Original Air Date: February 23rd, 1974
Despite Cloris Leachman’s impressive career before she joined the Mary Tyler Moore Show in 1970, I knew the actress best as Phyllis Lindstrom. Phyllis was superficial and frustrating but, let’s face it, she was also utterly fabulous. Cloris was so good in the part that I still expect to see a snarky half smile plastered across her face. In that respect, her TV movies are very important to me because the characters she plays are always the complete opposite of what I am expecting from her. That doesn’t mean I’ve never asked myself what Phyllis would have done in Dying Room Only (I’m sure she would have annoyed Ned Beatty to death), but Cloris always manages to show me some new and interesting side (although her hair remains across the board fab).
Cloris is Claire, an unfulfilled mistress who decides to drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco to visit her sister’s family. She picks up a young and gorgeous hitchhiker named Keith (Michael Brandon) on her way out of town. Unbeknownst to Claire, Keith is desperate to get out of LA because he’s just murdered his beautiful but creepy step-mother. Both Claire and Keith are looking for something, but neither one really knows what that something is, so they are drawn to each other, entertaining a brief affair before Keith’s sinister side begins to take over.
In a 1974 interview Cloris said, “The question in the script is why would a woman pick up a hitchhiker. Their reason: she is a lonely, frustrated woman. Well I played that part in The Last Picture Show so I came up with my reason. This is not spelled out in the script, but it’s what I worked from. The woman has had a long affair with her boss. She lives in a constricted world. He’s married and she is always on call. Now she is driving to visit her sister and she wants to break patterns. So she picks up a hitchhiker and does things she has never done before. I feel I would be visiting myself if I played another frustrated woman and my responsibility to the audience is to keep them guessing about the roles I play.”
Cloris’ interpretation of her character translates really well into the film. And director Gordon Hessler (Scream, Pretty Peggy) does a good job of offering up both Claire and Keith’s points of view. As remote as he originally appears, we begin to understand Keith. He’s hard to sympathize with, but there’s something underneath that comes across as sad and lost, and that makes Claire’s leaps of faith believable (for the most part, anyway). Hessler also makes good use of the foggy roads that lead from LA to Frisco. Soaked in gray clouds, the film often takes on a dream like quality, perhaps serving as a metaphor for the hazy mindset of the characters.
Hitchhike is a great little slow burn of film. Maybe it’s because I was reared on small screen flicks, but I tend to love movies that have really small casts and take their time unfolding. Hitchhike has very little action, but it’s weird and suspenseful. Even if I don’t agree with either characters’ actions they still seem feasible, and I was pulled into their bizarre little universe.
However, if Hitchhike is a cautionary tale, it would seem Cloris was not paying much attention. Read this awesome story about how she picked up a hitchhiker in the 80s.
And did you know Michael Brandon really respects the TV movie genre? Read my post on Michael here.
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