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Friday Film Noir

There is a Bucket Full of Reasons Why Steven Soderbergh’s ‘Kafka’ is Amazing

There is a bucket full of reasons why Kafka is both absolutely weird and captivating.

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steven soderbergh's kafka movie

Friday Film Noir

Steven Soderbergh is a name that carries either plenty of weight or none whatsoever depending on who you talk to. For those who went to see the Ocean’s trilogy mostly for its star-studded cast, namely George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Matt Damon, perhaps the director’s name will fall on deaf ears. For others, the film nerds, Soderbergh is akin to a demi-god. His contributions to modern American cinema in both its mainstream commercial and art-house forms are not to be overlooked. Arguably his most interesting works are those for which he chooses to meld star power with his more artistic inclinations, as with The Informant!, Che, and his 1991 oddball neo-noir, Kafka, starring Jeremy Irons and a host of other familiar faces.

Set in Prague a short few years after the first World War, the story centers on the odd twist of fate suffered by one Franz Kafka (Jeremy Irons), an employee for an insurance company by day and author by night, as the walls of his lonesome, sheltered life are shattered upon the demise of one of his few friends. The police inspector (Armin Mueller-Stahl) tasked with the investigation suspects suicide as the cause of death, but Kafka’s intuitions dictate otherwise, as do those of a small group of would-be revolutionaries (or terrorists), led by Gabriela (Theresa Russell), a co-worker Kafka fancies to a degree. The team had converted Kafka’s friend into their covert operations, some of which involve bombings around the city, and now turn to the protagonist to unravel the mystery surrounding their colleague’s grisly end. What he discovers is a scheme by his employer to change the course of history through medical experimentation.

There is a bucket full of reasons why Kafka is both absolutely weird and captivating. Even with prior knowledge of Soderbergh’s consistent penchant for thinking outside the box to tell stories that strike his fancy, this picture is even further off-kilter than one might expect, the decision to film in black and white not even covering half of said reasons. It also tries to stuff an incredible amount of ideas and styles into the mix, not all of which fit neatly, some of which get shortchanged to a degree. Yet ultimately, viewers who are even moderately adventurous should be captivated by what Soderbergh and his crack team have concocted.

Starting from what can be considered the obvious discussion point, the visuals, Kafka immediately conjures up memories of Carol Reed’s The Third Man, a legendary noir set in a post-WWII Vienna also filmed in black and white. Different city and different time setting, granted, yet the way in which the action is captured on screen is very reminiscent of the aforementioned classic. Prague, often cited as one of the prettier European tourist locations, looks terribly glum and morose here. Kafka the author made a name for himself with stories about oppression in its psychological, emotional, political, and sociological forms. The protagonists of his stories were frequently on the receiving end of harsh, seemingly unfair treatment by institutions, people, and fate. There was often a conspiratorial force operating against his protagonists, said force emerging from established political branches (The Trial) or forces beyond comprehension (Metamorphosis). In Kafka, while said forces combine to create a force not to be reckoned with, it feels as though the city of Prague, especially at night, is working against the protagonist and the covert band with which he forges a tenuous alliance. The scene during which two ominous figures working for the enemy organization give chase to Kafka through Prague’s many streets and stairways is not only beautifully shot, but tonally eerie as well.

Kafka Sends the Titular Writer into a Hypnotic, Labyrinthine Chase After Nightmares

Kafka is overflowing with ideas and characters and the director’s attempts to properly stuff them all in the picture’s 94-minute run time are undoubtedly valiant, even though they do not completely bear fruit. The film begins with the horrific murder of the hero’s friend at the hands of a shadowy figure and his monstrous accomplice: a lobotomized, skin-infected sap whose only two modes seem to be murderous glee and ‘drink binge’ time. It is a shocking start, from which point the story proceeds as a neat murder mystery coloured with undertones of political uprising against the system. Irons, among the great dramatic actors of his generation, is wonderful as the titular self-appointed investigator, playing the part with particularly uncomfortable social awkwardness. Two failed engagements in the same year (to the same woman, as he likes to stress) and a distaste for much human contact, his Kafka is something of a curious joke, one which is often on him given how no one really understands him. He is smart, even clever in some instances, yet expresses misgivings about any sort of out-of-the-box behavior, hence his initial suspicions towards Gabriela’s explanations about the importance of countering whatever their employer and the police say is right and wrong.

This raises the importance of Gabriela’s character. Played by American actress Russell, Gabriela is the smoking gun that eventually encourages Kafka to set aside his timid nature in favour of risking his life to unearth his superiors’ (among them Alec Guinness!) plans. Kafka’s relationship with Gabriela is complex, far more so than in traditional noir. There are moment when it appears he fancies her, followed by scenes in which he may just be fascinated by her. Her chip-on-the-shoulder attitude pegs her diametrically opposed to Kafka, strength of character-wise, yet her resourcefulness and, despite it all, her need of Kafka’s more logical thinking patterns means they team up in some capacity. Rarely one to satisfy expectations, Soderbergh prevents their bond from reaching any higher ground than mere allies. Interestingly, Gabriella is both femme fatale and crucial ally, never fully embracing either role.

The second half is when Kafka decides to go all out with one of the stranger climaxes to a mainstream film. It turns out that the insurance company Kafka works for has ties to the castle atop of a hill in the city where some unorthodox medical research is taking place. Notions of technological progress, modernity versus tradition, class warfare, state intrusion on the individual’s availability to choose their fate: all (and possibly more) are harboured, some more explicitly than others. If, during the first two-thirds, the film embraced a gloriously somber noir identity, the final third ventures in Cronenbergian/Kubrickian territory, not only visually but thematically as well. Dr. Murnau (Ian Holm), the mastermind behind the plot to kidnap unfortunate souls and turn them into near-mindless beasts to counter the potential revolution brewing covertly, has one of the oddest looking set-ups a movie villain could desire. Blofeld would be jealous.

The most salient point argued in the climax is the question of progress, technological and societal, when instigated from above rather than from the grassroots. Success breeds success, absolute power corrupts absolutely, both adages applying in the case of Dr. Murnau’s cerebral experimentation. The perverse aspect to his endgame is that whilst brilliant minds are working hard on medical advancement to understand human behavior, their efforts are intentionally making people dumber, literally, against their will. To be sure, it is an exaggerated depiction of societal advancement aiming in the wrong direction, yet one that produces some shivers down one’s spine.

Jeremy Irons Kafka movie 1991

“It is difficult to peer one’s eyes away from Kafka.”

One aspect in which the film does not fully come together is its surprising reliance on comedy, B-movie performances, and exaggerated odd visual cues. Not that the funny bits fall flat (Kafka’s assistants, played by Simon McBurney and Keith Allen, are at times hilarious), nor that such acting has no place in this film, but some may not be able to help the feeling that just when the movie could be pushing the creepy tone hard, it holds back a bit too much. Make no mistake, the ideas are there, as are explicit scenes in which the mood takes a dark turn. Even so, by the film’s end, it is possible that a few will come away with the impression that Kafka was but some weird fun and not much else. This might depend greatly on what sort of a movie one wants as opposed to accepting the film one gets, a balance critics sometimes fail to obtain.

Steven Soderbergh, screenwriter Lem Dobbs, the cast. and crew come together to produce one of the more striking films of the director’s career, which is saying a lot considering the number of vastly different projects he helmed. It is difficult to peer one’s eyes away from Kafka. It looks stupendous, features some handsome performances and a shape-shifting tone that, while difficult to pinpoint, nonetheless suggests the now-famous director’s ability to crisscross from genre to genre at the drop of a hat.

— Edgar Chaput

A native of Montréal, Québec, Edgar has been writing about film since 2008. At first relegated to a personal blog back when those things were all the rage, he eventually became a Sound on Sight staff member in late 2011, a site managed by non-other than Ricky D himself. Theatrical reviews, festival coverage, film noir and martial arts flicks columns, he even co-hosted a podcast for a couple of years from 2012 to 2014 with Ricky and Simon Howell. His true cinematic love however, his unshakable obsession, is the 007 franchise. In late 2017, together with another 00 agent stationed in Montreal, he helped create The James Bond Complex podcast (alas, not part of the Goombastomp network) in which they discuss the James Bond phenomenon, from Fleming to the films and everything in between. After all, nobody does it better.

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. John Beck-Hofmann

    May 26, 2020 at 11:36 am

    I’m happy to find someone out there who likes the film Kafka as much as I do. It’s been one of my all time favorites since I first saw it in a theater in 1992- and I went back to watch it two more times that same week, I enjoyed it that much. It’s a film that inspired me to travel to Prague and want to shoot my own feature film there. I wish Soderbergh would release a blu-ray of the film but I keep hearing he’s recutting it. I do hope that the original will at least be included along with that new cut. Anyway, thanks for writing about the film.

    • Ricky Fernandes da Conceição

      May 26, 2020 at 11:00 pm

      Kafka is one of my favourite films from the director. It’s the reason I became a fan of him. Sadly, not to many people talk about this film anymore which is a shame since it is really good.

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Friday Film Noir

‘The Chase’ is a Unique Film Noir that Few Have Seen

The Chase 1946

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The Chase 1946 Film Noir Review

Friday Film Noir

Hunted … haunted … hounded …

*A fair warning to readers: those sensitive to spoilers had best watch the film under review before reading the article. To properly dive into its themes and story, major plot points will be revealed.

Surprises in movies are a great gift the storytellers can offer viewers to wake them from the state of comfort, or boredom depending on whom one asks, which sets in when plot points are too familiar and the dramatic beats too predictable. For some, it can be a chore to get through just as it may offer the right type of simple escapism for others. Sometimes, however, the ingredients need to be shaken and stirred. In an amusing case of coincidence, this week’s column entry, the 1946 film The Chase, arrives only weeks after Steven Soderbergh’s supposed final theatrical feature, Side Effects, opened in theatres. The latter begins with a story which, while perfectly adequate and engaging, morphs into a different beast altogether at a one critical moment. Unsuspecting viewers who take a chance with this Arthur Ripley directed noir are in for a surprise of equal magnitude.

Chuck Scott (Robert Cummings) is a WWII veteran roaming the streets of downtown Miami. He has served his country well during the war, yet his financial situation is rough, to say the least. Upon observing through a restaurant window a cook prepares wonderfully looking beat patties he takes notice of the wallet at his feet. Picking it up and snooping inside he discovers a hefty amount of cold hard cash. He opts to pay himself a swell breakfast before returning the object to its rightful owner, the name of address of which is on a small card in one of the pockets. It turns out the individual concerned, one Eddie Roman (Steve Cochrane), is a filthy rich gangster living in a grand palace none too far away. Always accompanied by his right-hand man Gino, Peter Lorre), Eddie is impressed by Chuck’s honesty for having delivered his lost wallet personally and gives him a job as a chauffeur. Just as things are settling in nicely for Chuck, his employer’s depressed and suicidal wife, Lorna (Michèle Morgan) offers him the chance to run away to Cuba. From there on things get quite complicated, although not always for the reasons some viewers might suspect.

Movies cut from the same cloth as The Chase are always fun to decipher and analyze, even those which fail to pay full dividends on its twists and turns, as is also the case with the film currently under review. It seems as though many films, especially in modern cinema, try far too desperately to shock and awe audiences with sudden twists which ultimately carry little weight in the grander scheme of the plot. They are, to put it bluntly, twists for the sake of twists and nothing more. Then there are films such as Side Effects and The Chase, which totally pull the rug from under the audience’s feat by venturing into territory completely unforeseen. A viewer believes for perfectly understandable reasons they are watching a film that falls under category ‘A’, only for its true nature to be unexpectedly revealed. Of course, in order to properly pull off this sort of a stunt, the movie naturally has to sustain enough dramatic heft. The twist on its own is insufficient. The Chase nearly succeeds in this respect, falling just short of concluding its story with the perfect climax. Nevertheless, the effort is well worth discovering this small yet creative film.

**From this point onward, the review shall delve into spoilers.**

Things start off well enough, with a story about a down on his luck yet all-around decent man falling prey to the desperate need to make any money he can and therefore accepting a job from a very nasty person. Robert Cummings is not an actor who ever went down in movie history as one of the greats, yet his performances are always very engaging. Here, as Chuck, his naturally affable manners come through vividly. His honesty is commendable, yet it brings him to a gangster’s doorstep. It is very easy to cheer Chuck on in his attempt to escort Lorna to safety in Cuba, and considering his experience as a war veteran, it is not difficult to accept his character as a brave individual. Bravery and honesty are admirable qualities, yet they can still get one in trouble, and as Chuck himself explains upon meeting Eddie for the first time, he is just ‘a sucker.’ In this case, he is a sucker for money and for love. Michèle Morgan is very believable as the desperate and depressed Lorna. Eddie has kept her on the tightest leash imaginable for three years, suffocating her as a person. Her desire to escape narrowly outweighs the fear of the risks she incurs by fleeing her nefarious husband. Morgan is also very sensual in her more tender scenes with her male costar, which helps the viewer fall for their relationship. Their high caliber performances prove crucial considering that the script is somewhat inadequate in elaborating on what the time frame is for the chain of events that take them to Cuba and have them fall in love. Strictly in terms of running length, only about 20 minutes have passed since their first scene together and when they admit their passions for one another. Steve Cochrane plays Eddie Roman as a mighty cool cat with a very mean streak. In fact, one could argue he underplays the role even. No temper tantrums or eruptions of rage, just quiet, calculated moves to always gain the upper hand or teach someone some manners. Peter Lorre is similar in how his character nearly seems aloof most of the time to what is going on, yet is also capable of communicating quiet malice.

It is once Chuck and Lorna make it to Havana that the picture makes some dramatic moves, practically turning The Chase into a Twilight Zone episode. Just as he and Lorna are dancing romantically at a nightclub, one of Eddie’s Cuban henchmen somehow murders her with a knife to the back. The leading lady drops dead halfway into the story. The local police only see Chuck as the most likely suspect, which has the movie turn into, for a while at least, a drama about a man wrongfully accused of murder fleeing the authorities. There is some very good tension in this portion, much of it deriving from the fact that there is evidently a ploy against the protagonist, with none other than Eddie pulling the strings all the way from Florida. No matter his pleas, false evidence piles up to make him appear all the guiltier.

As amusing as this portion of the story is, it does not last for the remainder of the running time, for once Chuck, after slipping through the police’s fingers, appears to have stumbled on evidence to prove his innocence…he wakes him in the room where he has been staying since working for Eddie. It was all an intensely vivid dream. It turns out Chuck needs medication to suppress severe anxiety and stress due to wartime trauma. The tiniest of hints was indeed dropped very early in the film, although kudos to anyone who correctly guesses the ebb and flow of this film even with that knowledge in mind. Ultimately, the film ends up being not only a love story between a pampered but oppressed woman and a good man but one that relates to the condition of all too many returning war veterans who must wrestle against the intangible demons of warfare, plagued by psychological and emotional turmoil inconceivable to anybody who has not had the misfortune of engaging in what soldiers have. Noir itself, in more ways than one, often tackles the issues of American society in the waning years of the Second World War and the decade that followed. The cynicism, bitterness, sadness, and frustration that actually existed in society overshadowed many people’s views of what fabled America was like. The real, darker world settled in and noir presented as an exaggerated (and in some respects not so exaggerated) cinematic translation of the resulting anxieties. The Chase is a more literal version in that its protagonist is actually suffering from postwar trauma, all the while offering an unreliable dreamlike evolution of its story. Sadly, the climax is disappointing if only because Chuck suddenly becomes a far more passive character, a strange decision considering how active he was leading up until then.

Faulty climax notwithstanding, The Chase is a very adventurous effort from director Arthur Ripley. It is next to impossible to guess what comes next. The thrill of the unexpected is almost enough to carry the film all the way through on its own, but that would be taking credit away from the fine cast and the effective tension the director builds throughout. Even compared to some of the wilder noir entries, The Chase is definitely a unique specimen.

Edgar Chaput

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Friday Film Noir

‘Laura’— More than Enough to Satisfy Fans of Film Noir

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Larua 1944 Film Noir

Friday Film Noir

A detective’s work is challenging enough already without the complications that arise when he or she is involved with one of the suspects of a crime. Determining the innocence or guilt of an individual or party would be a lot simpler were it not for the mind games suspects so often play with investigators, evading conviction with lies and half-truths. The sudden emotional attachment to one of the targets of police suspicion could send everything into a tailspin, provided the assigned investigator is capable of keeping a lid on his or her emotions. However, what if a detective grew attached to a person he could not physically relate to, such as the victim of a murder? What if, after believing the object of one’s desire was unattainable, a new reality suddenly set itself in which made the impossible possible?

Laura, directed by Otto Preminger, starts with a newspaper columnist, the unforgivably snarky Waldo (Clifton Webb), explaining to the viewer the circumstances under which detective Markk McPherson (Dana Andrews) arrived at his lush Manhattan condo: the shocking murder of his beautiful protégé Laura (Gene Tierny), shot in the face with a pistol filled with buckshot. From there the film follows Mark as he jumps down the rabbit hole of excuses, evasive answers, and the like provided by Waldo, Shelby (Vincent Price), another man vying for Laura’s heart, her housemaid Bessie (Dorothy Adams), and her aunt Ann (Judith Anderson), also a rival for Shelby’s affections. More than anything, it is the portrait of Laura herself that hangs above the fireplace in her living room that fascinates Mark the most. Everyone’s description of her makes the victim seem quite the extraordinary woman, and judging by the painting, she was especially alluring. One cannot fall for a painting, however…

Laura is much ado about love, much of it quite evil in fact…

It might feel somewhat odd to include this Preminger effort in the noir category. On the whole, the movie masquerades as a romance story stuck in a murder mystery. It is indeed both of those things, unmistakably so even. That said, noir has a funny way of continuously shape-shifting itself to conform with other genre staples. Sometimes one stumbles onto a noir without even knowing it, the familiar traits seeping their way into the fabric of a picture like black ink sinks into a white dress. Romance, in the case of Laura, enables the picture to take on an altogether different identity than originally anticipated, playing into the hands of noir’s more gloomy aspects. Whereas by and large antagonists make their presence known quite clearly in films of this nature, here the villains are, in many ways, decent folk at their core, compelled to act out against their better instincts for love’s sake. There is no big cash prize to snatch after knocking off rivals, no criminal dynasty to control, no great escape from gangsters to perform. Nay, everything almost every character does in this film is out of some form of love for the titular victim. Director Preminger, working with a script ripe with potential, exquisitely plays on this idea of love perverting people’s behaviours. Laura herself is provided some scenes via flashbacks to flesh her out somewhat, yet she represents more a symbol of love in the early stage of the film than a three-dimensional person. She is what corrupts those around her but only despite herself. Laura is a perfectly good person by and large (she is also by far a more engaging personality than Waldo) and to think that the picture is sexist in any overt way because of her role as a concept, so to speak, is off the mark. People do silly, regrettable, and even awful things to obtain and retain love, something money cannot buy. The mistakes and lies the suspects engage in are not the result of who she is in the traditional sense, but because of what they think they can get from her.

As was the case with the film reviewed two weeks ago (The Chase), there is not much else that can be written without revealing the film’s big secret. In a dreamy scene about 40 minutes into the film, detective McPherson, at this stage clearly in love with the victim and having decided to stay the night in Laura’s Laura’s condo, takes a few stiff drinks before slumping into a chair in the living room. Moments later, whom other but Laura herself walks in. She had gone away for the weekend and a classic case of mistaken identity has led to the death of another person!

In what is perhaps the director Preminger’s most interesting coup, Laura‘s narrative does not make a dramatic shift after this startling revelation. Suspects continue to either tell lies or the truth depending on what will have them gain the upper hand over McPherson’s sharp skills as he tries to unravel the new identity of the victim and the killer. The only major added level of tension is that the detective has fallen for Laura, placing him in the most awkward position possible. Yet another curious aspect to this portion of the film is the relative ease with which the love between Mark and Laura blossoms. The lack of time to fully develop their relationship, not to mention that their bond only adds to the two romances already boiling feverishly, partially explains this. That is but one way to interpret the situation, however. Another, more thematically rich understanding is that Laura and Mark are falling prone to the same mistakes witnessed up until then. Just as Waldo and Shelby craved for Laura, the latter who sought after her like a true playboy with only limited knowledge of who she was, so is Mark. It is a little bit of history repeating in a perverse way. To make matters even more interesting, knowing how Laura has behaved in the past, there is no guarantee that she and Mark will live happily together. She had quickly responded to Waldo’s advances once he began to promote her career in advertising and was easily swayed by Shelby once he began to woo her. This is not to argue that Laura is a tramp or anything along those lines, only that her idea of what sort of man would best suit her as a companion is not well defined as of yet. A possible case in point is the movie’s final shot, a broken clock that was a gift to Laura from Waldo, obviously a symbol of their no longer existent relationship. The viewer is not even given the satisfaction of a shot with Mark and Laura in a loving embrace.

On the topic of Mark and Laura, Dana Andres and Gene Tierny are extremely captivating in their respective roles. Tierny carries the heaviest responsibilities as the center of attention. She has to convey the attraction, sweetness, and confidence for which Waldo, Shelby and Mark think so highly of her for and she is aces in all three respects. Stevens is convincing as the no-nonsense, tough as nails detective who asks the hard questions, even when the suspects take offense to his lines of inquiry, yet it is in the brief, subtler moments when he lets his police detective guard down that the viewer recognizes a softer, emotionally driven person behind the stern mask. Such moments stand out much more than those emphasizing the hard-edged persona. The same comments are applicable to Clifton Webb, whose performance is showy for the most part, in an amusing way, but really shines when his recollections of Laura reveal his genuine affections for her. As self-aggrandizing and antagonistic as he can be, there definitely exists a beating heart somewhere inside. His own relationship with Laura was complex, never reaching the level of true love, if only because the latter never reciprocated. That lack of fulfillment goes a long way in explaining the sense of loss. There is so much great acting on display that the iconic Vincent Price comes off as rather ordinary by comparison. Seeing him a meeker character than usual is a bit strange, especially considering his gigantic figure. Price is fine, although the panache and charisma he is mostly known for are missing.

Laura has built itself a tremendous reputation throughout the years and it is easy enough to understand why. Under Otto Preminger’s guidance, the film has more than enough to satisfy many pallets, from a unique romance story to a depiction of the desperation of men when love is at stake.

-Edgar Chaput

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Friday Film Noir

Ida Lupino’s ‘The Hitch-Hiker’ is as Simple as they Come, but Damn is it Good

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The Hitch-Hiker Directed by Ida Lupino

Friday Film Noir

How is it that when the topic of film noir comes up, most of the names connoisseurs and fans bring up are of the men who partook in the development of this fabled, legendary genre? Is it that the women were less important? Did they not feature as prominently in front of or behind the camera as the boys? While those hypotheses are partly true, lest that encourage people to honestly believe that the woman of the American movie industry in the 40s and 50s did not influence the quality of such films. True enough, what instantly recognizable names some would rattle off are those of actresses primarily who played the femme fatales or the wives and girlfriends of the doomed protagonists. Ida Lupino was one, co-starring in one of this reviewer’s all-time favourite movies, noir or otherwise, On Dangerous Ground (for which she was an uncredited director too). Lupino’s film credits stretched far beyond the camera’s field of vision. She was, as a matter of fact, a capable director as well, with one of her best efforts being The Hitch-Hiker from 1953.

There is a sense of panic along the southern border of the United States, particularly in the more rural regions. Creating provocative newspaper headlines is a mysterious hitch-hiker named Emmett Myers (William Talman) who kills the unfortunate souls who pick him up along the roads of the desert highways. His next two victims are longtime friends Roy (Edmond O’Brien) and Gilbert (Frank Lovejoy), who are driving into Mexico for some respite and escape from their ordinary lives. Roy is the seemingly optimistic one, anticipating their upcoming vacation, whereas Gilbert is a more subdued fellow, experiencing something of a midlife crisis, at least judging by the few lines that help describe his life and thoughts on the past. One evening they pick up Emmet, clueless as to his real identity and intentions. The killer rapidly turns their joyride into a hellish one-way road into danger!

The Hitch-Hiker
Directed by Ida Lupino

The Hitch-Hiker is a funny noir to write about. Whereas so many of the genre’s entries depend strongly on a sense of recognizable style and on an intricate story that speaks to the complicated nature of the protagonists and antagonists, complications which by the way tended to speak volumes about the state of America in the post-war years, Ida Lupino’s effort takes a different route, to borrow a pun. The plain and honest truth is that the film has very little in terms of story. The brief synopsis above essentially captures what the movie is about: two innocent men who suffer the misfortune of being the torture victims of a psycho killer who poses as a hitch-hiker. Who is Emmett Myers, where does he come from, how long has he been travelling the United States by means of the kindness of strangers, what does he hope to gain in Mexico, etc. None of these questions are ever answered. One may take some guesses, guesses that could make perfect sense in all honesty, but the fact of the matter is that for the purpose of this movie, that type of information is secondary, as are the backgrounds of Roy and Gilbert. The viewer is given some hints, tiny droplets of information at the very start of the picture, just before Emmett stumbles into their lives. Gilbert, played nicely by the always dependable Frank Lovejoy, is apparently discontent with his lot in life. There is something bothering him, whether it is a leftover depression of the war, an unfulfilled marriage, or anything else, we never get to know, but again, that is not of great importance. The tiniest bit of character development Lupino affords suffices for this story.

Where the film finds its strength is in the situational drama and tension Ida Lupino constructs, like a series of brief misadventures in the eyes of the audiences and more like tests of psychological, physical, and emotional strength for the ill-fated Gilbert and Roy. She contextualizes these short endurance tests expertly, taking full advantage of the setting she thrusts her trio of characters in: the dry, deserted region of northern Mexico. Emmett, for example, is an easily annoyed and excitable hoodlum who demands, as all perfect movie villains should, that everything goes his way. The few people they cross, on the dusty roads or in small independent provision stores, all speak Spanish, or ‘Mexican’ as Emmett describes it with a venomous sneer. Gilbert understands the language, which annoys Emmett greatly seeing as how his hostages could easily sound the alarms without him knowing it. Then there are the multiple problems they encounter while driving under the hot Mexican sun. A flat tire and a defective honking mechanism might seem like small fry to some, but under the circumstances with a mad man who can easily choose to liquidate the protagonists on a whim, such hurdles prove to be all the more stressful and carry exponentially greater risk. What might otherwise be considered mundane, or mild annoyances, morph into more reasons Emmett might have to kill Gilbert and Roy.

The Hitch-Hiker
Directed by Ida Lupino

Arguing that the cinematography and setting in The Hitch-Hiker are magnificent might be taking things a step or two too far, but there is something to be said about how the camera captures the treacherous land of the group traverses. The heroes, at the start of the film, had the intention of visiting Mexico’s vast landscapes for some much-needed relaxation. Hot, maybe, but quiet and tranquil with some pretty impressive sights. Now they would like nothing better than to escape it, yet where would they go? The hills are far between and steep, there are no towns in the vicinity, and, even if they did manage to flee Emmett, they would have to deal with the heat. What’s more, because their captor is so paranoid and prone to assuming anything and anyone is a threat, the precious few people they do in fact meet up with carrying the equal potential of saving them or getting them killed. The landscape is beautifully brought to screen, although its beauty is indifferent to whether the protagonists ever see their families again.

Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy, two actors who consistently gave strong performances throughout their respective careers, are all around solid in The Hitch-Hiker. Their roles do not require them to flex too many of their acting muscles however as both plays the victims. They are tense all the while trying as best they can to cling to hope of survival. O’Brien injects of ironic pathos into his character. At the start, he was the more outspokenly positive of the two, only for that to be reversed near the end when the pressure of the situation has affected his humour considerably, pushing him almost past the breaking point. Clearly, however, this is William Talman’s show to command, much like is the case for his titular murderer, and what a show he provides. It delves close to ‘over the top’ territory on occasion, something that might annoy a few viewers. Still, as far as rotten, downtrodden callous villains go, William Talman makes his mark. The character’s one lame eye, something that could just as easily be scoffed at for being cartoon-like, ends up being a surprisingly effective, eery device.

The Hitch-Hiker is as simple as they come. Emmett Myers may ask his captives to make left and right turns on a whim, but the film is as straightforward as they come in terms of plot. Whenever depth may be in small supply, execution in what little the director is concerned with becomes key. Ida Lupino has a stronghold on things, pumping in as much tension as she can in short running time and with the simplest of settings. So, dear readers, want to take a ride down Mexico lane?…

-Edgar Chaput

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