The prevalent fear that characterized American life during the McCarthy era: this is the theme of one of the most gripping crime films of the fifties, The Hitch-Hiker. Naturally, those in the motion-picture industry who made the film were especially sensitive to fear that had been generated by the HUAC investigation of Hollywood and by the Hollywood blacklist. The Hitch-Hiker is startlingly directed by Ida Lupino from a screenplay by herself, spouse Collier Young and others, including Daniel Mainwaring, who, blacklisted, RKO studio head Howard Hughes would not allow to be credited. However, the film ranges beyond considerations of Hollywood to address the American psychological landscape during one of the most reactionary and repressive times in U.S. history.
This terrifying film claims at the outset to have been based on an actual incident and assumes the form of a misadventurous anecdote. Two Arizona buddies, on a weekend fishing trip in Mexico, pick up a hitchhiker (William Talman, excellent) who turns out to be a psychotic prison escapee and killer fleeing police capture. Because of a partially paralyzed right eye that won’t close, even at night when he is asleep he appears to be staring at the two men, watching their every twitch. Their one attempt to escape finds his good eye opening from presumed sleep and his taking after them and catching them: a waking nightmare passage.
Emmett Myers, the hitchhiker, is a sadistic bully. He attempts to turn each buddy against the other on the basis of education, class and masculinity quotient. Myers even forces one man to do his best to shoot a can out of his buddy’s hand. Myers is America itself, creating such anxiety and fomenting such fractiousness that no one can trust even his best friend. One of the men’s ideas that the two of them should patronize Mexican prostitutes precedes the appearance of Myers in the car, making him when he does appear almost seem a projection of the pair’s capacity to shed morality, innocence, decency—what Myers himself has already done, and what powerful elements, including Senator McCarthy, had done in the United States. Myers is on a rampage against “the Other,” those whose differences contest his allegiance to cultural conformity. Here he is in Mexico, but he cannot tolerate the fact that people speak (as he puts it) “Mexican” and that the more educated of his two prisoners converses in Spanish with Mexicans. Isn’t it worth mentioning here that America’s latest eruption of McCarthyism revolves around undocumented Mexicans in the U.S. rather than suspected communists—and once again Republicans are leading the charge?
The car is a conventional post-industrial American symbol of freedom. As such, it in some sense crystallizes American myth and ethos. With withering irony, in this film the men’s car is held hostage by a killer who compels that it be driven where he wants. Compounding the irony is the vehicle’s gradual breakdown until it no longer can run. Compounding the irony further is that one of the men, although a garage mechanic, is powerless to keep the automobile functioning. A number of extreme long-shots of the car in motion create an impression of expansive freedom that the dramatic context deftly undercuts. America touts freedom even as it cuts off at the knees the freedom of actual individuals.
People simply don’t matter to some of us. Thus Lupino’s bravura opening withholding human faces: we see Myers’s legs alongside the car of a couple who have given him a ride; we hear the shots that he fires into the open doorway on the passenger side; we see the murdered woman’s hand drop out. Metaphorically, this is the dehumanization of America that McCarthy and his ilk have wrought.
Does anyone doubt that Lupino, whose films had been sensitive depictions of women and girls, was after the challenge of a physical adventure consisting almost entirely of male characters? (Of course, the masculine emphasis imparts especial poignancy to the young Mexican girl, the daughter of a Mexican general store owner.) However she came to this project, though, we should all be glad she got there.
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