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Cine Suffragette

To the Person Who Dissed Ida Lupino on Social Media

By R.A. Kerr

(Source: reproduction)

This is a guest post written by Ruth Kerr from the site Silver Screenings.

Dear Ida Lupino Detractor:

This open letter is several months late.

Once upon a time, you were on Twitter asking why all the fuss about actor/director Ida Lupino. You said her directorial career consisted of one mediocre low-budget thriller.

The responses to your statement were quick and terse. People pointed to the number of films and television shows Lupino directed, as well as the ground-breaking (read: taboo) films her production company tackled. Others noted she was the only female member of Director’s Guild of America in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

I wondered, Dear Detractor, if you’d seen the low-budget thriller in question, The Hitch-Hiker (1953). It was the word “mediocre” that made me wonder.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s suppose Lupino had only directed this one film. Should a “fuss” still be made?

I think so, and here’s why.

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First, you were right about The Hitch-Hiker being a low-budget thriller. But let’s not get distracted by that. If we were to list all the low-budget thrillers ever made, we’d be here all day. Instead, let us focus on the film itself.

The film is based on actual events in late December 1950 to January 1951. A hitch-hiker named Billy “Cockeyed” Cook went on a three-week killing spree in the southwestern U.S. According to Time, Cook killed six people, including a family of five. His goal, as he told his father, was to “live by the gun and roam.”[1]

Cook was eventually arrested in Mexico after he had kidnapped two American prospectors and forced them to drive across the border. He was executed in 1952.

Lupino, who co-wrote the script, quickly sprang into action. According to TCM.com:

Lupino interviewed one of the hostages and obtained releases from both hostages and Cook himself. She then peppered the screenplay with elements of Cook’s life, including his abusive childhood and a genetic deformity that made it impossible for him to close his right eye.… Changing the kidnapped prospectors to businessmen…allowed her to explore the gradual breakdown of two men living a solid, middle-class existence who are suddenly confronted with the killer’s uncontrollable psychotic rage.[2]

Lupino’s research gives The Hitch-Hiker an authentic, gritty desperation. We viewers know this criminal will eventually be caught, but we fear what he might do in the meantime.

The film opens with a time lapse of vehicles stopping on various roadways to pick up a male hitchhiker. Lupino’s tight camera shows us only the shoes of the man and the tires of the vehicles, then she shows us the bodies of these charitable drivers as they’re dumped on the side of the road.

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These images tell us three things: (1) We know we’re dealing with a killer On The Move; (2) The deceased are random victims; and (3) American highways aren’t as safe as folks pretend.

Then the hitchhiker (William Talman) is given a ride by two friends on a fishing trip (Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy), and Talman immediately takes them hostage. Now that we see the hitchhiker’s face, we notice something odd about his right eye.

Lupino uses this eye to dramatic effect. In one scene, O’Brien and Lovejoy — at gunpoint — set up a primitive camp. Talman reminds them about his “bum eye”: if the men try to escape in the night, they’ll never be able to tell if Talman is awake or asleep.

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Added to this tension is the isolation. Because police in two countries have been alerted, roadblocks have been set up on all major highways, forcing the men onto deserted backroads. When they do stop for gas or provisions, it’s always in a small Mexican town where the locals don’t speak much English.

The land is barren and dry, and tempers are simmering. Even Lovejoy and O’Brien start arguing between themselves. Lupino’s camera rarely strays from inside the vehicle, creating a taut, claustrophobic environment.

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It’s worth noting there are no major female characters in this film. Lupino proves she is capable directing a grim story with a strong male cast. If you didn’t know a woman directed this film, there’s no way you could tell.

Which begs the question: What does women’s directing look like, anyway? And why, more than 60 years after Lupino directed The Hitch-Hiker, are we still having this discussion?

Thankfully, we do have Lupino’s work to point to, and, happily, she was a top-notch director who deserves a bit of “fuss”.

Notes:

[1] Cosgrove, Ben. “’I’m Gonna Live by the Gun and Roam’: Portrait of an American Spree Killer, Time, 1951.

[2] Miller, Frank. The Hitch-Hiker, tcm.com, accessed February 12, 2018.

Don’t forget to visit Ruth at her website, Silver Screenings, and follow her on Twitter: @925screenings

Would you like to have an article published at Cine Suffragette? Drop us a line at: cinesuffragette@gmail.com

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Letícia Magalhães

Letícia Magalhães

Lê. Latina. Aspie. Cinema. Feminism.