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Dr. Rich Edwards

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

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This is scary because it is highly plausible.  Who knows what type of person we pick up on the side of the road?

Well it isn't highly plausible if one picks up no one from the side of the road.

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This is why we do not pick up hitch hikers!  Kiss Me Deadly and The Hitch Hiker both pick up strange people in a deserted area.  The difference is with the shadows.  Kiss Me Deadly the character is in trouble she is running our breath as if she were in fear of her life.  She is also dressed in a lighter color.  in Hitch Hiker, the hitch hiker is dressed all in black, completely in shadow until we see his gun.  Then we can feel the tension in the car that the men must be feeling.  When he tells them to pull off the road you know it is not going to be a good ending for them.  Whereas the woman in Kiss Me Deadly has a chance at a life.  The feeling of doom is not as strong with Kiss Me Deadly.  

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The substance of Noir is revealed:

 

Lighting:  The car pulling up with two headlights against utter blackness feels like the piercing eyes of  an unknown wild animal revealing itself in the night.   The lighting of the hitch-hiker’s thumb is quickly darkened out – making his hand look like a closed fist ready to exert power.

 

Staging:  The blowing wind could really be felt as I viewed the feet of an unknown.  It conveyed coldness and desolation.   The gun represents the hitch-hiker before we see the hitch-hiker’s face in the light.   The gun represents him as he stands behind the trunk, for it is the only thing we see of him.  The use of ‘we’ by the hitch-hiker injects a sense of complicity for the viewer – “This is how we get out... We all get out same side… We’re gonna open the trunk.’   The hitch-hiker’s stolid, emotionless face is a constant until he says with an icy smile: “So do I” referring to his penchant for killing.    

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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.

 

I'm with you on that.  Disagreement is no big deal.  I'm just looking to understand, and the more different perspectives I have, the easier it is.

 

I'm having trouble seeing the hitch-hiker as a product of a flawed world, simply because we don't see any evidence of what the world has done to him, and nor do we see any evidence that the world is flawed — everything works like clockwork to track down and apprehend the badguy.  But you're right, this badguy had to come from somewhere, so there must be something in the world to make this evil possible.  

 

Thanks for the discussion, glad to be learning from you.

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In think that the major theme here (and in 'Kiss Me Deadly' also) is the loneliness. In both examples we're at an isolated area, far from any civilization. It is not a safe place to be, specially at night. More or less like the fear of that time, the darkness hides a great sort of bad motives and bad guys ready to make their moves. And here we see an explicit danger, that is the passanger taken for a ride. There's nothing those two men could do on that situation. They're impotent.

 

The efficiency of this opening relies at the mistery. You have to put more question than answers to the spectators, because that's what will make them glue to the story. That's the way we'll keep watching to find out what motivates each charcater to act like that and what the next steps will be from that point on.

 

The acting and the staging both just make the drama higher. Almost all the time the threat is behind the two man, on the shadow, in a way that could not be neutralized. The few moments we clearly see that man's face, is to hear his instructions in a movement that doesn't help us to understand his motives. And that is just another element that helps to create more and more uncertain.

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Danger, but the two in the front seat don't know it immediately.  After they do, they both realize they could be killed at any moment by this person.  And they will never pick up a hitch hiker again.  Many motorists don't believe that they could come across someone like this hitch hiker, so they pull over and decide to be the good sumaritan and help the hitcher out. 

 

In this scene, the dash board lights only show the two men in front.  The mysterious hitch hiker is in shadow in the back.  They are driving at night which adds to the suspense.  In Kiss Me deadly, Christina is a woman running for her life, or so the audience assumes when she steps in the middle of the road and then silently begs Mike to help her.  In The Hitch-Hiker, it's three men one of whom remains a mystery until he plays his first hand, showing the gun.  Both scenes have the noir elements of mystery, shadow, light at the right moment, and someone who is in trouble.  In Kiss Me Deadly, Christina is in trouble.  And in The Hitch-Hiker, the two men who pick up the third are the ones in a life or death struggle.  Each gives the audience the mystery, shrouded in darkness from the start.  You don't see the players hands too well right away, but you have a feeling of anticipation.

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A couple of additional questions on The Hitch-Hiker.  Is there a deus ex machine at the end with having the Mexican police (with the help of the boat owner's relative and U.S. authorities) solve the crime and apprehend Talman?  Granted, Lovejoy does fight with and disarm Talman on the dock, but then he lets Talman run into the arms of the police.  Is that enough?  If Lupino is suppressing the notion of a hero, does she make O'Brien and Lovejoy too ineffectual?

 

I also have issues with even having the police involved at all.  Perhaps this is a studio or production code constraint, but the beauty of this film is two guys with a car versus a guy with a gun in the middle of nowhere.  I  would have liked to see the story problem resolved within this relatively narrow world.

 

-Mark

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A couple of additional questions on The Hitch-Hiker.  Is there a deus ex machine at the end with having the Mexican police (with the help of the boat owner's relative and U.S. authorities) solve the crime and apprehend Talman?  Granted, Lovejoy does fight with and disarm Talman on the dock, but then he lets Talman run into the arms of the police.  Is that enough?  If Lupino is suppressing the notion of a hero, does she make O'Brien and Lovejoy too ineffectual?

 

I also have issues with even having the police involved at all.  Perhaps this is a studio or production code constraint, but the beauty of this film is two guys with a car versus a guy with a gun in the middle of nowhere.  I  would have liked to see the story problem resolved within this relatively narrow world.

 

-Mark

 

I wonder if it might have simply been adherence to the true story. Based on what I read, a police officer in Mexico recognized the killer, and just walked up to him and snatched his gun away and arrested him.

 

Now, this is a movie, and the old adage of "never let the truth get in the way of a good story" certainly applies. I know what you mean about the satisfaction and tension that you get from a more self-contained story and set of characters. But maybe having a third party involved in defeating the Hitchhiker just goes along with the sense that the two men in the car are not ultimately in control. Or maybe having them disarm him (but not capture or kill him) gets to a core truth that survival (getting away from him, disarming him) is more important to the two men than justice (ie making sure he is captured/dead).

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The lighting in this scene is brilliant. When the hitch-hiker gets into the car, his face is completely in the shadows. When he pulls the gun out and points it at the two guys in the car, he leans forward into the light. Aside from these points, the lighting is shadowy with the majority of the two men's faces in the light but also shrouded in shadow. The tension in the scene escalates when the hitch hiker draws the gun, but when he raids the car's trunk and discovers one of them likes shooting he smiles, believing he has found a good pair of "companions". Before having seen the film, this scene was enough to really hook me into wondering what would happen next.

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

 

Once again nothing is what it seems and everything happens by chance. Strangers may hurt you. Do not trust anybody. People mock at your generosity, they will use your good will against you. No one is safe, it may happen to everyone. You may be attacked in your own car, which may become a death trap. Your faith is uncertain and there might be death behind every turn.

 

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 hiker is hidden in darkness – it makes him look more dangerous. Roy and Gilbert see only the pointed gun, which unexpectedly comes out of the shadows. The tension grows as we all want to see the villain's face. The car is a trap – the camera is placed in the front of it and shows what exactly happens inside of the car.

 

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 situation in both movies is similar – we have a car and a hitch-hiker. Christina forces Hammer to stop the car and pick her up, Emmet waits patiently and asks for a ride. They both are fugitives who want to survive, but Christina was wrongfully imprisoned in an asylum. Emmet was a regular criminal. Christina had a strong entrance, but she found temporary „shelter” in Hammer's car, Emmet acts normal at first, but then he attacks the men who wanted to help him. Christina is a HI-ker, Emmet - HI-jacker. So the main difference is INTENTION.

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In the opening of The Hitch-Hiker, the audience it introduced to two restless, middleclass, middle-aged already showing signs of discontent in their lives as they are on their way to a fishing trip until they are stopped by a mysterious figure on the side of the road. Unlike in Kiss Me Deadly, Roy and Gilbert, while not enthused, they don’t seem to mind picking up the stranger and even try to make attempts to converse with the hitcher. There are several notable similarities and differences between the two movies.

 

Both movies involve hitchhikers of questionable origins and characters. In Kiss Me Deadly, Christina was glaringly lit from the moment she first appears and there is very little exchange or interaction between her or Mike in their first meeting. While Christina, herself, doesn’t offer any explanations for her alarm and desperation, she does seem to be harmless. However, it is hinted that she recently escaped from an upstate asylum. While the woman, herself, doesn’t appear to be dangerous or insane, she is capable of bringing trouble to whoever she becomes involved with, particularly since the cops are after her.

 

In contrast, The Hitch-Hiker is bathed in the shadows up until he brandishes his gun and tells the two men to “face front…” It is here that he leans forward and decides to reveal himself that a bright light is cast on his face, while he finishes his commands with “…And keep driving.” The hitcher is very calculating to the point of meditating his every move upon entrance. After entrapping Roy and Gilbert, he proceeds to dictate all their gestures as well.

 

In Kiss Me Deadly, the audience’s POV was placed in the backseat while watching Mike drive through the darkness and not be able to see where he was going. In The Hitch-Hiker, there is now someone in the backseat in place of the audience. Just as the hitcher has intruded into the lives of Roy and Gilbert, he is now crowding the audience as well, blocking our view (in place of the darkness in KMD) of clearly seeing where the Roy is driving.

 

The cinematography in The Hitch-Hiker is very cluttered and leaves no “breathing space” between the characters and the borders of the scene. At times the framing even cuts into the composition of the car of the characters with only the faces visible- when the lighting permits. The lighting is sparse in the film, resulting in “spotlighting” whenever a selected item or area (particularly where the hitcher shines his flashlight) is lit.

 

In other film noir, such as Night and the City, The Asphalt Jungle, The Big Heat, Criss Cross, LA Confidential, etc., while danger thrives because of the cesspool of crime and helplessness of law-abiding citizens. The grim, claustrophobic atmosphere created in The Hitch-Hiker, shows that it can be just as dangerous, if not more so, when trying to escape from “civilization.” The reticence of the country or desert can be just as disconcerting as the bustling noise of the city, the isolation can be just as the polluted city air; and the spacious desolation can also serve as a giant spring trap for unsuspecting visitors, while serve as sanctuary for fugitives on the run from the law in a densely populated area. It can happen to anyone at anytime and any place, even ordinary, non-heroic figures who aren't equipped to handle this level of danger like Roy and Gilbert or any one of us. 

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