One of several highway film noirs, The Hitch-Hiker (director: Ida Lupino, 1953) is brutal, effective and in its day introduced a new kind of criminal to the screen. With a compelling normality, The Hitch-Hiker shows the kind of pointless hold ups and killings that in the 1950s, were generally framed as a social-problem crime film. The Hitch-Hiker is also a mess of huggable homoerotic heteronormativity, with two very close men on a fishing trip (or is it?), bullied at gun point in their car and in the desert, by a dominating sadist, who has an evil ‘bum eye’ to boot.
The Hitch-Hiker follows the movements of killer Emmett Myers (played by William Talman), who robs and murders his way around the country. During the opening credits we get glimpses of Myers and his victims, setting the stage for the introduction of Roy Collins (Edmond O'Brien) and Gilbert Bowen (Frank Lovejoy), two buddies on their way to a fishing trip in Mexico.
Being low-budget is another noir trademark. It isn’t always the case, and there are plenty of larger-scale noir productions out there, like The Woman in the Window, which needn’t have been expensive but which was. From January 1943 however, the War Production Board set a ceiling of $5,000 on the set construction budget for each film, and this forced studios to compensate, just as it forced directors to innovate. For directors, aesthetic innovation was a great way to get attention, and plenty noir directors like Robert Siodmark or Jacques Tourneur managed to promote themselves from B-movie directors to A-movie directors, for distinctive work, generally on an intensely low budget.
What is most surprising about The Hitch-Hiker is that it’s a realistic depiction of ordinary guys faced with such unpleasant circumstances, and so when Collins and Bowen are kidnapped and forced to do the bidding of their captor, they react in a manner that is consistent and believable. They don’t play heroes and nor are there are any contrivances set up to help them, but instead the story plays out much the way one would expect in such a situation. Quite the opposite — gripped by fear, the buddies try to sit it out, almost hugging each other in fear like Scooby Doo and Shaggy, and the film flows in the tracks of their sweat.
Credit for the power of The Hitch-Hiker must go to director Ida Lupino, whose documentary-style story telling offers the subject both grit and intensity. William Talman is a great villain, and bullies and provokes his victims, even using them for target practice at one stage. But despite Edmond O'Brien and Frank Lovejoy playing two old army buddies, there are no heroics — quite the opposite in fact.
Here arise some proper noir credentials, because the killer really does have a point — these guys are saps. The killer is a pushy sadist, like so many real-life bastards out there, with none of the grand villainous edges ascribed to the super villains of cinema. The victims occasionally glance to one side, as if a plan is forming, but the sadist just snorts — he knows they are snivelling bitches, who will never get away.
Is he asleep, or ain't he?
William Talman as the villain in The Hitch-Hiker is a far cry from that of the old dynamic gangster film. For once we have a character we are much more familiar with these days — the psycho who’s bad for the sake of it. We don’t hear no sob story of how he came to be bad nor no tale of how his puppy died when he was twelve. Instead, Emmet Myers tells how he started life as a villain, realising at the age of 17 that his life would be easier if he just took what he wanted, and killed who he liked. Everyone else, he reckons, is just a bunch of saps for following the rules. He is somehow correct when he states:
You guys are soft. You know what makes you that way? You're up to your neck in IOU's. You're suckers! You're scared to get out on your own. You've always had it good, so you're soft. Well, not me! Nobody ever gave me anything, so I don't owe nobody!
And it’s because he’s right, and his victims are simply too scared to play the hero, that The Hitch-Hiker has a certain power. As for his own past, the killer states:
My folks were tough. When I was born, they took one look at this puss of mine and told me to get lost.
This is as close as we have to details of why he is so bad, and why he is on loose in America, shooting whom he likes, and taking what he wants. If the movies have told us anything, it’s that this is an ancient American practise, as it seems standard from the Westerns as it does from depictions of the post-war period. If anything, Hollywood has glorified this lifestyle to refined heights in recent years, although the message remains the same. In one perverse aspect, this go-gettem attitude to crime is just another component of the American Dream. Everything is there for the taking, so play the game, and accept the risks.
There’s always been a double bluff behind the portrayal of criminals in the movies. On one level, the escapist element of criminality is what people take to the movies for. Audiences are thrilled for the duration, transported from their law abiding norms into actual experiences of criminality, as vivid as if they were real. At the end of each one and a half hour spree however, normality is resumed and punishment is meted out, and just as a mileage gauge is reset, and the obedient citizens return to their homes. The killer in them may even be assuaged, who knows?
It doesn’t matter that The Hitch-Hiker is noir transplanted to the desert. The effect is just the same. Good film noir has interiors which are claustrophobic and trapping and exteriors which are shadowy, wide open and alienating. Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker has the car for its interior shots, and this could barely be more entrapping — the two victims glancing nervously in the front, with the gun toting psychopath grimacing in the back. As for the desert, the sandy landscape turns out to be a suitable backdrop for this scenario, a featureless, friendless place, with its own perils. Combined, like in Detour (1945), you have in The Hitch-Hiker a low budget road movie of epic proportions. Superb interior car tension-building, followed by characters alone in a land or city scape.
Although there are a few to choose from, one of the stand-out scenes in The Hitch-Hiker shows the killer matching his shooting skills with his victims in an abandoned spot in New Mexico. Acting is sometimes a secondary consideration in film noir, which can rely on mood and other aspects to create its chills. But with the three actors propping up the whole works, it pays that some real tension is developed between them.
Where there’s film noir there’s also HUAC and the blacklist, and The Hitch-Hiker is no exception. The Hitch-Hiker was written by Robert L. Joseph, director Ida Lupino, and her husband Collier Young, based on a story by blacklisted Out of the Past screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring, who didn’t receive screen credit. Out of the Past, directed by Jacques Tourneur was high noir — as noir as one can get, basically — and stars Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer and Kirk Douglas.
The Hitch-Hiker is based on the true story of psychopathic murderer Billy Cook, an American spree killer who murdered six people on a 22-day rampage between Missouri and California in 1950–51. As presented here, this kind of villain is something we’re used to today, but were less so in the 1950s. Noir doesn’t normally feature such random killers, but it does often feature deadly situations and a deal of bad luck, and
Cook was known for the letters H-A-R-D L-U-C-K tattooed on the fingers of his left hand and for a deformed right eyelid that never closed completely — an eyelid that features large in The Hitch-Hiker. The eyelid (‘I got one bum eye,’) contributes to the creepiest aspect of The Hitch-Hiker as it doesn’t properly close, and so the kidnapped men have no idea if the killer is awake or not during the night.
The mass media has always been obliged to force this interest in crime on folks, first to guarantee them escapism, but also to ensure a certain level of fear, combined with a respect for authority. Billy Cook knew this and generally provided good copy. "I hate everybody's guts," he said at the time of his arrest, "and everybody hates mine.”
You can’t help getting engrossed in the sexuality of The Hitch-Hiker, which is a mess of homo-erotic heteronormativity. Yes — the killer points the gun at the men for long periods of their drive, forcing one to sit with his arm around the other. Yes — the two are hardened ‘army buddies’ who have clearly shared a few bunks on duty, and been on a few wenching sessions before. And yes, the two buddies become the killer’s bitches from the off, submissive and scared, almost cuddling each other for support at times. The fact that The Hitch-Hiker, directed by Ida Lupino, is said to be the only ‘true noir’ directed by a woman, only adds to this fudged erotic fluff. You’ll never forget the end, as the two men walk slowly into the fog — one putting his arm around the other as the dissolve kicks out.