by Shane Collis
This February 4th marked the centenary of a unique talent in the history of motion pictures. Born in London to a theatrical family, Ida Lupino never wished to be an actress. However, her father insisted upon it and the 14-year-old Ida embarked on a career that would take her across oceans and gender barriers.
From 1949 to 1954, there existed an independent film production company that was unlike any other. Headed by former Warner Brothers contract star Ida Lupino and her husband Collier Young, the company was initially named Emerald Productions after Ida's mother but later rechristened as The Filmakers. They set forth a simple mission statement: to make motion pictures that ask the most pressing questions of a complacent society. In the five years of its existence, The Filmakers would produce films with a unique social conscience, dealing with issues such as unwed mothers, debilitating diseases, rape, teen suicide, selfish parenting, bigamy, serial killers, and institutional corruption.
1953 was the banner year for The Filmakers. The company would release two films with vastly different storylines but with the same intent of tackling the demons of post-war America, The Hitch-Hiker and The Bigamist. A fascinating double bill that sports a unique distinction, the lone film-noir directed by a woman and the first instance of an actress directing herself in a picture since a one-reel Mabel Normand comedy in 1915. Only the second woman to be admitted into the Directors Guild (behind Dorothy Arzner) Ida Lupino saw herself in the company of the "Tough Guy" directors like Raoul Walsh and William Wellman, refusing to let gender dictate her style behind the camera or to even acknowledge there was a barrier to expressing herself creatively. "I didn't see myself as an advance guard or feminist. I had to do something to fill up my time while I was on suspension from Warner Bros. When I did work at Warners, I was bored to tears with standing around the set while someone else seemed to do all the interesting work."
Lupino learned her craft by hanging around sets and shadowing directors and cameramen "I learned a lot from George Barnes, (cinematographer on Hitchcock's Rebecca) a marvelous cameraman." Lupino's fascination with the technical aspect of pictures would lead her to form her own production company and through a stroke of fate, occupy the director's chair herself. Three days into production of Lupino's first film as a producer, Not Wanted (1949) director Elmer Clifton suffered a heart attack and Lupino was forced to take over the picture. The first of seven efforts behind the camera that remain fascinating dispatches from mid-century America.
Most filmmakers of the era dealt with social issues with a sense of detachment, pushing them aside or using them as plot elements to suggest evil or wrongdoing. Lupino focused her camera directly on the issues that mainstream cinema was reluctant to explore, in an effort to understand and raise awareness of society's problems rather than blindly condemning them. In the process, she was responsible for some of the most thought-provoking films of the era, shining a light into some of the country's darkest corners.
After four films that focused on the plight of female characters, The Hitch-Hiker presented Lupino with the opportunity to examine a different subject, the behavior and violence of men. The Hitch-Hiker is based on the killing spree of William "Billy" Cook, who haunted U.S highways in 1950-1951. After murdering six people (including an entire family of five), Cook was eventually caught in Mexico and imprisoned at San Quentin where he was executed via the gas chamber in 1952. The film stars Edmund O'Brien and Frank Lovejoy as two middle-class men on a fishing trip who pick up the hitch-hiking William Talman and find themselves at the point of a madman's gun. The film is imbued with an ever-present sense of dread and also explores the concept of weak men being granted temporary power when in possession of a firearm. Richard Kozarski, Professor of film at Rutgers University has noted: "Lupino was able to reduce the male to the same sort of dangerous, irrational force that women represented in most male-directed examples of Hollywood film noir." Proving herself adept in these environs, Lupino firmly dispelled the notion of women being limited to traditionally feminine stories with a taut seventy minutes that any director from Don Siegel to André De Toth would be proud to have in their credits.
In keeping with The Filmakers mission to produce "documentary-style films", Lupino originally intended to depict the Cook murders exactly as they occurred, even using the real names of Cook and his victims. Lupino decided to visit Billy Cook in San Quentin prison just before he was executed. "I wanted a release to do our film. He granted me the release and I found him to be cold and aloof and I was afraid of him. He had 'Hard Luck' tattooed on the fingers of his left hand and a deformed right eyelid that would never close completely. I could not wait to get the hell out of San Quentin".
Lupino's plans for a truly authentic picture were derailed when a strongly worded letter penned by an official at The Federal Bureau of Prisons was sent to Joseph Breen, one of the enforcers of The Motion Picture Code. The official urged Breen to withhold approval for the film's production; Breen agreed and declared "no picture shall be dealing with the life of a notorious criminal of current or recent time which uses the name or alias of such". This forced The Filmakers to reshape the picture, limiting the number of murders and renaming the killer Emmett Myers. When the film premiered, The New York Times criticized the plot as predictable and the ending weak, to which Lupino later responded "I wanted realism! To appease the censors at the Hays Office, I reduced the number of deaths from six to three! Billy Cook was captured by a policeman just walking up to him and taking away his gun. The ending of The Hitch-Hiker has gunshots and two different fist fights. It is up to the individual film viewer if they feel the ending predictable. I say it is not!"
Filming took place between June & July of 1952. It’s likely The Hitch-Hiker was chosen as a sensible project for The Filmakers considering the incentive of low budget location shooting. The searing heat of The Alabama Hills is practically a character in the film and Lupino's trademark efficiency ensured that delays were rare despite the inhospitable conditions. With cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, known to noir fans for his expert manipulation of light and shadow in Out of the Past (1947) Lupino utilized degrees of overexposure during the outdoor desert scenes to emphasize the extreme heat. With the landscape and characters appearing brighter as if they were going to burst into flames at any second. Lupino's confidence and razor-sharp instincts for low budget filmmaking would prove a valuable asset during the arduous production. The iconic glamour of Lupino's screen persona was replaced by the practicality of dungarees, a sleeveless blouse, sneakers and bobbed hair tucked under a cap. "Not only is directing a fascinating occupation but sartorially speaking, it's simpler and less expensive than being a star!"
A comical incident during filming of The Hitch-Hiker occurred when Lupino's handbag fell and spilled out onto the ground. Edmund O'Brien gallantly knelt and retrieved the purse whilst making an itemized inventory of its contents. As he returned the bag, O' Brien remarked "You may be a motion picture director who knows exactly what you want but fundamentally you're just another dame. Typical of your sex, you carry all sorts of junk in your pocketbook." Lupino snapped the purse shut and quipped "You're just a cynic about women, back to work O'Brien!" It's worth noting that O'Brien's performative nature is said to have blossomed as a young magician who was fortunate to be a pupil of his neighbor, the great Harry Houdini.
William Talman who embodied the haunting figure of Emmett Myers said of Lupino, "Despite the weather and physical hardships, there was never an apprehensive sound out of her. She was one of the gang; in fact our leader, who met everything with an unbeatable sense of humor. She set the pace for the seventy men who made up the crew and held it." Talman's effectiveness in the role was underscored by a curious incident after the release of the film. While driving his convertible in Los Angeles, Talman had stopped at a red light. A driver next to him stared for a moment then asked: "You're the hitch-hiker, right?" Talman nodded, and the other driver got out of his car, walked over to Talman, slapped his face then returned to his car and drove off. Talman would later remark " I never won an academy award but that was as close as I will ever come to one." Talman would later become a household name portraying Hamilton Berger, the opposing counsel to Raymond Burr's iconic television attorney Perry Mason in the eponymous series from 1957 to 1966.
The dusty surroundings were something of a preview of Lupino's future television career. She would helm some 17 episodes of westerns including The Virginian, The Rifleman, and Wagon Train, many with predominantly male casts. Richard Boone, the masculine star of the popular western series Have Gun, Will Travel remarked, "Ida stimulates me as an actor because she knows acting. In a weekly show, you get into acting patterns. Ida gets you out of them". It's clear the respect Lupino had earned from her male colleagues for her hard work and keen instincts discouraged any sexist murmurings about a woman in the director's chair, and there seemed to be very few negative opinions of Lupino's time behind the camera. "With the exception of one or two pills I've met along the line, most of the crews I've worked with have been wonderful. As long as you keep your temper, the crew will go along with you".
While its appeal to modern audiences may be minimal, The Hitch-Hiker remains a great example of the possibilities of low budget filmmaking. The opening sequence alone is a marvelous example of Lupino's craft. Effective performances from Edmund O'Brien, Frank Lovejoy, and a menacing William Talman add to its value. Sadly, Ida Lupino would not step behind the camera on a feature film again until thirteen years later when she helmed The Trouble with Angels (1966) for Columbia, the first and last major studio picture of her career. The bulk of her directing work would take place on television, adding a distinctive flavor to episodes of The Untouchables, The Fugitive and many other productions across a range of genres. "The Mother of All of Us" as her director's chair read, is an apt title for the maternal Lupino. She may not have been the first female director, that honor belongs to Alice Guy Blaché, but Ida Lupino proved her worth time and again. Be it as a talented actress in noirs and melodramas, an intelligent director with ideas ahead of her time, a great lady with a delicious sense of humor and cutting wit, and above all a fearless soldier on a slowly narrowing battlefield.