Directed by: Ida Lupino.
Written by: Collier Young and Ida Lupino and Robert L. Joseph.
Starring: Edmond O'Brien (Roy Collins), Frank Lovejoy (Gilbert Bowen), William Talman (Emmett Myers).
Ida Lupino was somewhat if a movie star in the 1940s and early 1950s – working on films such as Raoul Walsh’s High Sierra (1941) alongside Humphrey Bogart among many other films. But she left that behind when she founded her own company – The Filmmakers – and start to produce and direct a series of B-movies. This makes Lupino a trailblazer in a few different ways – as a filmmaker working outside the studio system at a time when few did that, and as a woman who wanted to direct at a time when very few women were making films. The Hitch-Hiker is probably her best – and best known – film, and is often referred as to as a film noir – although it’s really more of a psychological crime drama than a true noir. At just over 70 minutes, the film is tight and taut – exciting, and has three excellent performances at its core – especially a chilling performance by William Talman as the psychotic title character.
The film opens with a montage of Emmett Myers (Talman) as the Hitch-Hiker of the title, who kills the people who are kind enough to offer him a ride. The newspaper headlines track his crimes, and the manhunt that is resulting across the Western USA for the man – they know who he is, but because he is mobile, no one knows who he is. The film than cuts to Roy Collins (Edmond O’Brien) and Gilbert Bowen (Frank Lovejoy) – two old friends heading off on a fishing trip in Arizona. While Gilbert sleeps in the passenger seat, Roy makes the huge mistake of stopping to pick up a hitchhiker – Emmett Myers. It doesn’t take him long to produce a gun and take the two men hostage. He wants the two of them to take him the a city in Mexico, where he hopes to board a ferry and disappear. He needs the two men – but also lets them know that they will die at the end of the journey – it’s just a matter of when that is. The pair cannot wait until Emmett goes to sleep to escape – he has a bum eye that stays open even when he’s asleep – so they can never be sure when that actually is.
The film is at its best when it concentrates on these three men, driving along on desolate highways through the desert. There are numerous cutaways to the manhunt, which isn’t nearly as interesting – I really would have preferred if Lupino had simply stayed on the three men the whole movie. But that’s a minor complaint in an otherwise terrific movie.
The film is based on a real life case – of a troubled young man, who grew up in the foster system, who killed numerous people while hitchhiking – and ended up in the electric chair at the age of 24. Myers is obviously older than that, but the movie does at least allude to his troubled past. While Myers is clearly a remorseless psychopath, Lupino does give him at least at little bit of depth. And Talman delivers a brilliant performance – cold, hard yet also somewhat pathetic and human. It is a great performance. As Roy and Gilbert, O’Brien and Lovejoy make a well matched duo – they have different attitudes on how to survive, but they work well together.
The fact that the film is only 70 minutes is one of the best things about it. Aside from the few scenes of law enforcement tracking the trio, there is precious little time to waste in the film – and no unnecessary padding in it. It is lean, mean, cruel, heartless and suspenseful. Lupino was a fine actress – but as she proves with The Hitch-Hiker – she was an even better director