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Thursday, February 6, 2020

Beyond the Canon: The Hitch-Hiker + Badlands

It is no secret that the cinema canon has historically skewed toward lionizing the white, male auteur. Beyond the Canon is a monthly series that seeks to question that history and broaden horizons by pairing one much-loved, highly regarded, canonized classic with a thematically or stylistically-related—and equally brilliant—work by a filmmaker traditionally excluded from that discussion. This month’s double feature pairs Ida Lupino's The Hitch-Hiker (1953) with Terrence Malick's Badlands (1973).

By Dana Reinoos

By age 29, Ida Lupino had already acted in more than 40 films, and was fed up. Born in London into the Lupino theatrical family, she made her film debut at age 14, eventually rising from Hollywood bit player to, in her own words, “the poor man’s Bette Davis.” While her collaborations with directors like Cecil B. DeMille, Raoul Walsh, and Michael Curtiz earned her critical acclaim and legions of fans, Lupino often clashed with Warners Brothers boss Jack Warner, refusing to take “undignified” roles and chafing at unwanted script revisions. Her contentious relationship with Warner resulted in multiple suspensions and eventually, in 1947, Lupino left the studio.

Warner Brothers’ loss was film history’s gain, as Lupino entered the next phase of her career, becoming the second-ever mainstream American female filmmaker (after Dorothy Arzner). The Hitch-Hiker, released in 1953 (the same year as her other classic—and final—feature film The Bigamist), was the first film noir directed by a woman. Starting with a classic B-movie pronouncement of quasi-threatening verisimilitude—“What you will see in the next seventy minutes could have happened to you. For the facts are actual.”—The Hitch-Hiker is a drum-tight nightmare road trip. Emmett Myers (an unforgettable William Talman) has hitchhiked his way from Illinois to California and down into Mexico, killing anyone unlucky enough to give him a ride. Of course, fishing buddies Roy (Edmund O’Brien) and Gilbert (Frank Lovejoy) pick up Emmett on their way to the Gulf of California, and their ride of terror through the desolate West begins.

The Hitch-Hiker (1953)

Twenty years later, a young upstart named Terrence Malick made his debut with Badlands, an impressionistic tale of murder on the empty road in the 1950s. Kit (Martin Sheen) is 25, violent and restless; Holly (Sissy Spacek) is 15 and unpopular, bored with her life and possibly a bit of a sociopath. When Holly’s father declares that Kit is not allowed to see his daughter, the lovers, to paraphrase Raymond Pettibon, kill her father, burn down the house, and hit the road. The body count rises as the two make their way from South Dakota to the badlands of Montana, where they meet their fates.

Badlands works as an appropriate title for both films; Emmett’s piecemeal journey of terror across America could have crossed paths with Kit and Holly’s own bloody spree in the Heartland. There’s so much empty, barren land, so many places to go, but nowhere to hide in all that isolation. The isolation is what eventually sours Holly on her and Kit’s rampage, while Emmett’s long monologues suggest that he, too, is starving for connection. Emmett and Kit embody the two sides of the serial killer in the American imagination: Emmett, with his one unclosing eye, is an all-seeing monster without pity, while a running theme in Badlands is how much Kit resembles romantic hero James Dean (and how he uses that to his advantage). Both men feel aggrieved by their station in life and think that the American Dream is within reach, if only everyone would get out of their way.

Badlands (1973)

Lupino’s film is an altogether less romantic one: there’s no love interest, none of Badlands’ tenderness—no women at all, in fact (aside from a brief encounter featuring a small girl in a Mexican shop). While Malick lovingly films Holly’s house aflame, replete with operatic music cues and lush photography, Lupino has no comment on the beauty of violence. Everything in The Hitch-Hiker is ugly, including Emmett’s face. Unlike Kit’s resemblance to a legendary heartthrob, Emmett admits that when he was born, his parents “took one look at this puss of mine and told me to get lost.” Emmett is proud that the media has dubbed him “The Kansas Desperado,” but he doesn’t realize—or care—that the root of desperado is “desperate.”

While Malick would go on to enjoy a storied, handsomely garlanded career of nearly 50 years and counting, Lupino’s directorial career was over after The Bigamist flopped. She would have to be satisfied with her move from “poor man’s Bette Davis” to her later assessment of her career, “poor man’s Don Siegel.” But honestly, Don Siegel never made a film quite like The Hitch-Hiker.

Join us for Beyond the Canon on Sat, Feb 22 at 7pm.

Dana Reinoos is a writer, programmer, and film festival professional based in Milwaukee. Find her on Twitter: @womensrites.

Photos courtesy of:
The Hitch-Hiker: Kino Lorber/Photofest
Badlands: Warner Bros. Pictures
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