Review: The Hitch-Hiker (1953) and the Dark Underside of the Postwar Road

There was a prolonged moment after World War II when the road symbolized for Americans ultimate freedom. These were the years of interstate highways, land yachts, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, teenage hot rodders, drive-in movies and drive-up restaurants. Empowered by all things automotive, the story goes, Americans were footloose and wild. As a result they lived through hard drinking years, fast living, devil may care years. So it goes. From Happy Days to the good-old days long gone in the animated film Cars, we’ve idealized the period to the point of caricature.

Underneath all of this there lurked a menacing darkness. Killers roamed the highways. Cons, pimps, and addicts thrived in the automotive underground. Post-traumatic former GIs, reliving the horrors of Guadalcanal or the Bulge, struggled to hold it together. Women and minorities took the brunt of it. Woe betided those who happened to be both. Automotive freedom ran like a wine dark current beneath this moment, empowering some as thoroughly as it shackled and destroyed others.

A modest but brilliant noir picture emerged from this ambivalent milieu: Ida Lupino’s chilling feature, The Hitch-Hiker. Released in 1953, it is important that this is the only classic noir directed by a woman. It is not the only entrée in the genre to call the free-wheeling postwar world to account, but Lupino’s gaze, executed by cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca and carried out by deft performances on the part of the film’s three stars, is attuned to cruelty and power in a way that her male counterparts did not grasp in their cynicism or machismo.

The premise of the film is straightforward. It was based on the killing spree of Billy Cook, a drifter and small-time hood with a deformed eye who gained notoriety for a 22-day rampage that left six people dead on the road from Missouri to California. In the film, Cook is represented by the character Emmett Myers, ably performed by a dead-eyed William Talman in his best role before moving to the small screen on Perry Mason. We meet Myers mid-spree. His M.O. is to hitch a ride, kill the driver, and steal the car, along with the driver’s wallet, before moving onto the next victim. After another grisly killing, Myers sticks out his thumb and hitches a ride with fishermen Roy Collins, played by Edmond O’Brien, and Gilbert Bowen, played by Frank Lovejoy. These two are old friends enjoying a taste of freedom from their domestic lives on a weekend outing to the Gulf of California when they pick up Myers, who proceeds to lead them at gunpoint on a wild odyssey into Mexico, where he plans to kill them and board a ferry to freedom across the Gulf of California. A taut thriller ensues, driven by stark contrasts, interesting inversions, and powerful frustrations, until Myers runs hard into the arms of justice and the fishermen are delivered from their terrible captivity.

Lupino manages to achieve much in the film’s meagre 71 minute runtime. Most striking to me are the contrasts, both visual and atmospheric, that serve the story. The setting alternates from the hotbox enclosure of Collins’ and Bowen’s car to the wide-open desert spaces through which it is passing. Collins and Bowen are seated in the light up front; Myers is shrouded in darkness in the backseat. Myers is blind in one eye and sharp as a hawk in the other. These contrasts are amplified by inversions, however. Collins is a mechanic and driver. He possesses the most power, therefore, in the most enclosed space. Bowen is the only character who can speak Spanish. Myers holds a gun, then, but Bowen has the power of knowledge when they need to resupply in one of the sleepy Mexican hamlets along the way. Ultimately, the dynamic that emerges between the three characters is a sort of inverted buddy feature. I often found myself wondering whether Bowen and Collins would remain friends when the ordeal was over, or if they would go their separate ways.

The Hitch-Hiker was a B picture for a reason, however. Its weaknesses are plain. There are holes in the plot big enough to drive the fishermen’s Plymouth through. The opportunities for the captives to overpower Myers and run away are seemingly endless, for example. The plot does nothing with the interesting inversions of power represented by the captives’ advantages in mechanical and linguistic knowledge, either. When Bowen speaks with Mexican characters in the film—all of whom are represented in the round, an unexpected breath of fresh air for the time—the opportunities are as tantalizing as his failure to capitalize on them is frustrating. The outcome is predictable, and the film’s short runtime does not allow Lupino to introduce many curves in the road on the way there.

Despite these flaws, The Hitch-Hiker is a must-see noir thriller. Uncluttered and raw, beautifully shot and intelligently optimistic in the shadow of the dark real-world events that shaped its story, the film captures the ambivalence of a moment in American history rich with opportunity but scarred by violence and despair. Imagine watching it in the bench seat up front of an old Chrysler parked in a darkened lot, soundtrack blaring through a speaker hung on the window. After the movie you drop off the speaker on the way out and drive home laughing about your date’s white knuckles when they clutched your knee at the suspenseful parts. You round a bend in the road, straining to see in the weak headlight beams what might be in the dark pavement ahead, and there is a lonesome man in a dark jacket on the side of the road, thumb stuck out, pointing your way. You keep driving.  

Food and Place: Lucilla and The Grey

The difference between good food and great food has a lot to do with its relationship with place

Tonight we ate at Lucilla here in Tallahassee, and it was really good. I had the vegetable pot pie–a flavorful concoction of corn, squash, asparagus, tomatoes, field peas, shiitake, and scallions in a roasted shallot tomato velouté ,suspended between a couple pieces of flaky pie crust and served alongside a decent-enough salad of mixed greens with cucumbers and radishes drizzled with a vinaigrette. It was all really well done–for real, you should eat there if you’re in Tallahassee–but I don’t know that I’ll remember anything about the meal beyond its quality a few weeks from now. I think this is because we remember stories and, unfortunately, the menu at Lucilla doesn’t have a story to tell. 

While it’s clear that the menu is mostly “Southern,” it’s a little bit all over the place. You can get “Snapper St. Charles” or Blistered Shishito Peppers, if you’d like; or perhaps you’d prefer to choose between Pasta Bolognese or Shrimp & Grits. Each of these would be undoubtedly delicious, but the menu doesn’t have a story to tell about the people who made it or the things that inspire them. Contrast this with The Grey in Savannah, Georgia. On Chef’s Table, Executive Chef Mashama Bailey recounts how she originally developed a really eclectic menu. After she was encouraged to focus the menu by mentor Anne Willan, she chose to focus on place. This is a big part of what makes the restaurant so successful. It’s not a Savannah institution, like Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room, but it might as well be; because everything about it, from the location and decor to the menu and attitude, is so richly evocative of the city that it seems almost impossible to skip the restaurant when you visit. 

Telling a story about place the way that The Grey does elevates the occasion from a merely sensuous thrill to an aesthetic experience. This, I think, is what we remember most about restaurants. It’s what drives Vice to make a film about Pok Pok in Portland. It’s why the Travel Channel is mostly food shows. It’s also what keeps us going back to some really mediocre places, like Olive Garden or Outback Steakhouse. 

So here’s maybe a lesson for budding restaurateurs: evoke an interesting place well, and you’ll be successful. Add wonderful food to the mix? You’ll be legendary.

Seriously, though: go eat at Lucilla! You won’t be disappointed. 

Video Game Spaces: Halo

“When we gazed upon all this splendour at once, we scarcely knew what to think, and we doubted whether all that we beheld was real.”  

Bernal Diaz del Castillo, The Conquest of Mexico and New Spain

You land on a strange “installation” and there are a few moments of silence for you to take in this unique world. After a quick look around at the clearing where your shuttle crash-landed, you make your way across a narrow bridge high above a bubbling stream. To the right, the stream cascades down a well-beaten course cut through a precipitous rocky valley. To the left, this. This expanse of land, water and sky slicing the inky vastness of space. There is a dialectic of sublime beauty and precarious terror in this space. You feel as though you could peer into the cumulus distance for hours, exclaiming at the wonder of it all like Bernal Diaz del Castillo and his murderous crew of invaders. They felt as alien in Tenochtitlan as you feel in this place. The only choice, though, is to pass through an evergreen grove up the rough path leading toward the source of the stream. There is gunwork ahead, unfortunately. 

What I want to suggest, in this and future posts about video game spaces, is that games are a new design commons — a new public architecture that we should take just as seriously as we do “real” spaces. We inhabit games for longer periods of time than we inhabit most public spaces. I’ve spent more time running around the archives level on GoldenEye than I have spent in church; far more time driving around the virtual streets of San Andreas than riding the subway in New York City. All of these spaces were shaped by human hands and minds for humans to inhabit. 

I also hope to think through some of the design problems inherent in games. These are not democratic spaces, for example, and they are not free in any sense of the word. Burning electricity instead of calories, too, may not be sustainable for our bodies or the planet. As in Halo, violence is the dark centerpiece of most video game spaces, as well. What cultural work are these costly, undemocratic, and violent realms performing? Are we designing and inhabiting beautiful hellscapes? 

I’ll share spaces in games here when the inspiration strikes. I hope you can use them to question your assumptions about architecture, landscape, and industrial design, as I am. At the very least, I hope that you can appreciate their beauty and the skill that goes into designing and building them. 

Stuber and the Guns

It is a statistical inevitability that someone, in a few months time when it comes out on streaming and DVD, will sit on their couch and knit a cute little hat while they watch Kumail Nanjiani’s new buddy-slash-cop-slash-odd couple comedy blockbuster Stuber. And you know what? That’ll be OK. They’ll have a great time, because it’s a funny movie. The chemistry between Nanjiani and co-star Dave Bautista is great. The timing is pitch perfect. The script is decent. I laughed a lot and I am responsible for at least one loud snort in an otherwise respectable darkened room. You should watch it. But I hope we are reaching a point in America where it will be just a little weird to knit and scroll through instagram and eat pizza rolls on the couch while this movie is on the TV, because it involves a lot of shooting. Like, a lot of gunfire. Are we still OK with this? It’s time to check in with one another.

People die in this movie. They die hard, painful, terrifying deaths involving acute shock and the extreme loss of blood–which is what happens when a person is shot in the lungs, legs, shoulders, heart, head, stomach, liver, and so on. We don’t see it in the movies, but we should know by now that most of the time people who are shot take a long time to die. They gasp and struggle. If they haven’t passed out from the shock, they moan and cry and try to cling to life. They shit in their clothes. They frequently gurgle from blood in the throat. It’s fucking terrible. No one who witnesses it can ever leave it behind, and it happens a lot in this movie.

Our movies, even the cute buddy comedies with a happy ending, continue to pass right over the hard reality of death by gunshot. Dozens, sometimes hundreds of humans–people who took their first steps, who enjoyed cookies and cakes, who scratched dogs behind the ears, who cried and loved and listened to music, even if they were bad people–die horrible deaths in pictures, and we rarely give them a second thought as the bodies pile up on the screen. They just fall dead, and the story moves on. But as we deal with the increasingly heavy toll of gun violence in the United States, it’s clearer than ever before that it’s not that easy. The dead will always be part of the story. This is why we have ghost stories. To quote the title of another recent film, the dead don’t die. They haunt us. They haunt their killers. They leave people behind. There’s no such thing as a completely happy ending if people had to die to get there.

To its credit, Stuber at least tries to deal with this. Nanjiani’s character, Stu, is never really OK with violence. He cries and vomits; he screams after a gunfight. But the basic premise of the movie is this: he needs to toughen up, while his hard-boiled counterpart, Victor, needs to soften up. They go through an extremely difficult situation together, and at the end both of them have grown. After a six-hour ordeal, Stu–who, spoiler alert, ends up shot in the shoulder–has overcome his insecurities and learned to be clear with others about what he wants from life. Victor–who also, you guessed it, has been shot in the shoulder by the end of the night–has learned to show some affection to the people he cares about. Stu gets a girl. Victor gets a dog. It’s not clear who cleans up the bodies or which funerals Stu and Victor will attend, but everyone is happy.

So, then, is Stuber trying to tell us that it’s OK for people to die horrible, bleeding deaths if the people who survive get to be a little more self-actualized in the end? Probably not. But while we struggle, as ever, with the horrible toll of gun violence, it should be weird that we could walk away from the movie with that interpretation. It felt weird to me. It should be weird that we can sit on the couch and knit a cute little hat while people die on the screen, over and over again, and it doesn’t really matter. Shouldn’t it? Are we OK yet?