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Hard Luck: The Hitch-Hiker

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“This is the true story of a man and a gun and a car. The gun belonged to the man. The car might have been yours or that young couple across the aisle. What you will see in the next seventy minutes could have happened to you. For the facts are actual.”

Sometime in 1951 or 1952, actress,  director and movie star Ida Lupino walked into San Quentin and met a multiple murderer. The murderer was spree killer Billy Cook, a young man who killed six people in the span of 22 days by road and by car, posing as a hitchhiker, holding hostage and/or doing away with a nice mechanic (whom Cook spared), an entire family, and a deputy sheriff. He killed a dog too. That family who kindly picked up the stranger from the side of the road was traveling with their pet, and Cook felt that hound had to go. To be generous (and I'm not sure why I'm thinking so) this was either an act of mercy, or  Cook was even meaner and angrier and more psychotic than he had already proven to be. Not hard to lean towards that.

From what I read -- Cook unloaded their bodies into a mine and went on his homicidal way. He then held two men on a hunting trip hostage and demanded they drive him across the Mexican border to Santa Rosalia. Finally, he was caught. The Santa Rosalia police chief actually walked up to Cook and grabbed his gun, which almost sounds like something from a movie, but reportedly this really happened. Many things read like movies and this often feels wrong and cheap. Real-life should be understood as real life but some things are so horrifying, that we resort to movies – or movie images in our minds. Or nightmares.

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But the other dramatic element was (to use a movie term) Cook’s tragic backstory. As a young kid he was dumped off to die in an abandoned mine cave with his little siblings in tow (surely, this awful memory must have come to him when he disposed of that sad, helpful family and their dog). As a kid, he was discovered by authorities, the children were made wards of the state and set up for adoption. Brothers and sisters all found families. Cook, who had a deformed eye and a strange disposition, did not. The institutional hell Cook endured must have been ghastly and Cook became a young criminal. This is often how these things go. Then he became something beyond a young criminal...

Commemorating his lot in life, Billy had the words “HARD LUCK” tattooed on his fingers. There’s something extra chilling about the obviousness of that ink, marking him permanently with his past and his inevitable future, as if he knew that, whatever he did in life, he’d get caught and punished and didn’t care because, to use another obvious saying, he was born to lose. When you’re born to lose you have nothing to lose so, again, who cares? Let me have my revenge on a society that rejected me, even if these people don’t deserve it, and let them catch me, because I’ve got nowhere else to go, and I will fry for this but… as he said when arrested, “I hate everybody's guts, and everybody hates mine.” So, did he care that an actress, film director and movie star came to meet him? It sounds like no, no he did not.

Cook-hard-luck-211x300Ida Lupino wasn’t so keen on Billy either. Set on making a movie inspired by Cook’s horror (she interviewed two of his victims as well) and needing his approval, she entered the prison and who knows how she thought it would go down. People have found themselves sympathetic towards murderers (think of Perry Smith via Truman Capote) or charmed (think of Charles Starkweather), but Lupino expressed her feelings with the bluntness of Billy’s tattoo – she was scared and she wanted to get the hell out of there. As detailed in Mary Ann Anderson's “The Making of The Hitch-Hiker,” Lupino said:

“I was allowed to see Billy Cook briefly for safety issues. I found San Quentin to be cold, dark, and a very scary place inside. In fact, I was told by Collie (Collier Young) not to go; it was not safe. I needed a release from Billy Cook to do our film about him. My company, Filmakers, paid $3,000.00 to his attorney for exclusive rights to his story. I found Billy to be cold and aloof. I was afraid of him. Billy Cook had ‘Hard Luck’ tattooed on the fingers of his left hand and a deformed right eyelid that would never close completely. I could not wait to get the hell out of San Quentin.”

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The resulting film became The Hitch-Hiker (Lupino’s fifth as a director, she was the second woman admitted in the DGA, and long considered the first woman to direct an American film noir), with a script by Robert L. Joseph, Lupino and Collier Young (from a story by Daniel Mainwaring, who was blacklisted and did not receive screen credit). The script was modified so to be less directly about Cook (both the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the Motion Picture Association forbade movies that were too close to the real crime, actual names and biography not to be included) but many details show up in the movie. The hunters become two guys on a fishing trip (played by Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy) and Cook, who becomes the taller, older and more mysterious Emmett Myers (played by William Talman), has that deformed eye. One eye does not shut close – a terrifying abnormality that increases the men’s unease as Myers is always watching them, seemingly, even in sleep.    

The great Lupino, both unflinching and sensitive in her direction, does not give Billy’s stand-in, Emmett, the “Hard Luck” story of the kid’s inspiration. Unlike some film noir, she offers no melodrama or glamour to Talman’s psycho – he’s terrifying in facial features, affect, stature and impenetrable sociopathy. There’s nothing charming about this guy, there are no moments of warmth or even a lazy break on his part towards his captors. He’s pure sadist – almost at times, a lonely, bored sadist, burned out on life – as if he likes tormenting these men because he also needs their company.

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O’Brien and Lovejoy’s hostages remain deathly afraid of this man, angry at him and, in moments, frustrated with each other while stuck in this claustrophobic nightmare. As they’re driving through the Baja desert towards Santa Rosalia, taking awful “breaks” with the lunatic, the two men express moments of fear and sadness in affecting bursts of raw emotion – Lovejoy’s embrace of a young girl at a rest-stop (“Vaya usted con dios,” he says to her, which Talman makes him translate: “Go, you are with God little one.”) or O’Brien yelling, indeed, howling, to a plane for help, which results in nothing. It’s brutal and beautiful as (with the help of cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca) Lupino focuses on faces and location – close-ups of these differently featured men juxtaposed with the vastness of the desert – the bright sunlight feeling as oppressive, maybe more oppressive, than the blackest shots of night. She also never translates the Spanish spoken in the movie, a bold and modern move, creating even more unknowability and tension for the viewer. What is going to happen? You may know the real-life case, but there are moments you’re not sure both men will make it out alive.

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The Hitch-Hiker
is an upsetting movie. Yes, it’s suspenseful and, as some might say, it’s the oft-used “taut,” but it’s a rough experience that offers no sympathetic backstory for the killer, nor easy resolutions for the victim’s future. You assume that they go home after their ordeal, while the killer (who murdered three early in the film before picking up his captors, as opposed to the real-life six of Billy Cook – production code issues) goes to the electric chair.

But whatever trauma that haunts those two men lingers in our minds after the picture ends, to Lupino and the actor’s immense credit. We don’t know how to feel. Relief? Not exactly. These men will never be the same. They will carry this incident with them. It's as if the victims are, in some ways, marked with Billy Cook’s own ink –  HARD LUCK.


Time Waits for No One: Rumble Fish

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Hours are like diamonds, don't let them waste

Time waits for no one; no favors has he

Time waits for no one, and he won't wait for me – The Rolling Stones

Time. Once you hit the teen mark in life – what a beautiful horrible time that is. Dreamy and crazy and banal and violent – in action or in mind – melodramatic and real and hormonally addled. In the case of Rusty James who is sometimes not the smartest (but not dumb), and oftentimes intensely poetic – we see it in movement, in words, in the way he looks at his surroundings: his drunken dad’s apartment, his girlfriend’s intelligent beautiful face and his older brother’s odd, sad, sleepwalking swagger. And then listening to that older brother even if he doesn't understand half of what he says. And there’s those brightly colored rumble fish in the pet store… 

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Francis Ford Coppola’s Rumble Fish presents and ponders these dreamlike feelings of teenhood as an expressionistic mood piece – a reverie that feels of this world and out of this world but so rooted in an emotional truth that it, at times, feels Shakespearean. It’s a beauty of black and white cinematography (by Stephen H. Burum) as if Orson Welles took over both Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause and Don Siegel’s Crime in the Streets but infused them with F.W. Murnau and, of course, Coppola. Deep focus, Dutch angles, bold, abstract camera moves, dark wet streets, a rumble so balletic that it was indeed choreographed by San Francisco Ballet director, Michael Smuin – Rumble Fish is a stylistic wonder, but rich with feeling that’s embedded right in that style.  According to Burum (from American Cinematographer):

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"For reference points, the first picture that Francis wanted us to look at was the Anatole Litvak film, Decision Before Dawn… Decision was a picture about spies in postwar Europe and it was actually shot on location in about 1946. What he wanted Dean Tavolouris to see was its images of ruined cities. That was where all the smoke and obscurity in Rumble Fish came from. He wanted to give the feeling that these kids were operating in a wasteland. It was partial destruction with a leanness in the way things looked. In all, it reflects the mental state of the characters and the chaos in their world. Another picture that we looked at was Johnny Belinda that Ted McCord [ASC] shot. We did look at some of the German Expressionist films such as The Last Laugh by F.W. Murnau. Francis showed it to the actors because he wanted more body attitude out of the kids. Emil Jannings’ posture in The Last Laugh becomes more and more forlorn as he is beaten down by life. So Francis was trying to get across to them, especially to Matt Dillon, how important body language was. Even in silent acting, you could project that kind of feeling so strongly. We looked at Viva Zapata and Orson Welles’ Macbeth.”

But, for sure, this is a Coppola film through and through – a masterpiece – there has been no other teen film like Rumble Fish (released in 1983) – before or since. Coppola was so ahead of his time here, so experimental and unafraid, that the film remains timeless (as does the brilliant, evocative percussive-based score by Stewart Copeland).

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And, so, for years, the picture was misunderstood (though it had its defenders – like Roger Ebert – and it’s respected now, with an impressive Criterion edition). But some baffled critics seem to adamantly not understand – as if they resented the filmmaker for making an art film out of a young adult S.E. Hinton novel ("an art film for teenagers," Coppola said). The great S.E. Hinton, who co-wrote the screenplay with Coppola and who (of course) also wrote the novel, The Outsiders, which was Coppola’s other Tulsa teen film made before Rumble Fish – both released the same year. What a year, Coppola so suffused with beautiful rebel youth. He dedicated Rumble Fish to his older brother, August. This was personal for him.

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Hinton’s Rusty James was only 14 in her novel, his older brother, Motorcycle Boy was 17. Here, Rusty James (Matt Dillon) is in his later teens, and his brother, Motorcycle Boy (Mickey Rourke) is 21. That’s old to a teenager. But Motorcycle Boy was an old 17 in Hinton’s novel and he’s an even older 21 in Coppola’s movie – a haunted young man whose hearing comes and goes, who is colorblind, and who has seen and felt more than he says, speaking quietly, and often with literary references that only their book smart but dipsomaniacal father (Dennis Hopper) understands. Rusty James beseeches them to “talk normal” because he feels left out. He wants to be like his brother. He wants to belong, especially after his mother has split and moved to California. But he’s not like his older brother. And probably not like his mother either. As his old man says:

“No, your mother... is not crazy. And neither, contrary to popular belief, is your brother crazy. He's merely miscast in a play. He was born in the wrong era, on the wrong side of the river... With the ability to be able to do anything that he wants to do and... findin' nothin' that he wants to do. I mean nothing.”

Wrong side of the river – we first think – wrong side of the tracks – but river feels so much more mythological, so much more symbolic than that – it’s movement, it’s time – and Motorcycle Boy wants to flow. As Rusty James says in Hinton’s novel, “I couldn’t picture the Motorcycle Boy in California, by the ocean. He liked rivers, not oceans.” At the magazine stand in the movie, Rusty James compares Motorcycle Boy to the Pied Piper, that the guys in the town would have followed him anywhere, “Yeah, they’d all follow me to the river, huh?” Motorcycle Boy says, “And jump in?”

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Motorcycle Boy has been gone a few months – in California, he says – but returns when Rusty James rumbles with Biff Wilcox – he returns quite dramatically. Recovering from a fight wound, the brothers hang out, while Rusty James' friend Steve (Vincent Spano) remarks on the older brother’s appearance – as if he can’t hear him: “He looks so old I forget he’s just 21.” Rusty replies, “Yeah, that’s pretty old.”

That is pretty old to a teenager – and Rourke’s Motorcycle Boy does look and seem appropriately older – he’s cool, maybe crazy to others, but also dignified, “Royalty in exile.” It’s as if he’s in on some secret only he understands, and it feels like… the end. You feel a pall of death hanging over him. And you feel it for young Rusty James too – unless he escapes. Will he? Rusty James says: “Man, I feel like I’m wasting my life waiting for something. Waiting for what? I wish I had a reason to leave, man.”

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Rusty James has time ticking all around him – literally conveyed by the ticking score, the clocks spied in different scenes, and a broken old clock hitched up to a truck in town – Rusty James and Motorcycle Boy lean against it as Patterson the Cop (William Smith), with his ominous mustache and sunglasses (he’s the personification of both The Man and institutionalized soul-crushing), picks at Motorcycle Boy, again, as if he’s not standing right there. Rusty James asks him why he hates him so much. “I hate him so much, because you kids think he's something he's not. He's no hero.” Rusty quite reasonably counters with: “Like you are! You're a hero, right?”

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Patterson the Cop is not a hero. He’s more like the Grim Reaper – death is at their door – and he’ll sure as hell be a part of it somehow. Rusty James’ death? His brother’s death? The death of adolescence? The Grim Reaper lays in wait. In a spectacular near-death sequence, Rusty James goes out of body and floats over the town, spying how people would feel if he were dead. Did he mean anything? You wonder if his brother would wonder that. Probably not. He doesn’t seem to care anymore, not what people think, and that makes him “dangerous,” “crazy,” to soul-crushers – he’s in his own world. And it’s Motorcycle Boy who really seems like he’s floating, out of body, near death, throughout the entire movie.

If there’s a Grim Reaper, there’s also a Guardian Angel (as the actor himself, Laurence Fishburne, described himself), and the movie opens with Fishburne’s Midget – dressed in white jacket and white hat –walking into the diner/billiard hall to warn Rusty James: “Biff Wilcox is looking for you … Says he’s gonna kill you.” Death is already waiting. Time is key – it means something to the director. As Coppola described (in “The Making of Rumble Fish”) right after Midget warns Rusty James: “And from that moment until the end, time is running out on this character…”

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And it is. Time is tension in Rumble Fish. The boy’s father may show how long you can hold on as a booze-hound as if old age is forever, but youth? Youth is short, even if your summers feel long. Friends and girlfriends, and the sad junkie Cassandra, and Benny from the diner (actors Nicolas Cage, Chris Penn, Diane Lane, Diana Scarwid and Tom Waits– all fantastic here) are there and will likely come and go. But moments mean something – like when Motorcycle Boy rides Rusty James on his bike at night – a loving, gorgeous sequence of brothers just being – two young men feeling like they are anywhere else but there. For some minutes.

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Motorcycle Boy may have been about the river, but, by the end, Rusty James makes it to the ocean. And it’s beautiful to see that he’s gone that far – and on his brother’s motorcycle. The ocean feels like either the end of the line or the beginning of the story – where the river meets the sea – and that’s either life or death for Rusty James. We hope life.

My piece originally published in Ed Brubaker's Criminal