The Hitch-Hiker (1953)
In his on-air introduction of The Hitch-Hiker (1953) on TCM, Ben Mankiewicz shared the kind of perceptions about the film that I wish I were smart enough to realize myself. The fact that it was directed by a woman (Ida Lupino), though, doesn’t impress me in and of itself as much as the fact that the result cast males in roles usually reserved for females: helpless victims. Without Mankiewicz telling me, I don’t know if I would even have noticed that no women are in it.
Another comment, one that I would be more likely to recognize myself, is that The Hitch-Hiker is an early precursor to Deliverance (1972.) It’s nowhere near as extreme, but the leads do find themselves in dangerous circumstances with strangers they encounter on a trip. Here, Roy Collins (Edmond O’Brien) and Gilbert Bowen (Frank Lovejoy) are on a fishing expedition when they kindly offer a ride to a man whose car appears to have run out of gas.
Behind the opening credits, we see the legs of a man walking along the highway. A lovely young lady driving a convertible stops to pick him up. He aims a gun at her and her purse spills out of the car. We’re shown terrifying little pieces, but spinning headlines stitch them together for us: a serial killer is wandering the roads of the American southwest and a suspect is being hunted. To cap the brisk, exciting scene, we see the man’s legs as he buries someone in the desert.
In the original New York Times review, critic A.H. Weiler wrote:
...it realistically follows the trail of a wanton gunman, who thumbs rides and then kills and robs his benefactors until he runs into a couple of Californians en route to a fisherman's vacation in Mexico.
Interesting that he called it realistic; The Hitch-Hiker is based on a true person. According to its tcm.com page:
...real-life serial killer William Cook, who killed six people who picked him up as he hitched his way across the American Southwest and Mexico in 1950. He was captured after taking two prospectors hostage and sent to the gas chamber in 1952.
Lupino supposedly interviewed one of the hostages and obtained a release from Cook to proceed with the film. She incorporated two significant details into the screenplay she was credited writing with her husband, Collier Young. First, Cook had “a genetic deformity that made it impossible for him to close his right eye.” Second, Cook experienced an “abusive childhood.”
The first detail creates a terrific plot point for a scene in which Emmett Myers’s (William Talman) two captives cannot tell whether or not their captor is sleeping. Do they have a chance to escape or not? The second detail isn’t explored deeply enough to have much impact. In fact, it’s presented by Myers as an explanation for what he does, and it’s apparent that his history is much more complex than simply that.
In his New York Times review, Weiler also wrote:
William Talman, as the ruthless murderer, makes the most of one of the year's juiciest assignments. He is a braggart, who taunts his captives, mocks their softness and proclaims that "you can get anything at the end of a gun."
I’d add that if Talman is making most of the role, it’s by being subtle. He’s nowhere near as showy as Robert Mitchum, for example, in either The Night of the Hunter (1955) or Cape Fear (1962.) Then again, neither is the movie. It’s presentation is rooted strongly in film-noir rather than horror, with its style overshadowing the substance throughout its unusually short 71-minute running time.
The Hitch-Hiker is full of great moments where Myer’s foils Collins and Bowen at every turn. For example, he won’t let them speak Spanish because he wouldn’t understand what they were saying to the locals. The closest they come to escaping is when they’re inside a general store; however, at the last minute, a little girl appears. Her life is not something our heroes are willing to risk to save their own.
The conclusion, and the details leading to it, is terrific. Myers is pretty smart; since the description the authorities are using to track him are based largely on his clothing, he forces a change in wardrobe. Then, when the Mexican police surround them and Myers is identified, Collins, the more distraught of the two victims, has an opportunity to release his rage. It provides emotional satisfaction for both the character and the viewer.
Written by Collier Young and Ida Lupino
Directed by Ida Lupino
Starring Edmond O'Brien, Frank Lovejoy, William Talman
RT 71 min.
Released on April 29, 1953
Home Video Kino Lorber Films (Multi-format)
A.H. Weiler, At the Holiday
The New York Times, April 30, 1953
Frank Miller, The Hitch-Hiker (1953)