Generally considered the first film noir directed by a woman, The Hitch-Hiker, a trim, nasty true-crime saga set mostly in dusty Mexico, doesn’t reflect a feminine sensibility in any way. Ida Lupino had been a mildly successful actor for nearly two decades—her best-known films in that capacity are They Drive By Night, High Sierra, The Sea Wolf, and Out Of The Fog, all made ca. 1940-41—when she stepped behind the camera, blithely unconcerned by the fact that female directors essentially didn’t exist at that time. Her first four efforts centered on troubled women (and one of them, 1950’s Outrage, dared to directly tackle rape as a subject), but there’s no estrogen whatsoever in The Hitch-Hiker, as spare and muscular a picture as the 1950s ever produced. Because the film was inspired by actual events that were still fresh in the public’s mind, and sticks doggedly to the case’s rather mundane facts, it never fully ignites as drama, but Lupino could do tense atmosphere with the best of them.
In December 1950 and January 1951, an ex-con named Billy Cook went on a killing spree that took him halfway across the country, from Missouri to California, and eventually into Mexico. He murdered an entire family that stopped to pick him up, a crime so well-publicized that Jim Morrison referred to it 20 years later in “Riders On The Storm”—Cook was the second verse’s “killer on the road, [whose] brain is squirming like a toad.” Released in March 1953, only three months after Cook was executed, The Hitch-Hiker fictionalizes his final run, when he bummed a ride from two men on a hunting trip and forced them to drive him across the border. Here, the sadistic killer is called Emmett Myers (William Talman, who went on to play Hamilton Burger, the prosecuting attorney Perry Mason defeated every week), and his largely helpless victims are Roy (Edmond O’Brien) and Gil (Frank Lovejoy), best friends who were kind enough to help out a guy whose car appeared to have broken down.
So far as narrative is concerned, that’s pretty much it. Roy and Gil attempt to escape at one point, to no avail, but the majority of the film, which runs a brisk 71 minutes, consists of Myers ordering them around at gunpoint, occasionally intercut with scenes of American and Mexican cops poking around on their trail. The film boasts little memorable incident or pungent dialogue, and while Talman, with his permanent sneer, makes a mesmerizingly reptilian villain, characterization is otherwise minimal. But the tension never lets up. For audiences of the day, The Hitch-Hiker represented a chilling encounter with pure evil—“Who’ll be his next victim… You?” asked the ad campaign—and Lupino treats Myers like a bomb that could go off at any instant, letting Talman’s twitchy performance set the tone. The film’s two best scenes take suspenseful advantage of Billy Cook’s deformed right eyelid: When camped at night, Roy and Gil can never know whether Myers is asleep, as his right eye remains slightly open at all times.
Viewed today, when Cook’s crime spree has largely been forgotten, The Hitch-Hiker seems oddly skimpy. Lupino and Collier Young (her husband from 1948 to 1951) chose not to embellish their screenplay with psychological nuance or clever plot twists—it’s just the story of two frightened men taken hostage for several days, wondering whether they’ll survive. (The answer to that question has almost nothing to do with their own resourcefulness; the film is all but devoid of conventional drama.) There’s something to be said for pure mood, however, and Lupino’s stripped-down approach makes for a compelling exercise in weatherbeaten existentialism. Her gender surely factored into the National Film Registry’s selection of The Hitch-Hiker for preservation back in 1998 (“culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” is its criterion; this falls mostly under “historically”), but the movie’s most notable quality is just how little she clearly cared about that herself.
Only an “image gallery” consisting of publicity stills and lobby cards. Still, it’s great to see a lesser-known classic like this released on Blu-ray.