Our contemporary understanding of film noir tends to valorize the intricate psychological dimensions present within its frames of black and white — dimensions which lend themselves, at different junctures, to close, symptomatic, and even paranoid readings of sexual and queer anxiety. Perhaps it’s inevitable, with the likes of Nicholas Ray and Alfred Hitchcock, that such characterization has become commonplace, each onscreen artifact a literary symbol, each movement a coded gesture of deception and double meaning. But as undeniable as the literary potential of film noir may be, the genre does not quite forgo its rugged, external environment. The workings of the land shape the trappings of the mind, and much like the windswept frontiers of Johnny Guitar or the theatrical claustrophobia of Rope, the arid Mexican wilderness in Ida Lupino’s taut and terrifying The Hitch-Hiker proves both emblematic of and necessary for the rabid violence that ensues, first on the plains, and then among a trio of trapped and lost men.
Roy Collins (Edmund O’Brien) and Gilbert Bowen (Frank Lovejoy) are two average Joes who temporarily leave the confines of nuclear conformity and inadvertently run into potentially fatal trouble in the form of an outlaw named Emmett Myers (William Talman). With a gun to their heads, Myers takes them hostage in their own car and makes his way southwest, away from the eagle eyes of the law. Armed with a cruel physiognomy and an equally sharp suspicion for his captives, the fugitive and spree killer towers over the frame, his shifty yet steely demeanor looming as an overwhelming and foreboding presence while time ticks and the inevitable closes in. In The Hitch-Hiker, grand theatrics are dismissed, relegated to a mythos of desperado glory all but sanctioned within a canvas of grayscale realism. There are no preternatural forces of good, nor that of evil, except for pure contingency and a forceful, persistent amoralism. Why does Myers kill? For survival, as well as a ruthless, Hobbesian view of nature that actively guarantees this survival. When the law arrives in the film’s closing minutes, it does so without righteous fanfare, but just as the consequence of logical deduction and undisturbed institutional efficiency.
What strikes one, seventy years after The Hitch-Hiker’s release, is how enduring the film’s images are, how its apparently simplistic set-up still engenders taut, palpitating anxiety despite its paucity of motives or motion effects. In retrospect, perhaps, we experience such anxiety given our newfound reliance in the kind of prestige, “elevated” thrill that combines perfection of craft with auteurist signature and narrative intricacy; the modern Fincher vehicle, for example, has nary a shock without a spoiler, or a protagonist without an unconscious. Lupino, a boundary-pushing artistic voice even in today’s estimation, wasn’t some gun-toting performative feminist that overturned male-dominated convention in pursuit of aesthetic independence. She was a skilled filmmaker with subtlety, deploying the latter right within convention itself to encode and decode the ideological functions central to cinematic form. The Hitch-Hiker, a studio-funded feature despite its independent direction, was also indebted to the real-world figure of Billy Cook, a subject of controversy due to his destitute upbringing, and also a man who kidnapped and murdered in cold blood. In its dramatization, or fictionalization, of America’s uneasy confrontation with its repressed malaise, the film furnishes an equally veritable documentation of historical reality.
Sans the retrospective gaze, however, Lupino’s most notable and accomplished work also achieves an immediate tactile clarity through its acute observations of masculine self-image within its economical seventy-minute runtime. Prior to the duo’s run-in with Myers, we witness two parallel acts of identity formation: Myers’ other killings, ever slightly off-kilter from the camera frame to refract and magnify their menace, and Bowen and Collins leaving the clockwork performativity of their traditional, middle-class lives possibly in search of another kind of performativity — the weekend fling, sworn to secrecy under an oath of brotherhood — disguised as a fishing trip. Whether or not we should read into these initial minutes and diagnose America’s Golden Years as a festering sore of window-dressed moralism is, naturally, a matter of debate, but an undeniable implication that follows is how the thriller’s genetic machismo quickly falters, is undermined by the emaciation of its characters into impotent figures atop a stage whose deterministic injunction — kill or be killed — dissolves the patriotism of a former era for a rejuvenated paranoia.
Even The Hitch-Hiker’s denouement turns the typically lavish noir schema on its head, rejecting transcendent payoff and moral affirmation for a barely satisfactory resumption of justice: Myers apprehended, and Bowen and Collins walking away generally unscathed. But the surface presumption, of a weekend wasted and of a harrowing encounter happily resolved, belies a deeper existential question about the two other men. Where Myers is defined explicitly against the law, our two American subjects are blank ciphers, neither foregrounded by national exceptionalism nor spectacular enough to be recognized as anything more than a potential crime statistic. “You haven’t got a thing except that gun. You’d better hang on to it, because without it you’re nothing!” Collins sneers at the embittered Myers, whose lone working eye stares back, livid at the suggestion. In Myers’ case, his visual handicap proves a useful means to his ends: conjuring fear and corralling his victims. For his victims, nothing shapes them, and the bleak environs of The Hitch-Hiker is that which mockingly positions its newfound inhabitants, and that which Lupino subversively employs as a geographical marker of a deprived national psyche.