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Dr. Rich Edwards

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

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Much like Kiss Me Deadly, a hitch-hiker first seen from the knees down...this is a person of mystery. But unlike the desperate Cloris Leachman, this is a ruthless and calculating William Talman. One wonders how long he would have held off had the passenger not offered him a cigarette, but the transition from good deed ("have a smoke?") to terror (my gun says no, forget the smoke) is classic. Ida Lupino rocks.

 

(BTW...Like many, I first saw William Talman as Ham(ilton) Burger on Perry Mason. While he was quite good in that role, seeing him in this film and Armored Car Robbery gave me a whole new appreciation for his skill as an actor.)

 

In one short scene you see two regular "nice guys" so overly outmatched that subliminally you are thinking "how could *I* get out of this situation? Disarmed, dirt road, psycho in control...he's already neutered the "two-against-one" option and probably sleeps with one eye open, if he sleeps at all. What does he want? Why doesn't he just take the wallets and car and go? Here we have dread.

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Much like Kiss Me Deadly, a hitch-hiker first seen from the knees down...this is a person of mystery. But unlike the desperate Cloris Leachman, this is a ruthless and calculating William Talman. One wonders how long he would have held off had the passenger not offered him a cigarette, but the transition from good deed ("have a smoke?") to terror (my gun says no, forget the smoke) is classic. Ida Lupino rocks.

 

(BTW...Like many, I first saw William Talman as Ham(ilton) Burger on Perry Mason. While he was quite good in that role, seeing him in this film and Armored Car Robbery gave me a whole new appreciation for his skill as an actor.)

 

In one short scene you see two regular "nice guys" so overly outmatched that subliminally you are thinking "how could *I* get out of this situation? Disarmed, dirt road, psycho in control...he's already neutered the "two-against-one" option and probably sleeps with one eye open, if he sleeps at all. What does he want? Why doesn't he just take the wallets and car and go? Here we have dread.

 

Talman is also in the noir The Racket with Mitchum,  Robert Ryan and Liz Scott,  which TCM is showing on July 17 at 6:30 EDT.

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I've commented before, when we were discussing detour, about the way the social view of hitch hiking has changed in our society verses the relative harmlessness with which it was viewed in the 1940s. Here we have something more akin to how we see it today...that every time you chance to pick someone up you could get someone dangerous who might try and kill you or steal your car..which is why for the most part no one picks up hitchhikers anymore. It would be interesting to know if the relative "harmlessness" changed between the time that detour was made and this film. If people in the 50s were less inclined to pick up a hitchhiker or more inclined to view one with suspicion than they were in the 40s. In what way was this film reflective of the society as it existed when this film was made, or if it took something harmless and made it scary for purposes of dramatic storytelling, and in so doing was not reflective of the time but rather a micro-causum. 

 

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Talman is also in the noir The Racket with Mitchum,  Robert Ryan and Liz Scott,  which TCM is showing on July 17 at 6:30 EDT.

 

 

He was such an evil bad guy, it's surprising he was ever cast as a good guy. If I'd been casting Perry Mason I'd have said, "Are you kidding? That guy is eeeeeevil!" I bet he had fun playing the hitch hiker. I bet the staying-awake-with-a-bum-eye thing cracked him up. 

 

He was fired from Perry Mason for awhile after he was arrested at a party running around naked and smoking pot. Here's the 1960 LA Times clipping: 

 

PERRY MASON'S DA JAILED IN HOLLYWOOD PARTY RAID

 

Gossip that good never gets old. 

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A lot of thought went into this sequence …choreography, lighting, camera placement, rear projection screen …even when the lights are cheated in the sequence behind the car (they come from behind and the left whereas in the car they came from in front and the right) we accept the unusually strong lighting of a dark night on a deserted country road because it maintains the sense of the “mysterious” light source established earlier, mysterious in that it is little pools of flickering light rather than floods or brutes. All of this works because the actors carefully avoid histrionics, this is “real”. And it is far superior to Kiss Me Deadly.

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18. THE HITCH-HIKER: Whose a psycho hitchhiking with no thumbs? (This guy.)

First we see the gun come out of the shadows then his face lit sinisterly from below. 

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Major themes and ideas in this clip: Loneliness of the highway, danger and menace in the dark, normal world turned upsidedown, unknowableness of the future - but probably not good.

 

How lighting and staging reveal the underlying substance of film noir. The lighting is classic noir, playing with light and dark. The hitchhiker is introduced starting with just his feet – we don't see his face until they do and then it's revealed in a blast of light, adding to feeling of menace.

 

Compare and contrast opening scenes of Kiss Me Deadly and The HitchHiker. Similar in that a lonely figure appears to need help in a lonely stretch of highway. In both clips, there is danger revealed right away. But in Kiss, the lonely figure appears to be a victim, whereas in Hitchhiker, it’s the lonely figure that victimizes others. Both clips start in the dark and that creates a feeling of menace.

I agree with your statement that the lonely figure in Kiss Me Deadly is a victim and that Talman's character in The Hitch-Hiker victimizes others. When making the comparison/contrast, I found it interesting that Leachman's legs are bare and running (vulnerable) while Talman's feet are covered and standing strong (strength). Also, the incessant--some say ****--breathing/whimpering of Leachman's character reinforces her desperation; whereas, Talman's hitchhiker is calm, cool, and collected. Finally, why do the first two cars pass by the girl (arms up in the air to show that she's not a threat) while the guy (who seems to be thumbing a ride with his fist) appears to stop the first car that comes his way?

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I hadn't ever heard of The Hitch-Hiker before, but I'm certainly interested in seeing the rest of the film after this intense opening.

 

We can tell that it has been meticulously choreographed so that each action happens at a precise, and thus effective, moment. Each exact moment leads to another exact moment, but it never feels staged; there is a natural feeling to it, and that plays extremely well into how the scene is lit. When Emmett pulls out his gun and then leans in to the light, after sitting back in the shadows, I literally said, "Wow, that's cool." We know nothing about this character, but we're instantly afraid of him and it's only been, like, a minute. It almost reminded me of the Night on Bald Mountain sequence in Fantasia when Chernabog, the devil incarnate, breaks from his rigidly mountainous position and the flames of hell throw his face into view; funny enough, I recall something similar happening in Pinocchio with the Coachman. When shadowy figures enter the light, it's usually bad for business.

 

While I don't think this opening is as intense and effective as the opening scene in Kiss Me Deadly (which I rewatched today; it is surely the most ruthlessly brutal of all films noir), it still sets us up for a wild and dangerous ride (literally in this case, and I guess for Kiss Me Deadly, too). Even though I'm afraid of Emmett and concerned for Roy and Gilbert, I was more concerned for Christina in Kiss Me Deadly. Even though there isn't a single gun or an immediate presence of violence in the opening of Kiss Me Deadly--and there are two guns in the opening of The Hitch-Hiker--the character of of Christina, as a damsel in distress, is more concerning for me. Maybe it's because Christina, the first person we see in the film, is a victim running away from something, and Emmett, the first person we see in the film, is an obvious victimizer. Or it could be because I just watched Kiss Me Deadly and so I can sympathize with Christina a bit more.

 

Just like Kiss Me Deadly, we get themes of isolation and desperation. We get a gritty, dangerous world where even being with another person can be a deadly thing.

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Sometimes it just doesn’t pay to be nice, as two buddies on a weekend trip quickly discover after they pick up a hitch-hiker with car trouble.  Our first tip-off that something is not quite right is the dark forboding arm, with a thumb held up, coming out of the shadows.  The two men’s faces seem open and kind, which is a stark contrast to the take-no-prisoners look on the hitch-hiker’s grim countenance.  A single key light indicates this man is ready to kill at the drop of a dime, when he introduces Edmund O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy to his handgun.  Later he tersely warns Edmund O’Brien about the folly of reaching for his rifle, “You’d never make it”.  All sense of hope vanishes from the two men’s faces as they give into their captor.  


 


While both Kiss Me Deadly and The Hitch-Hiker open with someone being picked-up in a dark and loney place, the mood is quite different for each film.  The hitch-hiker in the former film looks lost and vulnerable, with her only hope for rescue sitting behind the wheel of a white car.  The reflection of the damsel in distress in this scene is twisted, however, because the sweet-faced woman is a mental patient.  William Talman may be lost, too, but he’s definitely in control of the situation - and his two good neighbors - thanks to his gun, but the threat of that changing is clear to all three of them by the end of the scene. After all - a guy’s gotta sleep, right?


 

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If you hadn't read anything about this film prior to viewing, the lighting of the opening sequence would let you know that the hitch hiker in question is completely bad news. The hitch hiker is completely in the shadows whether it is the thumb sticking out as the sequence begins or him in the back seat of the car. The focus of the lighting is on the two men who pick up the hitch hiker. They are innocent and oblivious to the fact they made a mistake. The hitch hiker is clouded in darkness, a choice that completely telegraphs what his intentions end up being. It is an example of using lighting to set mood and reveal details about your characters.

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Yeah, the first thing that jumped to my mind as I saw the scene was the deliberate lighting (or lack of) on the hitchhiker as he gets in the car. The fact that he stays "illuminated" once he reveals himself was an interesting choice.

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


-- 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?


-- 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?


 


Major themes / ideas that i got where darkness / surprise - the hitchhiker is always in the dark until he reveals his true plan.


 


Very sinister kind of feel.  Nighttime that fact that you let someone into your car and turn around and see them for what they are in a quick glimpse of light.  


 


They are similar as in picking someone up.  Kiss me deadly seems to set the tone right away with frantic escape.  The hitch-hiker is darker in tone and seems more sinister as there is a clear bad guy.


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This clip from "The Hitchhiker" shows clearly that In the noir world no good deed goes unpunished.  It also hammers home the late 40s - early 50s anxiety-producing sense that the pre-WWII ethos of trusting and helping out our fellow human beings, is no longer in play.  It must be one of the first films to show a serial killer in a normalized way, echoing the normal-seeming Germans' monstrous depravity. 

 

"Kiss Me, Deadly" opens with a traumatized woman running for rescue toward cars in the night.  Her saviour shelters her from the brutality to which she has been subjected.  The opening is showy in a stark way; the director seems to have taken a page from the German Expressionists.  Nothing much is visible but the woman, and the man in the car.  The rest is inky black night.  Not much gray area here. The credits and the music add layers of nervous energy to the scene.  

 

"The Hitchhiker" clip opens calmly and conventionally, in a noir sort of way.  Two regular Joes are driving and deciding if they should go to their planned fishing spot or to a Mexican hot spot to pick up women.  These scenes are in many gradients of rich black, white, and gray.  Their detour introduces them to a hitchhiker they stop to help.  The mise-en-scene narrows to the more strictly black/white interior of the car.  The suspense builds as the hitchhiker joins the duo.  He speaks cryptically from the total blackness of the back seat; the two men in the front are visible, though heavily shadowed.  The passenger is revealed not by his face, but through the close up of his gun.

 

Both these "more than night" situations land the goodhearted drivers/protagonists in mortal danger.  Casual generosity does not prevent bad karma.  This is a new world.

 

 

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It's a ridiculous understatement to say that film noir is dark.  The opening of The Hitch-Hiker is just that--dark.  The scene begins at night.  It seems that no other film style showed car headlights approaching as does film noir.  They are the 2 bright beacons in the dark scene that allow us to see the the fist of the hitch-hiker, notice, no thumb.  That should be some foreshadowing that he's the villain; he's there shaking his fist at the existing world at that moment.  As the car pulls out and hits the road again, the faces of the two front passengers are lit while the hitch-hiker is almost totally in darkness.  When at last we begin to see him as he is, only his eyes are lit up.  And speaking of eyes, that eye of his. . . does it remind anyone of the eye in Poe's "The Tell-tale Heart"?  This is good film noir, and you are on the edge of your seat for the majority of the film wondering how will they get out of this one, and this because we know that in film noir they sometimes don't.  Ida Lupino has done an amazing first job directing here.

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I just finished watching the full film, and I find myself once again questioning what defines the boundaries of film noir.  I had settled on some sort of minimal definition that film noir required a character or characters to enter into a deadly spiral as the result of some minor or major decision or decisions they make.  "Fate" seems relentless, but perhaps the protagonist can escape — although usually not.

 

That seems a broad definition, one that might already be so broad as to be of limited utility, but then this film comes along. 

 

The good guys are "good" throughout the film.  They are put into a state of fear and tension with the arrival of the hitch-hiker, and they remain in that state until the last minute of the film.  But they are so passive that they don't even have any actions that could be responsible for their downward progression, if they had a downward progression.  But they don't.

 

The bad guy is "bad" without any reason.  He remains a static character throughout the entire film.  Even when captured he still exhibits a blind desire to inflict pain — exactly as he was at the beginning of the film. 

 

In terms of this week's themes, it's certainly possible to read some existentialist angst into the blot: without cause the protagonists are plunged into a world of senseless danger.  But if that becomes a sufficient criterion to define a film noir then everything from "Pay it Forward" to "Cast Away" becomes film noir.

 

So what am I missing?  What makes this a film noir?

 

 

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So what am I missing?  What makes this a film noir?

 

Well, as we discussed in the other thread about the definition of film noir, you're always going to struggle to create a list of "must haves" for noir, because one (or a few) movies are going to break that rule.

 

To me, there are sufficient elements to consider this movie noir. To begin with, you have the fact that it is a crime drama/thriller. On top of that you have the theme of life's random cruelty. Once you throw in the style of the lighting (discussed by many in this thread), I think you're comfortably in the noir neighborhood.

 

My own loose definition of noir usually involves:

 

1) A generally cynical/fatalistic attitude towards people/society

2) A criminal element

3) Some degree of formalism in the lighting

4) At least one moment where you look at a character and think "Noooooo. Don't do it!"

 

If you're looking for a solid checklist to see if something is noir or not, you're in good company.  Quoth Wikipedia:

 

The questions of what defines film noir and what sort of category it is provoke continuing debate.[4] "We'd be oversimplifying things in calling film noir oneiric, strange, erotic, ambivalent, and cruel": this set of attributes constitutes the first of many attempts to define film noir made by French critics Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton in their 1955 book Panorama du film noir américain 1941–1953 (A Panorama of American Film Noir), the original and seminal extended treatment of the subject.[5] They emphasize that not every film noir embodies all five attributes in equal measure—one might be more dreamlike; another, particularly brutal.[6] The authors' caveats and repeated efforts at alternative definition have been echoed in subsequent scholarship: in the more than five decades since, there have been innumerable further attempts at definition, yet in the words of cinema historian Mark Bould, film noir remains an "elusive phenomenon ... always just out of reach".[7]

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The lighting in this opening scene is so focused and comes from what seems to be one, maybe two sources.  The whole driving portion only mainly catches O'Brien's face. The source seems to come up from some where under the dash by the glove compartment.  It barely picks up the other actor and keeps the actor in the backseat in complete darkness until he leans forward.  It gives you a feeling of isolation, that what is happening in this car is a bubble and gives the scene a sense of claustrophobia.  You feel as if they can't escape this criminal whose face suddenly looms out of the darkness at you.  The same sense happens as they turn off the road and then there is again only one light source that barely covers the criminal behind the men.  Again, you get the feeling that they are truly alone and at the mercy of a mad man with a gun.  Part of you keeps saying, "These guys are so gonna die."

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Daily Dose of Darkness #18: Keep Driving

(Sequence from The Hitch-Hiker)

 

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

Dread, cold, and loneliness seemed evident to me by the way that we see the hitch-hiker’s legs and nothing else about him. It’s windy; dry leaves cross over his shoes in the dark. He’s alone and looking for a ride. It seems like an existential statement: Aren’t all of us alone and looking for something?

—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 hitch-hiker is always in the shadows, and we don’t know his identity until he leans forward in the car to reveal his face in the perfect circle of light, almost like a curio portrait. He’s in control from the outset, even though he’s in darkness most of the time. We can’t even tell if he puts up his thumb or just his fist when he flags down the next car to come by. That next car is revealed only by two headlights that are out of focus at first. The two friends in the car are relaxed and friendly at first, then they are frightened and confused when they see the hitch-hiker’s gun. Their emotions are evident in their expressions, which we can see in the light.

—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 hitch-hiker in Kiss Me Deadly is the one who is looking for a ride, looking for escape. The hitch-hiker in The Hitch-Hiker is looking for more victims; he is also looking for a ride and for escape, but because he wants to leave the country and escape capture for the crimes he has committed. Both films start at night, but the blacks and whites in Kiss Me Deadly seemed crisper to me, as though the ambiguity is the only thing that seems clear. In The Hitch-Hiker, everything seems a bit blurred, although the audience is sure about the identity of “the bad guy.”

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This scene reminded me of why my mother always told me never to pick up hitchhikers. She told me of a time when she used to hitchhike with her friends and how it was the norm until it wasn't. Now I understand why it rapidly grew out of style. 

This scene depicts several themes of film noir, such as alienation and loneliness, randomness of fate, and chaos, violence, paranoia. The first theme of alienation and loneliness depicts both the killer and his captives. The killer is alone because he is a killer. He has no friends or companions, compared to the two men who have each other throughout this ordeal. This is shown by the lighting. The two men are always in light while the killer is almost always in shadow. He does not seem to like the world or the people in it so he is alone in his contempt. The two men are alienated and alone through this man's actions. There is no one to help them when they are held up at gun point and robbed and who knows what else by this lunatic. 

This scene also depicts randomness of fate. It just happens to be these two men that stop to help the hitchhiker, only because his car ran out of gas. It is all just blind chance. 

Finally the scene demonstrates the theme of chaos, violence, and paranoia, prevalent in the 1950s with the fear of communism and the cold war. The ordinary act of helping a man that has run out of gas as turned into a nightmare and could happen to anyone. 

This scene is similar to Kiss Me Deadly in that there is someone hitching a ride from someone else in the middle of the night and they have ulterior motives. The two people running, the woman and the hitchhiker use whatever tools at their disposal to gain control of the situation and get the driver to do what they want (the woman offers her body, the hitchhiker uses his gun). Yet the difference is we are told what the woman is running from and what her motives are, she wants to escape an asylum. We are not told what the hitchhiker's motives are, only that he is a wanted man and, in his own words, he "likes to shoot".  

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Both Kiss Me Deadly and The Hitch-Hiker begin on the open road with lone figures seeking escape and finding their wish in passing motorists who take pity on them. Unlike Kiss Me Deadly, where Hammer was forced to stop and eventually acquiesced to giving Christina a ride, the motorists in The Hitch-Hiker are being good Samaritans, helping out their fellow man in need. Whereas Christina was a seemingly defenseless, half-naked woman who posed almost no threat, Roy and Gilbert pick up a man in the middle of the night who they know nothing about, and which would ultimately be to their detriment. The open road often symbolizes freedom, endless possibilities, both good and bad. Both of these films utilize that sense to open their narratives, although with film noir, you know it will usually end badly for those involved.

 

The staging and lighting are absolutely essential to establishing the mood of the film: claustrophobic, fraught with tension and a slowing sense of dread. From the first shot of Myers on the road, he is bathed in darkness. We can't even see his face. He is just a black hole on the open road, waiting to suck in these courteous motorists, whose sympathy for their fellow man may well lead to their doom. Unlike other film noir, where people are generally seduced to the dark side, these men have done nothing, that we know of, to warrant their fate at the hands of this killer. Once Myers is in the car, he is still hidden in darkness, unlike Roy and Gilbert who are clearly seen in the light. The gun is the first aspect of Myers that is clearly seen, highlighting the danger of this hitch-hiker, and he finally pushes his face into the light and into the fates of these two men.

 

The rest of the scene is played out from inside the car, with tight group shots with the occasional close-up. We feel as if we're in the car, sharing the danger with this threat against our lives, looking for an angle to play to help with our survival. We stay with the car as we're told to pull off the road and get out. What else can be expected but an execution in the middle of nowhere with no way to save ourselves? Even outside the car, Myers remains in the shadows, with the light focused on Roy and Gilbert, so we can see the fear on their faces as they contemplate what is to come. The scene shows great staging and direction from Ida Lupino, the femme fatale who has introduced these men to their fates.

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Just two regular guys, driving at night, behaving in a very casual manner- could be a buddy movie, but it's not! We see just the feet of another standing in the darkness on the side of the road, and these two casually stop to help out another "regular" guy- except he's NOT! He gets into the back seat where his face remains in darkness while these two unsuspecting fellows continue down the road bantering back and forth, and just as they offer their passenger a cigarette his face comes forward into the light and we see the bad news- he has a gun. By keeping this killers face obscured for several minutes the director allows these men to be caught completely off-guard. We see the dismay and frustration in their faces as they realize that they have become hostages. The tight camera shot of the men in the front seat gives us the feeling that they have of being trapped. Their lives are changed in just that fateful moment. In both this scene and the opening scene from "Kiss Me Deadly" we first see only the legs and feet before we know to whom they are attached. In the case of the girl, she is wildly desperate and at the mercy of her driver. The Hitcher, however, has the upper hand, controlling every aspect of the journey. In "Kiss..." we feel the speed of the car and see the road at times ahead of and at others  behind the travelers, but in "The Hitch..." the camera keeps us trapped in the car along with our two pals. Both scenes effectively draw us into the story and along for the ride by employing now classic noir lighting techniques and themes, such as fear and uncertainty and fatalism.

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Well, as we discussed in the other thread about the definition of film noir, you're always going to struggle to create a list of "must haves" for noir, because one (or a few) movies are going to break that rule.

 

To me, there are sufficient elements to consider this movie noir. To begin with, you have the fact that it is a crime drama/thriller. On top of that you have the theme of life's random cruelty. Once you throw in the style of the lighting (discussed by many in this thread), I think you're comfortably in the noir neighborhood.

 

My own loose definition of noir usually involves:

 

1) A generally cynical/fatalistic attitude towards people/society

2) A criminal element

3) Some degree of formalism in the lighting

4) At least one moment where you look at a character and think "Noooooo. Don't do it!"

 

If you're looking for a solid checklist to see if something is noir or not, you're in good company.  Quoth Wikipedia:

 

The questions of what defines film noir and what sort of category it is provoke continuing debate.[4] "We'd be oversimplifying things in calling film noir oneiric, strange, erotic, ambivalent, and cruel": this set of attributes constitutes the first of many attempts to define film noir made by French critics Raymond Borde and Etienne Chaumeton in their 1955 book Panorama du film noir américain 1941–1953 (A Panorama of American Film Noir), the original and seminal extended treatment of the subject.[5] They emphasize that not every film noir embodies all five attributes in equal measure—one might be more dreamlike; another, particularly brutal.[6] The authors' caveats and repeated efforts at alternative definition have been echoed in subsequent scholarship: in the more than five decades since, there have been innumerable further attempts at definition, yet in the words of cinema historian Mark Bould, film noir remains an "elusive phenomenon ... always just out of reach".[7]

Thanks, Tacoma1, for the very thoughtful response.  I think I am going to end up disagreeing with you on this one, though.  After my previous post I read the article by Robert Porfirio.  His first few paragraphs specifically addressed my (and, according to your helpful Wikipedia extract, many others') issue: how do you develop any useful definition of film noir that doesn't become so broad as to be useless, but still includes all the films that are recognized as film noir?

 

I like Porfirio's answers, although, once again, the qualities he picks out don't seem to all be necessary to classify something as film noir, as long as a few of those criteria are met.

 

So, back to The Hitch-Hikers.  It certainly passes the test for the meaninglessness and absurdity of fate.  Our two good guys don't do anything deserving of their fate, yet they cannot escape it.  And, as you point out, stylistically it features a lot of the dramatic lighting associated with film noir.

 

After that, though, I just don't see it. 

 

Porfirio's other criteria:

•Non-heroic hero:  Nope.  Our goodguys sacrifice for each other, as opposed to sacrificing each other.  Nothing seems anti-heroic in these guys, except perhaps for their passivity in reacting to their situation.

•Alienation and Loneliness:  Nope.  Our goodguys stick together.  In addition, the structures of society are all on their side.

•Existential choice:  Nope.  Unless you want to argue that their acquiesence to their captor is some kind of choice, but they just are along for the ride as passive characters who make no choices. 

•Man under sentence of death:  Nope.  Certainly things don't look good for our benevolent drivers, but their fate is not inexorable.  In fact, we know before they do that their danger is rapidly diminishing.  We see the police cooperation; we hear the plan to fool the hitch-hiker; we see the web closing on him and realize that death is not inevitable — and maybe not even likely.

•Chaos, violence, paranoia:  Nope.  Well, perhaps a partial check, because all those things are present in the antagonist, but they are clearly not at work in the world in which they live.  It's the order in the external world that saves the goodguys.

•Sanctuary, ritual, and order:  Given that there is no "violent and incoherent world," there's no need for sanctuary.  This is exactly reversed.  The hitch-hiker introduces violence, chaos, danger into a world that is ordered — the world itself is the sanctuary, and our two protagonists just need to get back there — something they can do because they haven't done anything that conflicts with their sense of identity.  They've made no hard choices and made no (morally) "wrong" decisions.

 

This is not an amoral world, nor are these protagonists devoid of a moral framework.  It is quite clear from beginning to end that the badguy is bad and the goodguys are good.  If we needed any further hints, the hitch-hiker specifically faults them for having some sort of moral code, for being unable to abandon each other, even when that might have allowed one of them to escape.

 

This leaves us with a story set in a well-ordered world with strict moral guidelines, two protagonists who live according to a traditional and unchanging moral code, and a villain who flaunts those rules, introducing inbalance into the world.  The structures the world has put in place to deal with this kind of disruption take over, the villain is captured, the heroes returned, and the world restored to order and balance.  Something bad happened, the source of the badness was removed, and the world returns to normal.  That sounds like the model of the traditional crime/detective story.

 

In terms of your own four points:

 

1) A generally cynical/fatalistic attitude towards people/society  — Doesn't seem like it to me.  Society does the right thing and works just fine at saving the goodguys.

 

2) A criminal element  — Certainly in the form of the hitch-hiker, but the protagonists don't do anything that could be considered remotely illegal.

 

3) Some degree of formalism in the lighting  — The beginning scene and the night-time camping scenes for certain, but those were only a few minutes of the film, which seemed mostly to be traditionally lit.

 

4) At least one moment where you look at a character and think "Noooooo. Don't do it!"  — Aside from the act of picking up the hitch-hiker (which, aside from the music and lighting provides no clues that it's a bad decision...that is, no clues discernible to the protagonists) our goodguys don't make any questionable decisions. 

 

Having said all that, your four criteria are a lot more compact than Porfirio's list, and I'll be keeping that in mind as I look at the next films.  Thanks!

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The lighting is what really caught my eye in this scene. Especially when the mysterious hitchhiker sits in the back of the car there is a dark shadow cast over his face. The driver and the passenger up front have their faces illuminated. The uneasy feeling this creates you know the hitchhiker does not plan to play nice.

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Thanks, Tacoma1, for the very thoughtful response.  I think I am going to end up disagreeing with you on this one, though.  After my previous post I read the article by Robert Porfirio.  His first few paragraphs specifically addressed my (and, according to your helpful Wikipedia extract, many others') issue: how do you develop any useful definition of film noir that doesn't become so broad as to be useless, but still includes all the films that are recognized as film noir?

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This leaves us with a story set in a well-ordered world with strict moral guidelines, two protagonists who live according to a traditional and unchanging moral code, and a villain who flaunts those rules, introducing inbalance into the world.  The structures the world has put in place to deal with this kind of disruption take over, the villain is captured, the heroes returned, and the world restored to order and balance.  Something bad happened, the source of the badness was removed, and the world returns to normal.  That sounds like the model of the traditional crime/detective story.

Having said all that, your four criteria are a lot more compact than Porfirio's list, and I'll be keeping that in mind as I look at the next films.  Thanks!

 

But the thing about The Hitch-Hiker is that the two guys in the car aren't really the stars of the show, the Hitch-Hiker is. Very much like He Walked By Night, we skip over having an anti-hero and go straight to just a sociopathic killer as the center of the story. He has already (we are told repeatedly) killed other people. In the real life story the movie is based on, the man who posed as a hitch-hiker killed six people, including three children. I don't think that there is a restoration of order and balance. Do you think that either of those two men will ever pick up a hitch-hiker again?

 

To me, the fatalism doesn't come from the happy ending, it comes from the existence of the Hitch-Hiker in the first place. Why does he kill? Why does he enjoy taunting these men with the thought of their deaths? What kind of a world creates such a person?

 

With other movies, we are on firmer ground when it comes to immoral actions: men steal, cheat, and even kill because they are in love, or because they are in debt, or because they have been bullied and pushed around too long. We might detest their actions, but we understand them.

 

A man like the Hitch-Hiker is a bloody, brutal force of nature who looks like a person. The more I think about it, the more I think that He Walked by Night (also based on a true story) would make a great companion piece to understand why I regard these movies as noir. The reason that we are missing many of the normal noir criteria is that we usually see the world through the eyes of the flawed protagonist. Sometimes that's a detective with one foot in the darkness and one foot in the light. Other times it's a normal guy who slowly becomes more and more corrupt. But in The Hitch-Hiker, we have only the two extremes: the innocents (the men) and the darkess (the Hitch-Hiker). There is no descent: the innocents will stay innocent, and the Hitch-Hiker really can't fall any further than what he already is.

 

Mostly, though, I fall back on what I know is a frustratingly vague definition. I know noir when I see it, when I feel it. To me noir is not a style or a genre or a movement so much as it is a vibe. There have been a few movies in our daily doses that I don't personally think of as noir, but I don't find too much use in creating genre definitions. While I am by nature kind of argumentative, I can look at a movie and say "That is/isn't a noir" and hear someone say the opposite and it doesn't bother me that much. I'm more about what a movie made me think and feel, and if it's filed in my mental library as a noir and someone else's mental library and crime fiction, that's cool.

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