Then Playing — The Hitch-Hiker; Shoes; The Way Back

The Hitch-Hiker (Ida Lupino, 1953). Widely credited as the only classic Hollywood film noir directed by a woman, The Hitch-Hiker is a nasty hard knot of a movie. Inspired by a real crime spree that took place across the Western United States, the film follows two unlucky road trippers (Frank Lovejoy and Edmond O’Brien) who pick up a hitchhiker (William Talman) and quickly discover he’s a sociopathic killer. Director Ida Lupino keeps the storytelling simple and taut (she’s also co-credited, with Collier Young, on the screenplay), following the criminal and his captors as they travel through Mexico, the threat of violence a constant presence. There’s a B-movie lack of polish to the production, but that suits the material fine. It’s also acceptable that Lovejoy and O’Brien are fairly wooden in their performances, mostly because Talman absolutely oozes menace and amorality. If there are clearly better, more accomplished crime pictures of the era, few of them have a bad guy this irredeemably brutal. In dramatic sensibility, filmmakers didn’t come tougher than Lupino.

Shoes (Lois Weber, 1916). This stark drama from cinematic pioneer Lois Weber is based on a short story by Stella Wynne Herron. Destitute shopgirl Eva (Mary MacLaren) regularly sees all of her earnings consumed by the mounting debts of her family, a particular indignity since her capable father shirks work in favor of spending all his time reading dime novels. Eva’s own needs go unfilled, most notably the overdue replacement of her disintegrating footwear. Increasingly desperate, Eva relents to the attention of a well-to-do wolf (William V. Mong) who’s eager to reward companionship with store-bought gifts. Weber frames her social justice story with compelling empathy, acutely capturing the feeling that escape from cycles of poverty is all but impossible. And there are a few nifty visual flourishes, include some camera effects that are downright remarkable for the era. Over a century later, Shoes still has power, largely because its social observations remain sadly pertinent.

The Way Back (Gavin O’Connor, 2020). This sports drama sticks to the standard template: downtrodden coach in need of redemption, team of underachieving misfits who just need someone to believe in them, an improbably turnaround that leads right to the championship. There’s no innovation to be found here, but The Way Back is a sturdy endeavor. To his great (and improbable) credit, Ben Affleck gives a very strong performance in the lead role, a man soothing his emotional wounds with a steady stream of alcohol who is convinced to coach the basketball team at the Catholic high school where he was one a star player. There are times when he plays the character’s burden with heavily transmitted maudlin sorrow; the screenplay, by Brad Ingelsby demands it. For most of the running time, the troubles he carries manifest in behavior, be it gruffness, rages, or wearily feigned politeness. The fullness of the portrayal makes the predictable character arc feel more earned than it is.

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