“Nobody ever gave me anything, so I don’t owe nobody!”
There was once a kid named Billy Cook, Jr. A rotten kid with a chip on his shoulder, Cook shot six people during the summer of 1950, before his arrest near the Mexican border. He copped to his sins, and plainly gave the motive: “I hate everybody’s guts and everyone hates mine.” Cook was executed in San Quentin two years later, but not before signing his likeness over to Filmmakers Inc. for a film treatment.
That film, 1953’s The Hitch-Hiker, accurately mirrors its rotten source. “This is the story of a man and a gun and a car,” warns the opener, which shows a faceless figure killing a roadside couple. Transition to another highway and another victim, this time a single man, suffers the same fate. By refusing to show faces, director Ida Lupino hones in on the anonymity of these sudden attacks — the next victim could be anyone, anywhere, including us.
The killer, renamed Emmett Myers (William Talman), continues his crime spree after hitching a ride with Roy Collins (Edmond O’Brien) and Gilbert Bowen (Frank Lovejoy). A couple of war buddies on a fishing trip, neither pay much mind to the quiet fellow they pick up– until, that is, he threatens them at gunpoint. “Keep driving!” he barks. The lighting in this scene is carefully staged, hiding Myers’ face until the pivotal moment he leans into the front seat. It’s an inspired use of shadows in an otherwise bright film.
From there, Lupino and co-writer Collier Young trek down a tense, often times emasculating road. Myers gets a perverse joy out of mocking his hostages, calling them “soft” and complaining that they’ve had it easy all their life. He preys on their sense of manhood, knowing good and well his animalistic ferocity will prove him the victor. Myers also subjects his playthings to increasingly sadistic games. In one scene, he forces Bowen to prove his rifle skills by shooting a soda can out of Collins’ hand. In another, he has them dig their own grave plots. Film noir had seen its fair share of crazies in the past (Kiss of Death, Dial 1119) but never had it so focused on the psychological relationship between a captor and his hostages.
At 38, William Talman was much older than Cook, but his deranged take accurately captures Cook’s seething resentment. Venom drips from Myers’ every word, while a deformity that forces him to sleep with one eye open remains his creepiest trait — one never knows if he’s resting or simply waiting to pounce. Talman had already played heavies in Armored Car Robbery (1950) and City that Never Sleeps (1953), but as Myers, no choice is too big and no action is too evil.
In front of the gun, Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy give differing views on how to deal with imminent doom. Collins falls hook, line, and sinker for the “soft” guy routine and is left bearing the brunt of Myers’ cruelty. While his stout build doesn’t do him any favors, it’s his mental weakness that ultimately etches the bullseye on his back. O’Brien gives a gutsy performance here, playing a role that most would relate, whether or not we care to admit it.
The film’s promotional poster.
Bowen doesn’t fall for the goading so easily. He knows any aggression will play into Myers’ plan, and spends most of the film forming a more subtle means of escape. In the film’s most tender moment, he leaves his wedding band on the gas pump of a Mexican filling station, knowing it will either be a vital piece of their rescue or a final memento for his wife. He also completes the film’s neat Freudian trifecta: Myers the impulsive id, Collins the unnerved ego, and Bowen the methodical superego. Together, they represent man’s animalistic nature, dueling it out amidst the rocks and the dirt. It’s a tasty bit of subtext to chew on during repeat viewings.
Behind the camera, Ida Lupino takes a minimal approach. Brought in as a last minute replacement for Elmer Clifton, Lupino ditches the melodramatic pomp of her previous works (Never Fear, Outrage) for scenes that are tough and inexpensive. The Hitch-Hiker isn’t a sexy picture, but it is an effective one; constantly shifting between vast deserts and tight car interiors. It’s so devoid of the city, that when the trio arrive in Baja for the finale, the sleepy border town feels downright cosmopolitan. Lupino would slink back into melodrama before 1953 was up (The Bigamist), leaving Hiker her only true film noir. It’s a shame we weren’t given more.
Ida Lupino behind the camera.
Due to its public domain status, The Hitch-Hiker is one of the most easily accessible films noir on the market. Though unlike so many of its peers, it stands the test of time as a potent hostage thriller. To praise the film solely on the grounds of Lupino’s gender (as has been done in the present) is to do it a great disservice — it’s as sparse and muscular as anything noir has had to offer. B+
TRIVIA: Daniel Mainwaring contributed to the script, but due to his HUAC involvement, his name was stricken from the final product.
–Danilo Castro for Classic Movie Hub
Danilo Castro is a film noir enthusiast and Contributing Writer for Classic Movie Hub. You can read more of Danilo’s articles and reviews at the Film Noir Archive, or you can follow Danilo on Twitter @DaniloSCastro.