Watch The Hitch-Hiker by Ida Lupino (the Only Female Director of a 1950s Noir Film)


In our enlight­ened times, film direct­ing has become a rea­son­ably open pro­fes­sion, admit­ting men, women, and — giv­en the plum­met­ing cost of pro­duc­tion equip­ment — chil­dren alike. But imag­ine how it would’ve been in 1949, when the Eng­lish-born actress Ida Lupino took the reins of Not Want­ed from the pro­jec­t’s ail­ing direc­tor Elmer Clifton. This would­n’t have seemed nor­mal at the time, and it would’ve seemed even less nor­mal that she went on to direct six more pic­tures. Her fifth, 1953’s The Hitch-hik­er, even entered the tra­di­tion of noir, one rarely asso­ci­at­ed with female writ­ers or direc­tors. Femmes fatales, sure — these sto­ries could scarce­ly exist with­out them — but women behind the cam­era?

To add a lay­er of irony on top of the unlike­li­ness, The Hitch-hik­er does away with any trace of overt wom­an­ly pres­ence. By the time we get to know the film’s hap­less pro­tag­o­nists, a cou­ple of bud­dies who look and act like fresh-cut slabs of all-Amer­i­can bland­ness, they’ve already told their wives they’re off to a fish­ing trip, and they’ll get back when they get back.

Bear­ing straight south down the open road, no soon­er do they reach Mex­i­co than they pick up a hitch­hik­er. By the time they come to under­stand that this black-clad, lumpy-fea­tured fel­low has killed before, may well kill again, and intends to mount a cease­less cam­paign of psy­cho­log­i­cal manip­u­la­tion in order to get a ride to his free­dom, we under­stand why hitch­hik­ing has gone out of style. You can find out how things turn out for them by watch­ing the whole thing, free on YouTube.

Lupino’s film does­n’t just remove the women from the noir for­mu­la; it leaves aside most of the dark­ness implic­it in the gen­re’s very name. Apart from a few tense night­time scenes and a cli­mac­tic chase through an after-hours ship­yard, the bulk of The Hitch-hik­er’s action takes place under a harsh Mex­i­can sun that bleach­es out near­ly every­thing but the jagged shad­ows cast by unearth­ly rock for­ma­tions along the emp­ty road. Though actu­al­ly shot on the east­ern slopes of the Sier­ra Neva­da moun­tains, the movie takes its for­eign set­ting seri­ous­ly, offer­ing sev­er­al rel­a­tive­ly extend­ed sequences and exchanges con­duct­ed entire­ly in untrans­lat­ed Span­ish. By the stan­dards of mid­cen­tu­ry Amer­i­can genre film, this near­ly counts as an act of rad­i­cal artis­tic exper­i­men­ta­tion. Yes, The Hitch-hik­er plays a bit broad­ly today and leans on a few tropes that must have seemed creaky even in 1953, but it remains an unusu­al enough entry in noir his­to­ry to mer­it atten­tion — and not just because of the sex of the direc­tor.

You can find The Hitch-hik­er and oth­er films by Ida Lupino in our col­lec­tion 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More, and in our spe­cial col­lec­tion of Free Noir Films.

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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