I take a look at the first horror movie directed by a woman.
Okay, here’s the film in its entirety if you want to watch it:
A man is seen killing multiple people who pick him up on the side of the road. At the same time, Roy Collins (Edmond O’Brien) and Gilbert Bowen (Frank Lovejoy) are two friends heading to Mexico on a fishing trip. Near the Mexican border, they pick up a man named Emmett Myers (William Talman) whose car has run out of gas. Myers quickly reveals himself to be a psychopathic serial killer when he pulls a gun on the pair and hijacks the car. He gets the pair to drive him into Mexico. Myers constantly monitors the radio broadcast of the authorities tracking him. At night, he sleeps with one eye open constantly, making it impossible for the pair to know when he is awake or asleep.
The longer they drive, the more insane and paranoid that Myers starts to become. As Myers doesn’t speak Spanish, every time they stop he has to keep a gun trained on the bilingual Bowen. The pair keep attempting various tactics to escape, including sabotaging the car and leaving clues about their identities at the scenes of several stops, but Myers’ unrelenting gaze keeps them from getting further away. At almost every opportunity, Myers tries to torment the pair psychologically, never allowing them a respite. He mocks their friendship, saying that if they each tried to make it on their own, one of them would get away.
Throughout the film, law enforcement starts to pick up on the trail and the clues left by the two men. Eventually, when the three arrive in the Baja Peninsula, Myers forces Collins to switch clothes with him to try and disguise himself. Upon finding out that the ferry he was looking for was destroyed, Myers tries to rent a fishing boat, but the locals discover Myers is a wanted man and alert the authorities. Myers tries to resist, but is revealed to be a coward when confronted by the police. He’s taken into custody and the two friends agree to give a statement before heading home.
This is typically regarded as the first noir film made by a woman and, although it wasn’t considered part of the horror genre at the time, it definitely fits under the modern horror umbrella. It was directed by Ida Lupino, the only woman to ever direct episodes of the original Twilight Zone, as well as the only director to ever act in the same episode. Originally an actress, Lupino kept getting into fights with Jack Warner (of the Warner Brothers) and got suspended by the studio, so she started studying directing. Given that, at the time, the only working female director in Hollywood was Dorothy Arzner, even considering directing films was a bold statement.
This movie is a rare case in which the opening saying that it is based off of a true story is not a wild exaggeration. The film was based on the real-life story of Billy Cook, a drifter who killed six people on a spree. He encountered all of his victims while hitchhiking. He then kidnapped two men who were going on a hunting trip and forced them to drive to Santa Rosalia, Mexico, where he was recognized and apprehended. While there appears to be no indication that Cook had near the level of sophistication of his on-screen counterpart, that’s still closer than most adaptations of true crime stories. The number of victims was reduced to three in order to satisfy the Hays Office, the US’s censorship organization.
The key to this movie is the tension. In a stark contrast to most film noir of the 1940s and 50s, this movie doesn’t take place in an urban setting, but instead in a wide-open landscape. Most of it is the desert of the US-Mexico border. This massive desolate area forces the main characters to be inside of the car at all times, giving it a horrible claustrophobic feeling. We first see Myers pull the gun only about 7 minutes into the film. From that time, the protagonists are almost always under his watchful eye, with him trying to torment them into submission. Myers’ mental state slowly deteriorates as the film progresses, making him even less rational and more dangerous. The moments we see the investigation tracking Myers are the only respite and hope we get, but it also makes it clear that Myers is likely to kill at any provocation.
Aside from the beautiful cinematography and great use of landscape, the thing that makes Lupino’s work stand out is that she constantly makes you aware of how each of the characters feels at any time, something that wasn’t common among the hardboiled leads in film noir. She focuses heavily on the eyes, especially on Myers’ wild gaze and single unblinking eye. However, the two protagonists are constantly shown worrying for each other’s safety as well as the safety of the bystanders who get dragged into the situation. When a small girl tries to hug Myers, we see the panic and dread in their eyes.
Overall, this is a great work of film noir, but it’s more emotionally honest than most US works at the time. It’s public domain, so I would recommend giving it a watch.
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