‘Who’ll be his next victim… you?’
The Hitch-Hiker is a 1953 American film noir thriller about two vacationers who pick up a psychopathic escaped convict.
Directed by Ida Lupino from a screenplay co-written with her former husband Collier Young, based on a story by Daniel Mainwaring which was adapted by Robert L. Joseph. Produced by Collier Young (One Step Beyond TV series). Associate produced by Christian Nyby (director of The Thing from Another World).
The Filmakers-RKO Radio Pictures production stars Edmond O’Brien, Frank Lovejoy, William Talman, José Torvay, Sam Hayes, Wendell Niles and Jean Del Val.
The intense 1953 film noir, The Hitch-Hiker, begins with news of a murderer at large.
His name is Emmett Myers (William Talman). He’s the rough-looking man who you might occasionally see standing by the side of the road, asking for a ride with his thumb outstretched. For me, it only takes one look at Myers’s unfriendly face and his shifty eyes to know that I would never slow down to give him a ride.
However, The Hitch-Hiker takes place in a more innocent era, at a time when everyone wanted to be of help. Anyone who gives Emmett a ride ends up dead. He steals their cars and then drives across country, abandoning the car only when he learns that his previous murder has been discovered. Emmett has hitchhiked from Illinois to Southern California and he’s left a trail of dead bodies behind him.
Roy Collins (Edmond O’Brien) and Gilbert Bowen (Frank Lovejoy) don’t know who Emmett is. They’ve missed all of the reports about Emmett’s killing spree. They haven’t read the newspapers, all of which feature a picture of Emmett on the front page and a warning to never pick him up. Roy and Gilbert have been too busy getting ready for a long-planned fishing trip in Baja California. When they see Emmett hitchhiking in Mexico, they pull over and offer him a ride.
Unlike other movie hitchhikers, Emmett doesn’t waste any time before revealing who he is. As soon as he gets in the car, he pulls a gun and tells the two men that they’re going to drive him deeper into Baja California. He’s got a boat to catch and he says that all the two men have to do is follow orders.
Of course, both Roy and Gilbert know better. They know that Emmett’s planning on killing them as soon as they arrive at their destination. In fact, if Emmett learns that the police are looking for the two men, he’ll kill them sooner. Roy and Gilbert not only have to keep Emmett from flying off the handle but they also have to keep him from discovering that both of them have been reported as being missing.
As the three men drive across California, Emmett continues to taunt his prisoners. Repeatedly, he points out that the only reason they’re in this situation is because of their loyalty to each other. As Emmett explains it, if the two men tried to run in opposite directions, Emmett would probably only be able to kill one of them. If the two men both attacked him, Emmett would again probably only have time to kill one before the survivor subdued him. Will Roy and Gilbert remain loyal to each other or will they finally embrace Emmett’s philosophy of every man for himself?
Oh, how you’ll hate Emmett Myers! As played by William Talman, Emmett is not just a criminal but a bully as well. The enjoyment that he gets out of taunting Roy and Gilbert will make your skin crawl. Emmett is not like the type of witty or charming master criminal who often shows up in movies today. Instead, The Hitch-Hiker emphasizes that Emmett’s an idiot but, because he has the gun, he has the power. Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy are also well-cast as the two friends who are forced to choose between survival and loyalty.
The Hitch-Hiker was one of the few films to be directed by a woman in the 1950s (it’s also the only film noir to have been directed by a woman). Ida Lupino was not only an actress but also the only female director in the old Hollywood system and she made several hard-hitting films, the majority of which dealt with the type of issues that mainstream Hollywood was still too scared to handle.
With The Hitch-Hiker, Lupino emphasizes not only Emmett’s cruelty but also the bonds of friendship between Emmett’s two hostages. Visually, she makes the wide-open desert appear as menacing and as dangerous as any shadowy city street. If urban noirs often suggested that threats could be hiding anywhere, The Hitch-Hiker takes the opposite approach. The threat is in the back seat of the car and there’s literally no place to hide.
The Hitch-Hiker is an intense film that still holds up well today. Watch it below and never again make the mistake of helping out a stranger.
Lisa Marie Bowman, guest reviewer via Through the Shattered Lens
” …in The Hitch-Hiker, arguably Lupino’s best film and the only true noir directed by a woman, two utterly average middle-class American men are held at gunpoint and slowly psychologically broken by a serial killer. In addition to her critical but compassionate sensibility, Lupino had a great filmmaker’s eye…” AV Club
“The Hitch-Hiker’s desert locale, although not so graphically dark as a cityscape at night, isolates the protagonists in a milieu as uninviting and potentially deadly as any in film noir.” Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style
“At under seventy-five minutes this is a brutally efficient film. Aside from a short speech about “suckers” where Meyers shows his contempt for civilized men, the evil in his character is mostly shown through Talman’s incredible physical performance. With his gruff voice, disheveled hair, drooping eye and menacing gun he’s both a terrifying creation and a completely believable one.” Rock! Shock! Pop!
“Absolutely assured in her creation of the bleak, noir atmosphere – whether in the claustrophobic confines of the car or lost in the arid expanses of the desert – Lupino never relaxes the tension for one moment […] Taut, tough, and entirely without macho-glorification, it’s a gem, with first-class performances from its three protagonists, deftly characterised without resort to cliché.” Time Out Film Guide
“Even more surprising is the avoidance of sentimentality. Although one of the captives mumbles a prayer or two, faith doesn’t figure into their deliverance. Order has been restored, but no ‘lesson’ has been learned; it’s not like we should ignore people in trouble, stuck in the desert.” Trailers from Hell
” …unrelenting but superficial study of abnormal psychology coupled with standard chase melodrama.” The New York Times
” …with nothing more than three able actors, a lot of rugged scenery and their own impressive talents as producers, authors and director, Collier Young and Ida Lupino have brewed a grim little chiller.” The Philadelphia Inquirer
Cast and characters:
Edmond O’Brien … Roy Collins
Frank Lovejoy … Gilbert Bowen
William Talman … Emmett Myers
José Torvay … Captain Alvarado
Sam Hayes … Radio Broadcaster
Wendell Niles … Wendell Niles
Jean Del Val … Inspector General
Clark Howat … Government Agent
Natividad Vacío … Jose
Alabama Hills, Lone Pine, California on June 24, 1952. Filming wrapped in late July.
1 hour 11 minutes
Black and white
Aspect ratio: 1.37: 1
The film was loosely based on the murder spree of Billy Cook; in 1950 he murdered a family of five and a travelling salesman, then kidnapped Deputy Sheriff Homer Waldrip from Blythe, California. Cook ordered his captive to drive into the desert, where he tied him up with blanket strips and took his police cruiser, leaving Waldrip to die. However, Waldrip got loose and got a ride back to Blythe. Cook also took hostage two men who were on a hunting trip. Cook was tried, convicted, and received the death penalty. On December 12, 1952, Cook was executed in the gas chamber at San Quentin State Prison in California.
The Hitch-Hiker was the first American mainstream film noir directed by a woman.
Mainwaring did not receive a screen credit due to his then being on the Hollywood blacklist.
In 1998, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.
Full film free to watch online: