RKO's Sleeper Hunt
The Hitch-Hiker is among stripped-down noirs so modest as to invite comparison with backyard movies friends of mine used to make and I sometimes acted in. Ida Lupino and an ex-husband did it for kernels and everything about the finished product suggests they seldom broke for lunch. Independent producing then was shorthand for hanging by your thumbs. Those that prospered at it were in a distinct minority. From what I’ve read, Ida’s team lost games even when they slid into home, thanks to distributors siphoning off would-be profit and calling it a distribution fee. Sharks in this instance swam at RKO. Their burden was at least as heavy as Lupino and company’s for having to merchandise a B/W hard-tack thriller without stars. Succeeding at that was possible as evidenced by the previous year’s The Narrow Margin, a critical establishment’s darling and one the customers embraced as well. Any low-budget thriller was a potential sleeper. You just had to get it to the right people early and hope word-of-mouth would haul bags from there. Of course, that required commitment as well … and money. The Hitch-Hiker was sold less on marquee strength (which Frank Lovejoy and Edmund O’Brien had not an abundance of) than on emphasis upon true-life fear anyone with a driver’s license might connect with. What if the guy you picked up by the road turned out to be a psycho killer? Hitch-Hiking was commoner then, and more drivers did offer lifts. Now, of course, we assume everyone on the highway is a potential threat, in or out of vehicles. In 1953, however, this was a new hook (at least for movies) and a good one.
Women directors, less of a novelty today, were so much so in 1953 as to demand explanation and maybe apology for presuming to claim such authority on sets. Ida Lupino had supposedly been obliged by force of unforeseen circumstance (an assigned director bugged out) to assume double duties as means toward getting self-produced pics done cheaper. You’d think experience by the time of The Hitch-Hiker would alleviate press nattering over her qualification to direct, but any attention was welcome, especially for such an otherwise minor programmer. A then-wiser course was to go along with patronizing coverage of oddities inherent in a woman "manning" the helm. Everybody was presumed to get fun out of sex roles gone topsy-turvy in Hollywood, and Lupino’s name was still one to conjure with for stardom she appeared to forsake for adventuring into a man’s exclusive preserve. Publicity for The Hitch-Hiker bent backward to reassure that femininity would survive despite such masculine pursuit. I retain every feminine trait. Men prefer it that way, Lupino said. They’re more cooperative if they see that fundamentally you are of the weaker sex even though in a position to give orders, which normally is the male’s prerogative, or so he likes to think, anyway. Such press seemed designed to ease disagreeable thoughts of a woman bossing men on location, especially cast-as tough guys in action mode. Lupino acknowledged as to how she was intruding into their world, while renouncing masculine characteristics that might rub off on her … which can often be a fault of career women rubbing shoulders with their male counterparts who become merely arrogant instead of authoritative. I’m guessing Lupino had to be a lot more defensive of her job with the press and its public than with co-workers who were probably relieved to have someone running a set that knew what she was doing. For appearance’s sake, however, rugged Edmond (Sock Em’) O’Brien was obliged (for publicity’s sake) to claim a dominant male’s advantage when he gallantly returned a handbag Lupino had dropped, after taking silent inventory of its contents. You may be a motion picture director who knows exactly what she wants, but fundamentally, you’re just another dame, read quotes attributed to O’Brien. Typical of your sex, you carry all sorts of junk around with you in your pocketbook. It’s likelier no such conversation took place between star and director, as O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy had been guided by women on previous legit occasions, but for purposes of soothing a perceived threat to filmmaking status-quo (even if a mild one), stories like this dominated much of printed discourse on The Hitch-Hiker (and probably most of 50’s films Lupino directed).
The real career frustration must have been William Talman’s. His was sold as the most startling performance since Richard Widmark’s debut in Kiss Of Death (and look what that did for Widmark). Star machinery was gone to rust by 1953 at RKO, however. Talman had proved himself there in any case with outstanding work as lead heavy in 1950’s Armored Car Robbery, another crime meller too unimportant for a wider audience to heed. It was lots easier to get noticed in a big picture, which Kiss Of Death certainly was in comparison to The Hitch-Hiker. Talman’s really the whole show here. He’s cold and cruel and makes no bid for sympathy. The actor liked telling a story of how some ding-a-ling motorist pulled beside his convertible and asked if he wasn’t The Hitch-Hiker. Upon Talman’s acknowledgment, the guy put in park, walked over, and punched him in the face. Better than an Academy Award, said the bloodied thesp, but small compensation for a career flattening out afterward, though regular paychecks off Perry Mason was better security than most actors enjoyed gypsying around in the 50’s and 60’s. The shame of it is that Talman, like Mason colleague Raymond Burr, was so adroit at playing richly sinister feature parts, yet both would be permanently rerouted into sameness of weekly confrontation in TV courtrooms where outcomes were foregone to nine season's infinity. However great a series Perry Mason was (is!), we missed out on a lot forfeiting these two to television.
Like so many small shows with breakout potential, The Hitch-Hiker got initial support via its Boston opening and RKO making hay of trade reviews unanimous in their praise. Television and print personalities like Art Linkletter and Jack Webb (as shown here) supplied testimonials, which were doubtless on the level. Webb’s stamp of approval on any crime thriller that year would have had much persuasive force. Maybe the subject matter was just too grim, for The Hitch-Hiker ended up a picture showmen either dumped in accordance with its "B" status, as here with Chicago’s first-run bottom placement beneath Pickup On South Street (Talman Meets Widmark!), or could pick up and run with as a single with offbeat allure. My exhibitor friend Dale Baldwin remembers liking the exploitable theme and deciding to make a project of it (he'd routinely select a P.O.W. --- Picture Of The Week). Little West Jefferson, North Carolina (800-900 residents within city limits in 1953) was car-conscious to start with. Action on wheels especially perked their interest. Committing promotional time and dollars to The Hitch-Hiker was like playing poker, according to Dale. You’d gamble about ten percent of your anticipated gross for advertising. Booking expense for The Hitch-Hiker was low. He recalled it as a "little picture" got for a flat rate (probably $15-$20), playing HH as a Late Show on Saturday night, July 25, 1953 at 10:30 only. That week’s ad for the local newspaper reflects scheduling policy at Baldwin’s Parkway Theatre. Few of his attractions ran longer than a day. He and I checked booking sheets from the previous week. Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd merited a Monday run and Scaramouche played Tuesday only (The Mississippi Gambler was alone in getting a two-day berth on Thurs.-Fri.). You had to act fast to see anything at the Parkway. Dale routinely ground eight to nine features through his house per week, plus innumerable shorts. There were 735 seats. Admission was thirty-five cents for all. The Parkway stood to realize $257.25 for a packed house. Concession sales, always brisk (Dale used extra salt in the popcorn to stimulate beverage sales) were just that much more for the till. Corn makings sold cheap as topsoil. A fifty-pound bag cost $8.50. From that, you could pop individual servings into a next millennium. Baldwin’s relationship with the local paper was such that they’d sometimes print stories about an upcoming show and call it news (as here for The Hitch-Hiker). Teaser ads (above) dotted pages besides. That single Saturday, July 25 was a remarkably crowded one at the Parkway. Imagine this bill of fare: Laramie Mountains with Charles Starrett, plus Chapter 11 of Columbia’s 1942 serial The Secret Code, buttressed by an Our Gang from 1938, Feed Em’ and Weep. There were two cartoons as well, Universal’s The Dog That Cried Wolf and Don’s Fountain Of Youth out of Disney. All of this ran through the day and ceded to The Hitch-Hiker for a separate admission at 10:30. Yet another cartoon, Frightday The 13th, a Paramount Casper the Ghost, ran with RKO’s thriller. I’d guess The Hitch-Hiker pleased that night, for it’s tense and unnerving still (don't ask me to watch again anytime soon!). There was doubt as to the film’s very survival for a period of years when no one could seem to locate a print (ownership did not remain with distributor RKO). Television feature sourcebooks were silent as to syndicated availability (does anyone recall seeing it on TV?). Kino finally released The Hitch-Hiker on video and their DVD element looks to be rather murky 16mm. I’d be curious to know the fate of its original negative.