (1949) lost its male director to health problems early in production, she stepped in and finished directing the project herself. And though she still insisted on crediting the original director in the completed film, the film catapulted her to prominence as a filmmaker. Despite her attempts to downplay her role, Lupino was called on to defend the controversial story about unwed motherhood, raising her public persona as a taboo-breaking creative and opening her up to full creative ownership of her films.
Following Not Wanted, Lupino moved on to direct more projects from the start, with all of her films tackling social issues facing women that were rarely depicted on film. But a shocking killing spree that took place in the southwestern United States and Mexico in 1950 would ultimately lay the groundwork for Lupino’s next project — the first woman-helmed film noir.
While The Hitch-Hiker is often labeled a film noir by modern critics, the origin points to a more complex and forward-thinking genre. The script, which Lupino wrote with her husband, was based on a series of brutal murders that had taken place just two years earlier. William Cook was a drifter who killed six people who all picked him up hitchhiking to Mexico. He eventually took a pair of prospectors hostage before finally being apprehended in Mexico.
Ida Lupino approached this new project with the care and attention to detail she brought to all her projects. She interviewed both men who had been kidnapped to accurately draw from their experiences, and she even interviewed Cook himself prior to his execution in 1952. Though she changed character names and some events, Lupino’s journalistic approach would push The Hitch-Hiker closer to the realm of true crime, over a decade before Truman Capote would famously kick off the genre with In Cold Blood (1966).
“[Ida] Lupino’s stark directorial approach gives the film a […] lasting impact. We feel we are witnessing a true crime in all its complexity.“
The Hitch-Hiker begins with a written note to the audience that the events depicted within are based in fact and goes on to directly confront the viewer that the same danger could befall them. It’s not a warning so much as a request that the audience experiences the story with an understanding that its participants were ordinary, and that mere chance put them into such a grave situation. We then see a montage in which a hitchhiker thumbs two rides and eventually murders his drivers. The faces of the victims and the killer are hidden, but we see the murders of a man and a couple (censors compelled Lupino to change the number of victims and omit the children that Cook killed to pass the code, but the murders are still brutally straightforward.)
Perspective shifts to two men driving to go fishing and hunting in San Felipe, Mexico. Roy (Edmond O’Brien) and Frank (Gilbert Bowen) are both middle-class married family men and old friends. They are profoundly ordinary, and we glean basic details about their domestic lives through their conversations. They consider stopping to have drinks in Mexicali but opt to drive through the night instead. Shortly after they pick up a hitchhiker. Immediately after entering the car, Emmett Myers (William Talman) draws a gun on the men. What follows is a harrowing journey through Mexico as Myers sadistically manipulates and torments Roy and Frank as he forces them to drive him to the Gulf of California so that he can escape into Guaymas.
The Hitch-Hiker is a raw, almost verite exploration of the psychology of ordinary people thrown into desperate situations. With only three major characters, Lupino focuses on the psychology of both the killer and the victims and explores male violence and vulnerability in equal measure.
At first glance, The Hitch-Hiker might seem like an odd project for Ida Lupino, a director with a strong feminist point of view and a prior focus on films about women. Other than a partially visible victim during the opening and a little girl in a Mexican general store, there are no women on screen in The Hitch-Hiker. Yet the way Ida explores the three male characters that populate her film brings an unexpected feminist angle to her noir.
Roy and Frank aren’t the cynical anti-heroes of traditional hard-boiled noir. They are average in every way, from their looks to their lives. Yet they aren’t simple or perfect heroes either. We learn over the course of the film that they lied to their wives about the location of their planned trip, for what reason we never learn. We get glimpses of a nostalgic connection for them in this part of Mexico, but nothing more. The incomplete details we gather throughout the film add to the realism of the events and characters. Myers is likewise equally terrifying and pathetic. His sadism becomes apparent as we witness him psychologically torture his captives throughout their journey, making it clear he’s after far more than a free ride through his crime spree. Yet he’s also paranoid and full of barely concealed terror. Lupino focuses her cinematography, script, and even the film’s promotional art on Myers’ gun. She makes it clear that the weapon is the only source of the criminal’s power to kill and control.
Through Myers and his gun, Lupino explores the weak foundations of male power and the dangers of male aggression in equal measure. Meanwhile, we witness Roy and Frank bicker, alternatively resist and despair, and ultimately rely on their close friendship to survive. Lupino refuses to simplify male heroism or resistance. She lets her characters be human and displays a degree of complexity that was rare for characters in noir and thrillers of the time. Even today, The Hitch-Hiker is remarkably believable in its depiction of average people pushed to the edge.
“With only three major characters, Lupino focuses on the psychology of both the killer and the victims and explores male violence and vulnerability in equal measure. “
The resulting film is a far more harrowing experience than most film noir, so much so that it often seems more horror than noir. The Hitch-Hiker is so frank and believable that we feel as if we are being forced to witness an ugly crime and its hideous effects, with no glamour or clear philosophy to carry us through. Yet Lupino’s stark directorial approach gives the film a far more lasting impact. We feel we are witnessing a true crime in all its complexity.
The Hitch-Hiker was a modest box office success at its release, and critics praised the performances and Lupino’s direction. Yet it wasn’t until the more recent reappraisal of Lupino’s filmography that the film began to be celebrated as a masterpiece of film noir. Today it’s regarded as a revolutionary expansion of the genre beyond cities and hard-boiled detectives into the vast desert and the hearts of everyday people. Today we can see how Lupino laid the foundations for gritty true crime and survival horror in her little film about a hitchhiker and the terrors of male fragility channeled into violence. So in celebration of Women in Horror month, take a harrowing journey through Ida Lupino’s film noir and celebrate one of the pioneers of women making horror today.
Until next month, classy fiends, enjoy those Silver Screams. Share your thoughts on The Hitch_Hiker and Ida Lupino with the Nightmare on Film Street community on Twitter, in our Official Subreddit, or in the Fiend Club Facebook Group! Or, while you’re here – check out previous editions of Silver Screams for your classic horror fix!