THE HITCH-HIKER

FILM 005

 

MARCH 7TH 8PM

 

Ida Lupino was a Hollywood anomaly. In addition to her career as an intense dramatic actress (with particular success in such films noir as High Sierra (1941) and While the City Sleeps, 1956), she was also the only 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 her first films dealt with social issues of particular interest to women - unwed motherhood, rape, mother-daughter relations - with The Hitch-hiker she made a transition to the type of fast-paced, hard-hitting material that would become a specialty throughout her later career. More recently fans and critics have reevaluated such "masculine" work in light of its feminist subtext - the way her action films reduced male characters to the kinds of restless, out-of-control types usually played by women. Equally impressive was her ability to achieve professional 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 The Hitch-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 issues that interested them. Their first outing, Not Wanted (1949), dealt with illegitimacy, questioning the social stigma on unwed mothers and their children. Originally it was to have been directed by Hollywood veteran Elmer Clifton, but when he developed heart trouble three days into the shoot, Lupino stepped in, with him sitting on the sidelines to offer advice. She gave him credit for the film, but at Young's urging continued directing on subsequent Filmways productions.

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

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

Work on The Hitch-hiker was complicated by two things. Eccentric tycoon Howard Hughes, who released the film through his RKO Pictures, refused to let them give screen credit to suspected Communist Daniel Mainwaring, 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. She and Young had been having problems, which had led her to an affair with actor Howard Duff, her co-star in the 1950 film noir Woman in Hiding. Before The Hitch-hiker started shooting, she got a quickie divorce from Young in Nevada, then married Duff.

The Hitch-hiker won solid reviews and did very well at the box office, particularly considering its low cost. Helping greatly were the cinematography of Nicholas Musuraca - a film noir veteran who had also lensed Out of the Past (1947), with Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas and Jane Greer; and The Spiral Staircase (1946), with Dorothy McGuire - and William Talman's tense performance as the killer. Talman would achieve his greatest fame as District Attorney Hamilton Burger in the popular television series Perry Mason.

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

(TURNER CLASSIC MOVIES)

Caitlin Murray