Thursday, October 27, 2016

Two film noirs where hitch-hiking goes horribly wrong

Title: Detour (1945)
Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
Language: English
Rating: Unrated

Detour was made on a shoestring budget, which works for its overall mood. A musician, Al Roberts (Tom Neal), hitch-hikes across the US to get to his fiancée in California. She represents the sort of life that a schlimazel and, ultimately, murderer like him will never enjoy. He's not only unlucky, but wallows in his unluckiness, seems to rush out to meet opportunities that will further make him unlucky. One of the best shots is of his face, full of stubble and despair, as he sits in a diner.

The only time he seems to struggle against his character and fate is when he plays piano. The music feels like a protest against his worst impulses.

Most memorable of all is Vera, a woman Al meets on the road. Ann Savage plays Vera as a wildly creepy sexual hellcat, full of rage and bitterness. Her eyes alone promise torment. She could have been one of the Furies in a Greek tragedy. I like how Savage's performance evokes both a particular woman and vengeance incarnate. Al is almost definitely not the worst man Vera has ever had to deal with, but he's there, in her path, ready to embrace unluckiness.

Title: The Hitch-Hiker (1953)
Director: Ida Lupino
Language: English and some Spanish
Rating: Unrated

Two men on a fishing trip pick up a stranded motorist. He's Emmett Myers (William Talman), a psychotic criminal who has escaped from prison. One of his eyes never fully closes, so even when his victims think he might have fallen asleep (and they can maybe make a break for it), they aren't sure if he's watching them.

The filmmakers maintain strong psychological tension throughout the movie. Roy (Edmond O'Brien) and Gilbert (Frank Lovejoy), the fishing trip buddies, know that at some point Emmett will kill them. They just don't know when. (A fact that he torments them with.) Subtle contrasts emerge between them, in how they react to their likely fate, while struggling to stick together, stay sane, and find an opportunity to fight back.

There's an excellent use of music in this film, including some classical music in a scene out in a desert by a well where a killer may be disposed to drop bodies. There's also light Mexican folk music in a moment where Roy and Gilbert may very well die. The suspense is especially strong during one scene involving a long walk on a dock through shadows.

Part of the movie is set in Baja California, and notably it portrays the locals as people, not as caricatures of another culture. Another impression the movie made on me is how it never gets melodramatic. It just lets the tension stretch out, the feelings churn and from time to time erupt.