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Married to the Movies — Mdino's Blog

THE HITCH-HIKER (1953)

Ida Lupino was an actress before she became a director, but her roots don’t show. You might think she would be a filmmaker preoccupied with performance at the expense of pictorial designs. As it happens, she proves herself quite adept at the visualization process in THE HITCH-HIKER (1953), one of six films the British born Lupino made as just about the only female director in Hollywood during the 1950s. Most of her films were overheated melodramas which she frequently co-wrote as well as directed. If her writing did not always match her clever visuals, she should at least be congratulated for surviving in these capacities in male dominated Hollywood.

In THE HITCH-HIKER, Gilbert Bowen (Frank Lovejoy) and Roy Collins (Edmond O’Brien) are on a fishing trip through Mexico, when they pick up a hitch-hiker whose car has run out of gas. But Emmett Myers (William Talman) is actually a serial killer who has murdered several drivers unlucky enough to offer him a helping hand. A few minutes into this drive the wanted man pulls a gun and lays out his plan: His captives will drive him south to San Rosalia, where he will catch a ferry to freedom. If they try anything, they will die.

The film begins with a montage of the killings, punctuated by a woman’s scream. This is one of the few appearances of a female character (though we never see her face) in a film heavy with testosterone. How odd – considering the gender of the director, who also co-wrote the screenplay (with Collier Young). Gilbert and Roy’s first encounter with Myers is memorably ominous as the silhouette of his hand, thumb extended, looms in the foreground on a dark desert evening. Soon he is worming his way into their subconscious by calling attention to the class differences between the two men. Upon discovering their professions (Gilbert is a draftsmen and Roy owns a garage) the oily villain says to Gilbert “That makes you smarter.” elsewhere, he plays on this alleged difference: “You’re the smart guy” he barks, handing Gilbert a map. Myers is ill at ease with Gilbert’s status, castigating him for speaking Spanish to a gas station attendant, “I don’t speak Mexican!” he growls. He tries again to drive a wedge between the two men in a brilliant scene involving a game of target practice. Having found one of the rifles they intended to use for hunting, Myers uses his own gun to force Gilbert to shoot a tin can out of Roy’s hand at 50 paces. He sadistically instructs Roy to hold the can closer and closer to his face before commanding Gilbert to fire. Lupino uses a clever subjective shot to heighten the suspense as we, in the audience, seem to be holding the rifle.

Another sublime, though perhaps more subtle visual touch, comes as the men drive on, listening to radio reports from the States, of the police search. Myers has a dead, partially paralyzed right eye and his good eye seems to glow menacingly as the sun shines through the car window. A weird, comic moment comes as the men bunk down for the night. Gilbert and Roy are wrapped tightly in their sleeping bags with only their heads popping out from the top of the bundles. Myers leans against a tree holding his ever-present gun on the helpless men, with Lupino’s sleeping bag imagery acting as a symbolic comment on their entrapment.

The only female character of note appears when the three men stop at a small grocery store to pick up supplies. A little girl playing with a doll annoys Myers making it necessary for Gilbert to come to her defense. Woman are peripheral in this world, always thought about, even discussed but almost never seen, and the female character with the most significant role in the drama is a small child. In OUTRAGE (1950) Lupino depicted a woman at the mercy of a man, and the rape victim in that film becomes undone by the trauma. Interesting…

Gilbert’s expensive watch becomes a symbol of privilege to Myers. “You always had it good so you’re soft”, he says admiring the wristwatch. It also becomes a symbol of the kind of love Myers has never known, when he discovers the timepiece was a gift to Gilbert. It is obvious that Myers is intimidated by Gilbert, but it is gas stations – a representation of Roy’s profession, that haunt him. A service station figures most prominently when Gilbert purposely leaves his wedding ring at a station as a clue to the police who are closing in. And the ring being left behind seems to represent Gilbert’s heartache at being separated from his wife, a yearning Myers will never understand.

Though he began by belittling Roy, it becomes clear that Myers feels a strange connection to this blue-collar working class hostage. In an effort to fool the police as they get closer, the two men exchange cloths late in the film (at Myer’s command). But Myers is a lone wolf who resents Gilbert’s relationship with Roy. He mocks them suggesting that at least one of them could have escaped had they not worried so much about each other. The relationships between men are at the heart of this film by a woman director, and she handles the task with aplomb – at least visually. Her screenplay unfortunately displays a certain lack of imagination at times. Despite its perfunctory nature it serves a purpose as a clothesline on which Ida Lupino hangs her themes and pictorial ideas, making for an entertaining low-budget thriller.

CREDITS: Produced by Collier Young. Directed by Ida Lupino. Screenplay by Ida Lupino and Collier Young. Adaptation by Robert Joseph. Photographed by Nicholas Musaraca. Music by Leith Stevens. Edited by Douglas Stewart. With: Frank Lovejoy, Edmond O’Brien, William Talman, Jose Torvay, Sam Hayes, Wendel Niles, Jean Del Val, Clark Howat.

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July 3, 2013 Posted by | 1950s cinema, film directors, film drama, independent film, suspense films | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

SCANDAL AT SCOURIE (1953)

Prejudice became a popular subject for Hollywood movies with the “social realism” movement that emerged following world war II.  Inspired by the twin thrusts of Italian neo-realism and a desire to explore America’s own racial problems after a war against imperialism and fascism, the movement produced several thought-provoking films.  Directors and producers such as Elia Kazan (PINKY, GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT), Stanley Kramer (HOME OF THE BRAVE) and Joseph L. Mankiewicz (NO WAY OUT) seemed to be engrossed in a national guilt trip.  Understandably so, considering our sorry record of racial and anti-Semitic injustice.  Throughout much of our history Catholic/Protestant relations (in some regions of the country) were almost as bad as relations between blacks and whites and Jews and gentiles.  With this in mind, a film set in Canada during the nineteenth century caught my attention when I noticed it in the listings for Turner Classic Movies.  From roughly the same era as the films listed above, SCANDAL AT SCOURIE (1953) interested me because it is one of the few American pictures to tackle the Catholic/Protestant divide and because it is set in Canada.  Since it is a period film, director Jean Negulesco and writers Norman Corwin, Leonard Spigelgass and Karl Tunberg, are more concerned with whimsy than social comment. 

In turn of the century Quebec, a Catholic orphanage burns down facilitating the need to place the children in new homes.  Along with the other little ones, Patsy (Donna Corcoran) is placed on a train bound for Ontario by Sister Josephine (Agnes Moorhead).  Patsy carries along her pet goldfish named Harold, in a jar of water.  We are well aware that Harold will be some sort of symbol or metaphor, and since Patsy named him after the hymn “Hark The Herold Angels sing”, we are clued in that he will serve as a guardian angel for the child, as well as providing a mirror of her own experiences.  Trying to find a new home for the fish, Patsy plans to set him free in a pond by the Scourie, Ontario train station.  However, she meets Vicky McChesney (Greer Garson), who, immediately taken by Patsy’s charms, decides to adopt her, giving the youngster and her fish a new home.  A Protestant, Vicky is certain her husband Patrick (Walter Pidgeon) will be as charmed as she is, and dismisses any possibility he will be put off by a cross cultural adoption.  The audience agrees with her, since he and Patsy already share a connection through their first names.  After the initial misgivings of Mr. McChesney, the family is formed and the new parents give Harold a model castle for his jar, just as they have, in a sense, given Patsy a storybook home. 

But Patrick is an important member of the community, serving as “Reeve” or Mayor of the town, as well as holding other important positions.  When a political opponent (Philip Ober), who also happens to be a newspaper editor, publishes an editorial suggesting Patrick has adopted Patsy in an effort to buy votes from the Catholic population, tensions rise.  Questioned at a campaign rally about the rumor, Patrick proceeds to pound the curious fellow into the dirt.  We then dissolve to a shot of schoolboys in a violent tussle, with the filmmakers suggesting that such inter faith squabbles are childish.  Since the very first shot of the film is of a small bridge over a pond, we are secure in our belief that everyone will come together.  Indeed, the climactic scene takes place on this very bridge, but the film has a few more melodramatic turns before getting us there.  Nothing, however, that is too involving, as this is a generally feckless film with little emotional hold on its audience.  Matters are not helped by the utilization of a ridiculous sound effect every time Harold is shown.  And several supposedly light-hearted moments prove embarrassing. 

Canada has a reputation as a “kinder, gentler nation” (Phil Donahue’s words) among American intellectuals and Canadians themselves.  However accurate this assessment, one thing is certain: A significant amount of cruelty exists in all populations, across all borders.  Though rather inexpertly explored in SCANDAL AT SCOURIE, this is an undeniable fact of life.                       

CREDITS: Produced by Edwin H. Knopf. Directed by Jean Negulesco. Written by Norman Corwin, Leonard Spigelgass and Karl Tunberg. Photographed by Robert Planck. Music by Daniele Amfitheatrof. With: Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon, Donna Corcoran, Agnes Moorehead, Philip Ober.

May 28, 2013 Posted by | 1950s cinema, American Film, film directors, films about prejudice | , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment