This film is based on the true story of Billy Cook, a violent psychopath who killed six people and kidnapped two. He was subsequently captured in Mexico, sentenced and put to death in California.
In The Hitch-hiker Cook’s character is embodied in the form of Emmett Myers (Talman). The pre-title and credit sequences recap Myers’ murderous rampage (body count was reduced to appease the censors). He has stolen the car of his last victim and run out of gas. Two men (O’Brien and Lovejoy) on a fishing trip pick Myers up alongside the car and they become Myers’ next victims. Myers decides to take his captives hostage and on a road trip to Mexico, where he hopes to escape to freedom.
In a related storyline, law enforcement officials in the United States and Mexico combine forces in a race against time in hopes of apprehending Myers and preventing more victims.
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The synopsis suggests a nuts and bolts crime drama. In many ways, the mechanics of the storyline are formulaic. However, a few elements make this movie stand out and apart from standard film noir fare.
Let us start with the setting and locale. The film was primarily shot on location in the deserts of southern California (doubling as Mexico); this is noteworthy in that film noir usually inhabits the urban jungle. Ida Lupino takes advantage of the environment and uses the natural lighting to emphasize shadows and contrast, an aesthetic of film noir. In addition, several interior shots, especially those from inside the car, convey a feeling of entrapment, isolation and confinement, which are also film noir conventions.
Second is the presence of Ida Lupino behind the camera. This film is the first film noir directed by a woman. By the time she directed The Hitch-Hiker, Ms. Lupino had five films under her belt, including two uncredited turns as director, notably 1952’s On Dangerous Ground, a film in which she also starred (Nicholas Ray received full directorial credit).
Equally impressive is the fact that she and her husband at the time, Collier Young, adapted the screenplay from a story written by Daniel Mainwaring, of Out of the Past (1947) fame. The dialogue in The Hitch-hiker is crisp and captures the panic and tension between the three principal characters.
Several scenes are delivered exclusively in Spanish. Keeping the non-English exchanges in the film are essential in lending a sense of the gritty realism often associated with film noir. While there are many supporting characters in this film, they are primarily peripheral. The film is propelled by the effective performances of the three leads. Talman’s serial killer is good in portraying a man who has nothing to lose. The easily agitated Roy (O’Brien) balances Frank Lovejoy’s portrayal of the levelheaded Gilbert very well. Edmond O’Brien has the additional task of conveying the deterioration and breakdown of a man’s psyche in the face of what he is sure is his eminent demise.
All of these elements combine to make The Hitch-hiker a very solid foray into the world of film noir and crime drama. It is a B-movie elevated by a unique location, first-rate performances and a very talented and pioneering filmmaker.