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Dr. Rich Edwards

Daily Dose of Darkness #18: Keep Driving (Scene from The Hitch-Hiker)

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I sometimes get the sense, as I did when watching the opening clip of "The Hitch-Hiker," that the director is deliberately provoking the audience to a state of high anxiety by presenting situations where characters do not act to save themselves when they actually probably could do so successfully. I saw numerous opportunities during this scene where either of the victims could have overtaken the villain and I was literally SQUIRMING IN MY SEAT wondering "Why the h*ll don't they DO something????"

 

I get so worked up!

 

And now, finally, today, thanks to this course, I see that my response and my real and actual emotional involvement is no accident. There's a master director at the helm here, someone of amazing storytelling talent, and the vague playing-down of the menace factor, along with the exaggeration of the helplessness factor, are things that are deliberately insinuated but in a very sneaky way. The only way for me to find relief from the tension I'm experiencing is to try to remember that the story will eventually have an outcome that is ultimately satisfying, i.e. a payoff that makes all the squirming worthwhile. The bad guy will get what's coming to him, so to speak.

 

I miss this kind of craftsmanship in today's films. It's the reason why I so revere the classic Hollywood product.

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I think that this beginning shows just how well good direction can vastly change the mood of a familiar scenario.

 

There are a lot of movies where the protagonist is a wrongly accused/convicted man who takes someone hostage. When the hostage is a woman, there's almost always a romantic subplot as she falls in love with her captor. In those movies, we root for the escaped criminal, even as he takes an innocent bystander hostage, putting them in harm's way.

 

I could imagine every line of dialogue from the opening of The Hitch-Hiker playing out in a way that would actually have you feeling either on the hitch-hiker's side, or at least somewhat ambiguous about him. But the menacing delivery and the lighting make it clear that he is to be feared and that his threats are not empty.

 

I think that there is a very natural fascination with being a "part" of a crime. Surely picking up a dangerous hitch-hiker would make for an exciting story. It would be (afterward, when you'd survived) a thrill. At least, this is how we think when we've never been in that situation. There is a longing for excitement, for just the right level of danger. Some movies (such as lighter action fare) play into this idea. Movies like The Hitch-Hiker show that in reality you would never want to be on the wrong side of that loaded gun. It goes past indulging our desire for adventure and shoots straight for the heart of our worst fears.

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Here are a few discussion starters (though feel free to come up with your own):

 

-- What are some of the major themes and/or ideas introduced in the opening sequence of The Hitch-Hiker?

 

Most importantly is the visual style that the cinematographer employs. Of course, the black and white film gives that particular mood that only film noir can give a viewer. Immediately, there is a sense of some impending danger.

 

-- Discuss the role of lighting and staging in this scene, and how lighting and staging both work to reveal the underlying substance of film noir?

 

Lighting in any movie will set the mood of what is to come. We first only see a pair of legs and the only light is provided by the headlights from the car as the car is blurry then comes into focus. Then when the hitchhiker is introduced, you only see the back of his head and once in the car, his face is not shown. It is about a minute before we see it is Hamilton Burger (Perry Mason's arch rival). The director's choice of lighting sends the viewers' pulse racing as to what is about to happen. Darkness, to me means impending danger.

 

-- Compare and contrast the opening scenes of Kiss Me Deadly and The Hitch-Hiker? What is similar between the two? What is different? Why do these openings both work as excellent examples of how to open a film noir?

 

Both movies open at night on a desolate road with some hitchhiker needing a ride. The night scene intensifies the mood of the movie. The differences are that in KMD, she is running looking for a ride, in the HH, his car has broken down/ran out of gas and the hitchhiker needs a ride. We only get a bottom view of the male and a full view with facial features in KMD. In KMD, the driver seems unconcerned with the circumstances or needs of the hitchhiker while in the other movie, there is immediate dialogue and concern for the person. Most importantly whereas in THH, he is a criminal on the run, in KMD, we have no idea of the circumstances surrounding her running. The scenes are excellent examples of film noir because of how the director and cinematographer sets up the lighting and composition of the scenes. This include close ups, lights and shadow, along with dynamics of the characters and the situation.

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What is similar and different between the opening scene of Kiss Me Deadly and The Hitch-Hiker

 

In Kiss Me Deadly we had a lone woman desperate for a ride and in The Hitch-Hiker there was a lone man patiently waiting for his ride.

 

In Kiss Me, Deadly the “Samaritan” was annoyed and frustrated at his “pick-up”

In The Hitch-Hiker the “Samaritans” became victims of their pick-up.

 

In KMD the hitch-hiker seemed out of control and more of a threat.

Whereas in The Hitch-Hiker, the hitch-hiker seemed quiet, subdued and never seemed threatening.

 

Why do these openings work as excellent examples of how to open a film noir?

 

Both opening are excellent because their respective themes are laid out upfront.

Sometimes we do not get the gist of a film until well after the start. Grabbing the attention of the audience early on keeps them interested and involved.

 

Tell me right away that the movie is a “Whodunit” and I immediately start looking for clues.

 

Tell me 30 minutes into the film, I’m not as alert.

 

Getting their attention matters.

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Holy cats, what an scene! I've never seen this one, and that had me duly impressed and intrigued. I had other movies lined up for today but I may just watch this one first.

 

Side note before I get to my thoughts. I've hitch-hiked in the past, and before I met my wife I used to pick up hitch-hikers frequently(per her requests I've stopped; it makes her uncomfortable). When I tell people this they often react in a slightly shocked manner, amazed I would do something so dangerous. But it never felt dangerous to me. People, when hitch-hiking, turn into the friendliest, most gregarious individuals. Everyone wants to tell your life story. I think it's because people are nervous, and everyone wants to be able to think you're their friend, not a threat. But then again, I clearly never picked up anyone quite like the guy in this clip.

 

I love the recurring theme of travel in noir films, and the creeping shadows of the underside of the postwar American dream. It's like there's a virus, or a cancer loose in the American body, and it's travelling through its bloodstream(the roads) by night. I found it interesting that the only two shots out of the windshield were when the car turned off the road, leaving the veins and infecting the tissue.

 

In Kiss Me Deadly the woman came at the car like a threat. It will turn out that she's not a threat, not directly, but she was willing to destroy herself or the car to get inside. In The Hitch-Hiker, the threat comes on as a friend, or at least as a helpless victim looking for aid. I love the lighting in this, as the hitch-hiker sits in the back, stoic and calm unlike Cloris Leachman's panting and flailing. Both men in the front fully lighted, while we can only see a corner of the hitch-hiker's chin. Everything about the man is cloaked in shadows, every movement pulls him into the light. 

 

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Side note before I get to my thoughts. I've hitch-hiked in the past, and before I met my wife I used to pick up hitch-hikers frequently(per her requests I've stopped; it makes her uncomfortable). When I tell people this they often react in a slightly shocked manner, amazed I would do something so dangerous. But it never felt dangerous to me.

 

This might be partly generational (though I don't know your age). My father used to hitch-hike when he was younger, as did many of his friends.

 

These days, though (and especially as a woman) hitch-hiking or picking someone up is just a little to fraught for me. One of the enduring legacies of the college I attended was a student who was hitch-hiking and was murdered by the person (or persons, the case is still unsolved) who picked her up.

 

I accepted a ride from a stranger once (walking home in the middle of a blizzard and freezing temperatures). It's something I still look back on and think was kind of stupid.

 

I think that it would be harder to turn down someone (especially like the woman in Kiss Me Deadly) back then. These days you can usually count on someone having a cell phone or being within reasonable walking distance of an emergency call box or a rest stop.

 

I don't know. I know that it's really hypocritical of me in some ways, because if I was desperately trying to flag someone down on the side of the road and no one stopped, I'd be appalled. But by the same token, I'm not sure what I'd do if I were alone in my car and someone tried to flag me down. Especially at night. Especially on a semi-abandoned stretch of road. And especially if the hitchhiker was a man.

 

Watching a scene like the one we did today, I oscillate back and forth between feeling like it is showing something true and feeling like it is doing some fear-mongering. Even with my hesitation to pick up a hitch-hiker, I have no doubt that a huge percentage of hitch-hikers are perfectly nice people, or at least people who would not want to cause me harm.

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An isloated dark road with someone in need of help, but unlike in Kiss Me Deadly, this scene isn't frenzied at all. You still however have this feeling of angst, like something isn't quite right. We are introduced to the characters with their feet first, but we don't meet Emmett as quickly as we do Christina. Also, Christina had to jump in front of car to get someone to stop, but in today's clip the first car to come by stopped for Emmett. The only light source in both clips are from the headlights of the car, just enough to highlight their faces, only Emmett's is in shadow. We see his gun first then his face moves into the light. The panic-strickened faces of Roy and Gilbert when they see Emmett's gun and then the camera slowly zooms between there shoulders to reveal Emmett's hate-filled face and then zooms back out.

 

A feeling of anxiety and claustrophobia inside that car, where in Kiss Me Deadly they were driving in a convertible. The speeding convertible fit the frenzied feeling you got from the scene in Kiss Me Deadly, having the top down with the wind whipping around them. Where as the in The Hitch-Hiker, the tension is slow brewing and having an enclosed car adds to that feeling.

 

-"You like to shoot?"

-"Yeah"

-"So do I"

 

Two buddies going on a fishing trip, what can go wrong? Wait...do I hear banjos in the distance?

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In Kiss Me Deadly, Christina runs down the road in desperation wearing only a trench coat.

 

In The Hitch-Hiker, Myers wears a dark suit and stands patiently at the side of the road as wind kicks up the dust around him.

 

He confidently sticks out his thumb as Roy and Gilbert drive up. They assume he's out of gas as a car is next to him. It isn't long before the gun comes out as Gilbert is about to pass a cigarette to Roy.

 

Myers's face is hidden from view until he orders the two to keep driving and then his visage emerges into the light, demon-like.

 

We indeed feel like Myers is with us, giving us the orders and knowing our fate is sealed.

 

You think Roy could turn the tables on Myers, but he is way smarter than we think the minute he sees the rifle in the trunk.

 

Hopefully, Ida Lupino was also providing a public service to moviegoers to NEVER EVER EVER pick up hitchhikers. On I-94 heading north to Port Huron. Michigan, there is a sign that says PRISON AREA: DO NOT PICK UP HITCHHIKERS. That sign and my parents' warnings from youth have stayed with me.

 

Ironically, last night on The National on CBC there was a story about a hitch-hiking robot who successfully hitchhiked across Canada and now it is hoping to do the same in the US. I shall assume he is NOT like Myers.....

http://m.hitchbot.me/

 

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This might be partly generational (though I don't know your age). My father used to hitch-hike when he was younger, as did many of his friends.

 

 

 

I'm in my thirties, my hitchhiking was around the turn of the century(late 90s to early 2000s). It was never a regular thing, but I travelled out of state often, and once or twice caught a ride by the side of the road. Also I lived in Alaska, which has long loooong stretches of road between cities or villages, and I felt no compunction against picking someone up.

 

That said, I'd not do that with my daughter in the car. I don't think I'd want my daughter to hitchhike, and that saddens me. I hate to be sexist about it, but it is more dangerous out there for women. My teenage years full of midnight strolls through the woods, or 4am wanderings(on foot or bike) around town. I never drank or did drugs, but I would sneak out to go for walks, and I never felt any danger. And it breaks my heart she won't have that same experience.

 

 

I think, however, the danger presented in this film qualifies as fearmongering, if only because it exagerates the threat. A ton of people used to hitchhike, and most of them never had anything other than a 'you'll never believe this weirdo who I picked up/picked me up' story to tell friends. That said, it does play on a deep, not entirely unreasonable fear. There's a reason people are nervous when they pick someone up, and there's a reason the defenses go up and everyone tries extra hard to be friends. 

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The aspect of a hitch-hiker on a desolate road at night immediately resembles yesterday's Daily Dose with Kiss Me Deadly. This time, however, it's a man who is picked up by two other men. He also appears to be stuck on the side of the road, as opposed to Christina yesterday, who was on the run. We also quickly (it appears) establish that there's a villain in the scene, as opposed to Kiss Me Deadly, where that remains unclear through the opening scene. I think the one idea that I take from this scene and yesterday's is that picking up hitchhikers is just not a smart thing to do, at least it was that way during the Noir era. The scene begins by only showing the hitchhiker's feet, and when he's in the car, the shadows cover his face in the back seat. This is obviously done to enforce the feeling of mystery that surrounds this character. 

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Holy cats, what an scene! I've never seen this one, and that had me duly impressed and intrigued. I had other movies lined up for today but I may just watch this one first.

 

Side note before I get to my thoughts. I've hitch-hiked in the past, and before I met my wife I used to pick up hitch-hikers frequently(per her requests I've stopped; it makes her uncomfortable). When I tell people this they often react in a slightly shocked manner, amazed I would do something so dangerous. But it never felt dangerous to me. People, when hitch-hiking, turn into the friendliest, most gregarious individuals. Everyone wants to tell your life story. I think it's because people are nervous, and everyone wants to be able to think you're their friend, not a threat. But then again, I clearly never picked up anyone quite like the guy in this clip.

 

I love the recurring theme of travel in noir films, and the creeping shadows of the underside of the postwar American dream. It's like there's a virus, or a cancer loose in the American body, and it's travelling through its bloodstream(the roads) by night. I found it interesting that the only two shots out of the windshield were when the car turned off the road, leaving the veins and infecting the tissue.

 

In Kiss Me Deadly the woman came at the car like a threat. It will turn out that she's not a threat, not directly, but she was willing to destroy herself or the car to get inside. In The Hitch-Hiker, the threat comes on as a friend, or at least as a helpless victim looking for aid. I love the lighting in this, as the hitch-hiker sits in the back, stoic and calm unlike Cloris Leachman's panting and flailing. Both men in the front fully lighted, while we can only see a corner of the hitch-hiker's chin. Everything about the man is cloaked in shadows, every movement pulls him into the light. 

 

Strong points. I'd definitely recommend watching the hitch-hiker as soon as possible; I'll try to keep out . I think this film can definitely be interpreted as depicting different ideas of the American Dream through the characters. On the one hand, there's the hitch-hiker: a sociopathic renegade outlaw. And when he gives a speech about how the others two characters are soft and talking about his upbringing and how he is entirely self-made, he comes off, and to the extent we can relate to him, as the ultimate rugged individualist and a gunslinger. In a sense, he's a classic example of the guy who pulled himself up by his own bootstraps, not even relying on his parents or family only he does it by intimidation and entirely relying on force and the threat of force---his gun. Speaking of which, the handgun he carries around just as easily looks like it could be found in a Western as in a Film Noir. 

 

By contrast, the other two men are more typical of the rising middle class consumerist society that's strongly emerging in the wake of WWII, the class impact of the GI bill, and the economic boom ending the Great Depression. They're both seemingly family men with wives, but it's unclear how we are supposed to view them morally. It's suggested from the scene immediately prior to this one that they are really in Mexico to find a bordello and prostitutes, and that their fishing trip (metaphorical anyone?) in Mexico may just have been an ease excuse to get away . Unlike the hitch-hiker who, they seem to have gotten what material possessions they have and the support for the lifestyles via IOU's, i.e. credit and loans. However, we also know that one of them is mechanic and the other is a fantastic shot with a rifle under pressure, and that both their dress clearly establishes them as working middle class. There's quite a lot of interesting masculinity and gender role twists going on in this very stripped down story.

 

I think it's also quite telling that the movie itself takes place in Mexico (also more traditionally a Western setting) and almost all. Why? America is an imperial power, exporting the american dream, democracy, ideology, economics, and it's interests abroad during this period as it moves to confront communism and out of the more isolationist pre-WWII era. And, as others have mentioned, setting the action here showcases that the the criminality we associate with urban life in noir is bubbling out of the cities of America so that no one is safe--not even on vacation.

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One of the major ideas of this movies is fear. The escaped con is using fear to keep the other two at bay.  Having your freedom taken away is another theme.

 

Lighting and staging are used to great effect as the con is hidden in shadows, especially his face at the very beginning.  Another great effect of lighting is the con emerging from the shadows into the bright light and makes his announcement.  Also the use of the flashlight to highlight what the con is looking at.  The staging has the two men in the front and the con in back at all times.

 

Both movies are similiar in that they both have someone of questionable character getting a ride from a stranger.  Cloris Leachman is not in the shadows as is the con from Hitch-Hiker.  Both are effective in introducing a major player right at the beginning of the film in a tense situation.

 

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I think it's also quite telling that the movie itself takes place in Mexico (also more traditionally a Western setting) and almost all. Why? America is an imperial power, exporting the american dream, democracy, ideology, economics, and it's interests abroad during this period as it moves to confront communism and out of the more isolationist pre-WWII era. And, as others have mentioned, setting the action here showcases that the the criminality we associate with urban life in noir is bubbling out of the cities of America so that no one is safe--not even on vacation.

 

Wow, I hadn't even picked up the fact that this was in Mexico. Well then, some of my points may be slightly off base. But your comments have doubled my desire to watch this. I'm torn; I have friends visiting from out of town which has cut down on my viewing time during my days off. But now I just want them to go home so I can sit down with my noir.

 

Not really, I'm not that heartless, but I am a bit envious of those of you who can watch all these films this week.

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Holy moly!! This is a great introduction for Cloris Leachman...her introduction is totally emphasizing her want to escape the current situation she's in, which the viewer has no clue to.  But she's in a coat and barefoot, running blindly down a highway...which is totally not good in my mind.  She's desperate.

 

Mickey stops the car out of necessity, which is really evident by his lack of reaction, to her or her situation.  He appear put out  and extremely inconvenienced.  He evidently could care less about her situation.  

 

So..where is this going?  Now I have to watch it!

 

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After I watched the clip, I went to look up the dates of the Starkweather/Fugate spree kills because I was wondering if the Hitch-Hiker, like M, was inspired by a real crime.  Turns out that the film predates that case by five years, but The Hitch-Hiker was based on the crimes of Billy Cook in 1950-51.  I think that is why the film feels so much more realistic than some of the others we’ve seen.  Even though crimes were not blasted across every newspaper like they are now, this was a crime people on the West Coast would have been familiar with and recognized in the film.  One thing that reminds me a lot of M is how Myers (it took me a minute to recognize Hamilton Burger from Perry Mason) is shown in shadow, especially once he’s in the car.  He is just this dark, menacing shape behind the two travelers.  We know as soon as he gets in the car that something is not right.  We have an intense feeling of helplessness as Myers takes control of the car.  The Hitch-Hiker creates a picture of a dangerous world where ordinary people can find themselves in terrible, frightening situations.

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What are some of the major themes and/or ideas introduced in the opening sequence of The Hitch-Hiker?

- No good deed goes unpunished; fate is cruel.  The stranded man is both aggressive and anxious. There is every likelihood the stranded man will kill the others, BUT, we wonder if there isn’t a hint of compassion when he makes the other men retrieve the blanket and food from the trunk of the car.


 

Discuss the role of lighting and staging in this scene, and how lighting and staging both work to reveal the underlying substance of film noir?

- The first face we see in the light is the driver’s.  Once the camera is inside the car, we see the passenger’s face.  Not until the gun is pulled, do we see the stranded man’s face—and that is when he leans forward into the light.  Even though the stranded man is in the back set, he is more in focus; also he is in the center of the frame while in the car.  The dress of the driver (especially his ht) indicates right away that they are on a hunting or fishing trip, which marks them as not perpetrators.


 

Compare and contrast the opening scenes of Kiss Me Deadly and The Hitch-Hiker? What is similar between the two? What is different? Why do these openings both work as excellent examples of how to open a film noir?

- Both start at night in the desert with a view of legs and the headlights are the 1st view of the characters’ cars.  However we see Cloris Leachman’s face early on (before she speaks) in Kiss Me Deadly, but in The Hitch-Hiker we don’t see the stranded man’s face until after he speaks.  The stranded man is an aggressor, but Cloris Leachman (at least initially) needs help.

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-- What are some of the major themes and/or ideas introduced in the opening sequence of The Hitch-Hiker?

The main theme is darkness, both in light level (it's night time) and the future. Roy and Gilbert are driving their car and in control as they stop to pick up a hitch hiker that has run out of gas. Then suddenly they lose control as Emmett, the hitch hiker displays a gun.

 

-- Discuss the role of lighting and staging in this scene, and how lighting and staging both work to reveal the underlying substance of film noir?

In the dark we see just the feet of the hitch hiker in the soft glow from the oncoming car and then we see the headlights of Roy's and Gilbert's car. Once Emmett is in the back seat of the car, we barely see his outline. We see Roy's and Gilbert's faces as they start the car again. Gilbert offers a cigarette to Emmett and then suddenly we see a pistol pointed at Gilbert. Then a closeup of Emmett's face. He is in control now. Emmett implies that he has killed other people so no fast moves.

 

-- Compare and contrast the opening scenes of Kiss Me Deadly and The Hitch-Hiker? What is similar between the two? What is different? Why do these openings both work as excellent examples of how to open a film noir?

The opening scenes of Kiss Me Deadly and The Hitch Hiker are very different. In Kiss Me Deadly, Christina is so desperate to be picked up that she is willing to die. In The Hitch Hiker, Roy and Gilbert think they are doing a good deed to pick up a guy that has run out of gas. Once the hitch hikers are inside the car, the movies are very different too. In Kiss Me Deadly, Mike does the good deed (he hopes), and protects Christina from being caught. In The Hitch Hiker, the good guys lose complete control and maybe die. These opening scenes set in motion for what is next in the unknown.

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I can definitely see how the clip from this movie would play into the fears and anxiety at the society in the 1950s. At the beginning we don't see the hitchhikers face even when he gets into the car all we see is blackness. Our first introduction to Myres, the hitchhiker / killer, is his gun pointed directly at us, the audience. Then see only his face which is very menacing. The blackness represents lack of knowledge - we don't know and can't see who he is so this leads to fear. The audience is free to basically fill in blank as to what fear it is. It can be fear of communism, financial fears, or a fear of the society that black list people.

 

In both daily dose clips the unknown( the hitchhiker) is brought into the characters world (car). From there the stories go into different directions. In the last clip for Kiss Me Deadly Hammer is asking questions leading us to ask questions which builds our curiosity. In this clip Myers is barking orders giving us a sense of being out of control. Instead our fears are in control.

 

I believe there are a few Sci Fi fans on this board. So I would like to go a little out of the realm and ask did this remind anyone of the scene in The Day the Earth Stood Still ( original version ) where Klaatu enters the boarding house as the residence or watching a newscast on the alien and his entrance frightens them? Klaatu was also in the shadows but when he emerged he was a benevolent person. I guess this clip remind me of this scene because both speak to the fears of the unknown, of things of things hidden in the shadows. In some ways I believe The Day the Earth Stood Still is an example of early science fiction film noir, but maybe that's because I'm a science fiction nerd.

:)

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Threat, uncertainty and suspense are all Noir characteristics; the fabulous low-key lighting contributes and enhances the overall sinister tone... The opening scene of The Hitch-Hiker compared to Kiss Me Deadly is less dramatic and explosive; or rather, the "drama" is more psychological than physical, which can produce more lasting effect on the audience.

Sadly it is somewhat of a dying art. It seems that Hollywood seems bent on the slasher/gore genre these days. They have forgotten that it was not long ago that Silence of the Lambs proved that Hannibal Lecter just having a conversation from his cell was more memorable than the killings being investigated.

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Although THE HITCH-HIKER was made by Ida Lupino's company The Filmakers, it was released by RKO and aside from sharing cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, it plays very much like an RKO noir of this classic period. The darkness in this "Keep Driving" clip is absolute, making the lighting so important in emphasizing the danger faced by Roy and Gil and the randomness of evil entering their lives while enroute on a simple hunting trip. Like Mike Hammer's pickup of Christina Bailey in KISS ME DEADLY, our typical middle-class American males in THE HITCH-HIKER have had the finger put on them by fate (to borrow Al Roberts' final observation in DETOUR) by unknowingly giving a ride to killer Emmett Myers. The lighting again comes into play as, pointed out in other posts, Myers enters the car and sits in the blackened back seat, uttering terse answers to the vacationers' good-natured questions. When Myers lunges forward to show us his face, the dashboard illumination captures his all-around detestable nature and contemptuous attitude toward his captives. Lighting from the sports car (was it a Jaguar?) dash in KISS ME DEADLY make Christina's and Mike's faces the focus of our attention and we learn things about their characters, Christina's remarkable self-possession despite her terror, and Mike's flip, what's-in-it-for-me demeanor. In THE HITCH-HIKER, we've been introduced to Roy and Gil early on traveling in the front seat of the Plymouth sedan, and by watching their faces we get some insight into the malaise they are seeking to escape on the hunting trip. After Myers enters the picture, their faces reflect the fear that has so suddenly entered their lives, THE HITCH-HIKER is also of its time when the unexpected and vicious nature of crime came into the fore. Serial killings were not unknown and made sensational newspaper copy, but were not part of normal everyday discussion in the early '50s. However, radio shows like GANGBUSTERS and TALES OF THE TEXAS RANGERS (starring Joel McCrea) were remarkably frank about the brutal nature of the criminal mind, the audience learning the grisly details as the investigators discuss them in trying to solve the crime. As part of our discussion of the motives of film noir, if THE HITCH-HIKER was designed to showcase the aberrant nature of Myers and the peril he posed to public safety, it succeeds admirably. Myers, brilliantly portrayed by William Talman, is an outsider to beat them all, and what's worse, he doesn't seem to care. He's boiling over with rage at the world, and at the end (sorry, spoiler alert), stripped of his all-empowering gun and in custody, he uses the only thing he's got left to strike back -- by pathetically spitting at his former hostages. THE HITCH-HIKER pointed to a new kind of madman at large by giving us Emmett Myers.

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Both Hitchhiker and Kiss Me Deadly open with the sudden interruption of nighttime drives, and both put a similar spin on the automobile-at-night motif. At night on dark deserted roads, the car seems like a safely enclosing space, a place where travelers are sheltered against whatever might be lurking out  in the inky blackness on the other side of the glass. Inside the car: the lights from the dashboard reveal the recognizable features of human faces. Outside the car: the abyss mocks the feeble presumption of our headlights. As long as we stay inside the car and as long as the darkness stays outside, things seem at least relatively safe. But once we stop and open the door -- even if it's only to invite a stranded traveler into the safety of our car -- the darkness can seize the opportunity and slip inside with us.

 

In Hitchhiker, this sense is especially well spelled out by way of the incredibly scarce lighting in the composition of each shot in the opening. Our hitchhiker is at first little more than a silhouette, a shade blacker than the blackness that surrounds him. Once inside the car, he almost seems to morph into a human as he leans forward into the illumination that appears to be provided by the dashboard. Darkness person-ified has just invaded the precarious safety of our protagonists.

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These two movie clips are similar in that there's a road, a car, and people who want a ride. The Hitch-Hiker's, Emmett is standing on the side of the road waiting, patiently, perhaps calculatingly next to a car the audience assumes is in disrepair. Kiss Me Deadly's Christine is running, chasing down her ride (as we can hear her heavy anxious breathing) obviously running from something. She's also in full light, in Hitch-Hiker we don't see Emmett until his face slides into view behind a gun. Creepy! It's at this point the music stops. Somehow, the absence of music makes the scene more menacing and unpredictable. Just as the out of breath Christine amped up the audience anxiety in Kiss Me Deadly. It was interesting in Hitch-Hiker the music didn't start again until the audience sees the shotgun in the trunk.

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I'm appreciating the many remarks on the psychology and culture of hitch-hiking, which I've also commented on myself. A functioning and friendly hitch-hiking culture seems to be the epitome of the best parts of America -- openness, generosity with resources, sympathy with people of different socio-economic classes, appreciation of the independent spirit of people who are pioneers and always on the move. The opening to Kiss Me Deadly, despite all kinds of film noir alarm signals, is also in that vein, where Hammer's impulse is ultimately to help the hitcher, i.e. to side with the person in flight. So it's such a strong statement when it goes bad, as in this and other films where it's a symbol of random violence, hostility. I basically hate films where the antagonist is psycho-pathic, socio-pathic, or randomly violent for the sake of amusement, which means that I'm going to have to force myself to watch the Hitch-Hiker, since there are no indications of anything redeemable about the Hitch-hiker, at least in this clip. I know we're thinking about "psychology" this week, but I think it's a cheap narrative device. This kind of film might reflect cultural anxiety, but it also does its share of creating it. 

 

Another random thought-- this is a case where it's difficult for me to watch William Talman, who is so familiar from decades of Perry Mason TV reruns. I note from the comments that a few other people are having similar trouble with character "seepage."  The hitchhiker is pretty menacing, but hard to take seriously because he'll probably end up being pronounced incompetent, irrelevant, and immaterial, and being overruled by the judge. But all kidding aside, being aware of how influenced I am by Talman's later roles makes me realize how dependent on stereotypes and typecasting film noir can be. It enables that famous narrative economy when you only need the slightest reference to evoke the type. But it does raise the bar if your goal is to jolt audiences into fresh emotions. I can imagine that this was so much more effective for the first-time audience, who probably felt pretty cozy and even protective of Edmund O'Brien (bringing his own set of stereotypes into play) but harboring no such built-in relationship to Talman. 

 

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Goingtopluto's thoughts about THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL reminded me of a review of THE HITCH-HIKER I read some years ago (it might have been in Filmfax magazine) that found the musical score, so typical of Roy Webb and RKO's cues of impending doom (and that's not a bad thing) could have served a science fiction movie of the period so well. Indeed, scenes involving the Mexican police traveling through the bleak countryside in search of Myers struck me as a proto-THEM! and TARANTULA kind of imagery surrounding mutated monsters hiding in the desert, the music providing a perfectly creepy accompaniment.

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As the scene opens, you only see the hitchhiker's legs as he faces the road.  The only light besides the one on the hitchhiker is the headlights of the car.  Everything else is in shadow.  While he sits in the back of the car, you do not see his face.  A shadow is covering the top part of his face.  You just see his lips moving.  Once he pulls out the gun (and it shows in the light), then you see his face.  Well well, it is William Talman, aka Hamilton Burger, from Perry Mason (this recognition did not keep the impact of the scene from me).  As the three drive along, the view from inside the car is like the scene from Kiss Me Deadly.  The two innocent characters got sucked into a bad scene so quickly they could do nothing about this but do what the guy said.  Lupino put the threat in early.

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