Horror/Suspense Mystery/Noir

The Hitch-Hiker

Ida Lupino was a central figure in the breaking of the all-male lock on the Hollywood director’s chair. While she was looking for a new project to make with her then-husband Collier Young, she met one of the men who had been kidnapped and forced to drive through Mexico by spree killer Billy Cook. That inspired her (and co-screenwriter/producer Young) to make the first film noir directed by a woman: 1953’s The Hitch-Hiker.

The story is straightforward and crisply told. Wonderfully, there is none of the extended, needless expository “set-up” of the characters and story of which too many film makers are enamored. Rather, the movie opens with a solitary figure walking slowly along a highway, looking for a ride. His face is off-camera. A car stops to pick him up, and moments later we see the same car on a dark side road, with dead bodies next to it. The solitary figure, face still obscured, harvests wallets and jewelry from the corpses. And then we see two pals on a fishing trip pick up a hitchhiker, who draws a gun and tells them to drive to Mexico. Somewhere along the way, he announces blandly that he is going to kill them too. From there, the movie is a three-handed nail biter, with William Talman as the hitchhiker and Frank Lovejoy and Edmund O’Brien as the luckless captives. Lupino keeps the brutal tale moving quickly and tells it an unromantic, unadorned style reminiscent of one of her mentors, Raoul Walsh.

Like most people, I only knew William Talman as the Prosecuting Attorney who got his head handed to him every week by Perry Mason. But there was more to the man than the role of Hamilton Berger let him show. As the gun-toting, sadistic Emmett Myers, he’s truly chilling. Yet like most bullies, he conveys an undercurrent of weakness and fear. It’s a pity Talman’s addiction to tobacco took him away from us at such an early age, leaving The Hitch-Hiker as the only big screen work for which he is even occasionally remembered.

O’Brien is credible as the more macho of the kidnappers, who chafes at Talman’s psychological terrorism and keeps looking for a way to confront him. But the more complex performance is by Frank Lovejoy, whom Lupino seems to have coached to play his part more like O’Brien’s wife than friend. He cooks, he tends injuries, he loves children, he counsels patience and he better endures Talman’s taunts that the captives are soft and unmanly. Yet when the need arises, Lovejoy is heroic. I wonder if Lupino saw herself this way. In any case, I doubt that a male director/scriptwriter would have crafted Lovejoy’s part in this complex and compelling fashion.

The film is also a master class in noir cinematographer, with Nicholas Musuraca behind the camera. The eerie shots of Talman’s menacing face floating in the dark in the back seat with the two terrified captives harshly lighted and staring at the camera are unforgettable. But Musuraca also puts paid to the idea that film noir camerawork has to be all about shadow. Noir is a mood and not just a lighting style. The lonely, glaring shots of the car rolling through the bleak desert utterly isolated under the burning Mexican sun are just as much iconic noir as are all the dark scenes. Musuraca is revered in film noir uber-buff circles, but not widely respected beyond that, perhaps because his oeuvre was so enormous that he inevitably worked on some zero-budget tripe. But with this film, the trend-setting noir Stranger on the Third Floor and his movies with Jacques Tourneur (also once unappreciated), he has the basis to accrue a stronger reputation over time.

The Hitch-Hiker is a minor classic of the noir genre and a feather in the cap for Lupino, Young and everyone else involved. After this gripping movie, you may find yourself hesitant to ever again slow down and pick up that guy with his thumb out on the side of the road.

Drama Mystery/Noir

The Web

When I was in graduate school, I shared an apartment with a fellow student who was also a film buff. One night we were watching television and saw a commercial announcing that our cable provider would soon start carrying a channel called “American Movie Classics”. We sat there mesmerized as the advertisement trumpeted that the new service would start with a series of films with Barbara Stanwyck, followed by a run of Cary Grant movies, and then a Gary Cooper retrospective.

We sat in stunned, dry-mouthed silence for a moment, until I said “Well, we’ve got to make a decision: do we cancel cable or drop out of graduate school so that we have more time for old movies?”.

My roommate responded immediately: “Totally drop out of graduate school”.

We resisted somehow, despite becoming AMC addicts and later TCM addicts. One joy of these channels was re-watching old favorites, but a distinct pleasure was viewing a quality film that had somehow been lost — not generally remembered, not listed in most film guides, but still able to entertain an audience if ever it were rediscovered. One such movie with which I had the latter experience is The Web.

This 1947 film, which is also shown under the title Black Velvet, is a nicely crafted noir featuring Edmond O’Brien as a dedicated, hard-charging young lawyer named Bob Regan. Regan falls under the spell of wealthy corporate powerhouse Andrew Colby (Vincent Price) and his sultry secretary/mistress Noel Farady (Ella Raines). He begins working for Colby on what seems a simple assignment, but it quickly takes a violent turn that draws him into a web of murder, intrigue and lies. He is meanwhile attracted to Noel, and she seems to reciprocate, but only to a point because Colby’s hold over her is strong. Meanwhile, hard-nosed police lieutenant D’Amico (William Bendix) watches over the developments with suspicion, and wavers between acting like Regan’s friend and his enemy.

The Web (1947) | It's a double-cross – a triple murder, with ...

Many people only know Vincent Price as “the King of the Grand Guignol”, but he had a fine career in Hollywood before all those scary movies. Otto Preminger’s excellent Laura is probably Price’s most widely-respected non-horror role, but he’s even better here: Silky smooth, handsome, assured and at the same time devious and dangerous.

Ella Raines is also at the top of her game, exuding a Bacall-esque sassy/tough sexuality as she is torn between the two leading men. O’Brien gives an appealing and believable performance as a man in way over his head, and Bendix plays the tough cop memorably as a sort of wiser older brother (and for once in a film noir, the cops are actually smarter than the hero!).

To be an all-time noir classic, The Web would have needed slightly tighter pacing and more quotable lines of dialogue, but it’s still an entertaining, well-made film that with the aid of cable classic movie channels (God Bless ’em) has been re-discovered by a new generation of viewers. Make yourself one of them.