Classic Films by Women Directors: Ida Lupino's The Hitch-Hiker (1953)
My friend Ann Glenn did a fantastic job of introducing, presenting, and leading a discussion of The Hitch-Hiker (1953) Monday night at the Busch Annapolis Library kicking off a series celebrating women directors.
There’s so much we could say about the film and Lupino herself, but I’d like to focus on one aspect that normally receives little attention: the character of Roy Collins, played by Edmond O’Brien.
After making the worst decision of their lives by picking up ruthless killer Emmett Myers (William Talman), Collins and his buddy Gil Bowen (Frank Lovejoy) are forced to abandon their fishing trip to Mexico to serve at gunpoint as Myers’s personal chauffeurs. If you’ve seen the film, read on. If not, go watch it now and come back and join us later.
Before this unfortunate stop to pick up Myers, Bowen and Collins were just two pals heading out to enjoy some harmless fishing while leaving their wives (and family, in Bowen’s case) at home. Yet once they cross the border, Collins remembers a club and a dancer he’d really like to see again. We wonder if this is the real purpose of the trip for Collins. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, but Bowen makes it clear that he isn’t interested in those kinds of shenanigans.
Later when their lives are in danger, Bowen is constantly trying to follow exactly what Myers demands while also attempting to keep Collins from some impulsive act that could get them both killed. Bowen has a wife and a daughter at home, and perhaps this is primarily why he is more level-headed than Collins. We also see in the Mexican grocery store scene Bowen’s urgency in making sure the store owner’s little girl comes to no harm. Clearly Bowen is thinking of his little girl whom he hopes to see after surviving this ordeal. This situation is probably in the forefront of his mind, to come home safely for his wife and daughter. Bowen’s urgent plea “Via con Dios” to the little girl says much about his character, yet also rankles Myers.
Collins is different. In fact we see his motivation change from survival to vengeance. Is he thinking of his wife during the reckless plans he shares with Collins? Does he feel he has nothing to lose? Has he forgotten his wife? Are things not well at home? Are things so bad that he feels risking his life to stand up to Myers a gamble worth taking?
When Myers (who is no idiot) figures out that these guys maybe aren’t really in Mexico for fishing, but rather women, he tells them both, “You ought to be ashamed of yourselves.” Bowen’s face reveals a sheepish look that could convey that he’s entertained such thoughts even if he didn’t act on them. But Myers has clearly struck a nerve with Collins, who’s angered that Myers has found him out. Is this the reason Collins’s anger and desire for revenge become so much stronger from this point forward, or is it because he’s growing tired, has injured himself, and is fighting back like a wounded animal?
The symbolism of exchanging clothes with Myers is neither an accident nor a throw-away plot point. Of course Myers wants to disguise himself by having the authorities mistake him for Collins and Collins for him, meaning that Collins would get shot, especially from a distance. (The authorities know that Myers is wearing a dark leather jacket.) Yet the act of putting on Myers’s clothes also acts as a symbol. In donning the criminal’s clothes, Collins begins to take on some of Myers’s characteristics: brazenness, threats, anger, and more.
We know that Collins wants nothing more than to tear into Myers, not only because of who he is and what he’s done, but the killer is attempting to pass himself off as Collins, a good guy who’s done nothing wrong (even if he did want to step out on his wife while on vacation). Collins cannot allow a degenerate like Myers to stand in for him. Collins wants nothing to do with Myers, and possibly his subconscious mind has made a connection (right or wrong) that his intention (carried out or not) somehow links him to the criminal. Again, is this what sets Collins off or is it the accumulation of everything else that’s happened up to this point?
As Ann Glenn pointed out in the after-film discussion, the ending is a bit anticlimactic. We do see rage from Collins as he attempts to take out his vengeance on Myers, but he only gets a few punches in before Bowen and the Mexican authorities take Myers away. It’s all over very quickly, and Bowen comes alongside Collins with a “It’s okay, it’s over” type of comforting gesture.
I almost wish we could have ended the film with a close-up of Collins, allowing O’Brien to display the range of emotions he’s going through: There’s justice, but still plenty of rage, a desire to make Myers pay. I wanted Collins’s last screen presence to convey the fact that the damage Myers did to him and his psyche may be long-lasting, maybe damaging Collins permanently.
Lupino, who co-wrote the screenplay with (then) husband Collier Young, clearly understood all of these characters. We tend to focus on how brilliantly the character of Myers is written and portrayed, but Collins's character is filled with incredible depth and darkness. Credit Lupino not only for directing O'Brien to bring his character to life, but also writing a character whose depths could be tapped as brilliantly as she did.
If you’re in the Annapolis area, know that the rest of the Women Directors series is as follows at the Busch Annapolis Library (all events begin at 6pm ET):
April 10 - Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962) Agnes Varda
April 17 - Selma (2014) Ava DuVernay
April 24 - A New Leaf (1971) Elaine May
Photos from DVD Beaver except for Lupino directing (Screen Queens)