Noir Nook: Ripped from the Headlines – The Hitch-Hiker (1953)
Ever seen an episode of the classic TV show Perry Mason? Remember Mason’s weekly nemesis, Hamilton Burger, played by William Talman? Well, you should check out Talman’s character in the 1953 noir The Hitch-Hiker.
He ain’t no Hamilton Burger.
Co-written and directed by Ida Lupino, and produced by her production company, The Filmakers, The Hitch-Hiker tells the story of two buddies, Roy Collins and Gilbert Bowen (Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy), who set out on a relaxing (they think) fishing weekend. But like the best-laid plans of mice and men, things don’t pan out quite as our heroes intended – they make the near-fatal mistake of picking up a hitch-hiker, Emmet Myers (Talman), who just happens to be a murderous psychopath. Myers kidnaps the men, forcing them to drive him to Mexico. Along the way, Collins and Bowen find their attempts to flee are hampered by Myers’s creepy ability to literally sleep with one eye open.
This riveting feature was based on the real-life case of Billy Cook, a native of Joplin, Missouri, who killed six people during a murderous three-week spree in January 1951. Saddled with the nickname “Cockeyed” because of a congenital eye defect, Cook endured a tragic childhood; after his mother died when he was five years old, his father abandoned the boy and his seven siblings in an old local mine. Eventually, foster homes were found for all of the children – all except Billy, whose deformed eye and incorrigible demeanor made him difficult to place. He wound up a ward of the state of Missouri and, later, after a series of petty crimes, an inmate in the Missouri State Penitentiary. During his late teens, he got a tattoo across the fingers of his left hand that spelled out “HARD LUCK.” Upon his release from prison in 1950, he was briefly reunited with his father, telling him that he was determined to “live by the gun and roam.”
Later that year, Cook put his “gun and roam” strategy into effect, hitchhiking his way first to California, then to Texas where, in December 1950, an auto mechanic offered him a ride. Cook forced the man into the trunk of his car at gunpoint but, luckily for the mechanic, he managed to escape. Serendipity wouldn’t be with Cook’s next victims. In Oklahoma, Cook was picked up by Carl Mosser, a farmer from Illinois who was traveling with his wife, their three young children, and their dog. After a terrifying three-day ordeal, Cook murdered the entire family (including the dog).
Heading west again, Cook took a deputy sheriff hostage outside Blythe, California, but he spared the man’s life. (Some reports say that Cook used to work with the sheriff’s wife and that she “had been nicer than anyone had ever been to him in his life.”) Robert Dewey, a salesman from Seattle, met a less favorable fate; after killing Dewey, Cook took his car, abandoning it in Mexicali, Mexico. By now, law enforcement agencies throughout the Southwest United States were hot on Cook’s trail, but he wasn’t finished yet. Hitching to California, he was picked up by two men on a hunting trip, James Burke and Forrest Damron. Cook kidnapped the duo, holding them hostage for the next eight days and forcing them to head for Mexico. The two men would later say that they were afraid to try to escape because Cook’s right eye always remained open and they never could tell whether their captor was awake or asleep.
After the men had driven across the Mexico border to Santa Rosalia, Cook was recognized by the police chief Luis Parra, who simply walked up to Cook, removed his gun from his belt, and arrested him. Cook was later handed over to the FBI; at the time of his arrest, he reportedly declared, “I hate everybody’s guts, and everybody hates mine.
After a trial in Oklahoma, Cook was sentenced to 300 years in prison for the murder of the Mosser family and was then convicted and sentenced to death in California for the murder of Robert Dewey. In December 1952, almost two years after the start of his killing spree, Cook was executed in the gas chamber at San Quentin prison.
Ida Lupino interviewed the two hunters who were Cook’s final captives, and she visited Cook in San Quentin shortly before his execution to secure his release to use parts of his life in her film. “I was afraid of him,” Lupino said later. “I could not wait to get the hell out of San Quentin.” Her film, co-written with her ex-husband and business partner Collier Young, was released in March 1953, just a few months after Cook’s execution. Because of the Motion Picture Production Code, which governed the depiction of sex and crime in the movies, Lupino decreased the number of Cook’s on-screen killings. The Code also prevented her from using Cook’s real name in the film, but she did exercise some creative liberties with the capture of the film’s villain, spicing up the real-life, undramatic arrest with two fistfights and a shootout.
If you’ve never seen this ripped-from-the-headlines gem, do yourself a favor and check it out. Selected for the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant, it’s available on YouTube and Prime Video, as well as on DVD as part of the Ida Lupino: Filmmaker Collection by Kino Lorber. And if you’re already familiar with this feature, give it a re-watch.
You only owe it to yourself.
– Karen Burroughs Hannsberry for Classic Movie Hub
Karen Burroughs Hannsberry is the author of the Shadows and Satin blog, which focuses on movies and performers from the film noir and pre-Code eras, and the editor-in-chief of The Dark Pages, a bimonthly newsletter devoted to all things film noir. Karen is also the author of two books on film noir – Femme Noir: The Bad Girls of Film and Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir. You can follow Karen on Twitter at @TheDarkPages.
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