When it’s on: Saturday, 12 January (6.00 am)
Billy Cook was the classic American loser. His mother died when he was five and he, along with his young siblings, was abandoned by his father, eventually being picked up by the authorities and placed into foster care. By now used to fending for himself, Billy’s feral sense of survivalism stopped him from being an appropriate candidate for adoption; a deformed right eyelid, which never really closed, added nothing to his appeal. Billy entered the state care system and drifted ultimately into a life of petty crime, dipping in and out of penitentiaries and prison. In 1950, he found a brief period of work in California, before getting bored and leaving, determining to ‘live by the gun and roam’ as a rootless hitchhiker. His efforts to make his way by robbing travellers who were gullible enough to stop for him soon turned to murder. Starting with the slaying of a farmer and his entire family, Billy killed six people before being apprehended whilst making his way to Santa Rosalia, Mexico, with two hostages who’d been on a hunting trip. The San Quentin gas chamber was Billy’s last stop, the violent end of a short, sad life that promised little and delivered only hurt.
Ida Lupino, a British born actor with a steady body of work behind her, made Billy’s story the subject of her fifth directorial effort. Having initially made it into the director’s chair by the unhappy accident of heart problems to the original helmer forcing her to take his place, Lupino had mainly focused on films aimed at women before taking on The Hitch-Hiker. For her, it seemed a significant departure, working in a genre dominated by men and in which women were routinely portrayed in a less than flattering light. And yet it worked, despite the complete lack of a female presence in the movie. Working to a tight budget and without big stars, Lupino came up with a taut exercise in almost ceaseless tension. Recreating the story of Billy Cook’s last days on the road, his kidnap of two hapless men and their flight into Mexico, Lupino achieved the difficult trick of letting character take precedence over plot, making it look as though she told the three principal actors about the type of people they were playing and then filmed the results.
The tale, which stays mainly with the three principals, opens with a warning that what we are about to watch is based on true events, before introducing us to Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy, two friends who are returning home from a fishing trip. They pick up a hiker, Emmett Myers (William Tallman), who settles into the back seat and then pulls a gun on them. He’s a killer on the run. Having just committed murder, his objective is to drive away from the scene of the crime as quickly as possible, which makes the hostages unwilling drivers doomed to aid his escape attempt. As the police pick up his trail, pursuing him across the Mexican border, Myers keeps the two men alive, effectively making them his servants with the task of keeping him out of harm’s way, buying provisions for the journey, etc. The days pass and Myers keeps his gun on the men. They never know if he’s asleep because his right eye doesn’t close, giving the eerie impression he’s always watching them. O’Brien and Lovejoy begin experiencing a real sense of helplessness, which only grows. The obvious thing to do is play along, keep driving and hope in the end they’ll either be captured or that Myers will let them go once they hit Santa Rosalia, but it isn’t that simple. Their captor makes constant threats, keeping them on edge by threatening to off them at the first hint of trouble, or even just for kicks.
In effect, the two fishermen take on the film’s ‘female’ roles, out of both control and their depth and steered by the stronger man. Their ‘ordinariness’ lends an extra degree of suspense, suggesting the terror they experience could happen to anyone unfortunate enough to pick up the wrong hiker. But it’s Tallman who’s the real revelation. Whilst clearly a wrong ‘un, Myers also shows occasional hints of affection to his prisoners, offering to buy them a beer in Santa Rosalia, explaining the unfair twists and turns that have led him to this point. As evil as the acts he’s committing, Myers carries an aspect of being the way he is because of his troubled life. It’s a side of his character that is only teased at; our sympathies remain with O’Brien and Lovejoy’s innocents, but it’s there, all right, and credit goes to Tallman and the screenplay by Lupino and Collier Young for bringing it out.
The Hitch-Hiker was filmed in the Alabama Hills in Lone Pine, California. Favoured by Western directors for its bleak rock formations and lack of colour, the region adds brilliantly to the tension of the narrative, O’Brien and Lovejoy’s car coursing along endless tracks where there’s little to see, no sign of hope and nowhere to run. The focus remains on the three characters, the hostages growing increasingly frazzled, bickering among themselves and unable to make a move on Myers because one of them could potentially be shot, and Myers himself. Irritated yet unbroken by a series of setbacks, he’s a forerunner of unstoppable foes in movie lore, his black leather jacket and dark coats hinting at the later Terminator, only with layers of humanity beneath the surface.
Available in the public domain and scheduled here as the first in a triple bill of early morning thrillers (it’s followed by On Dangerous Ground and Armored Car Robbery), The Hitch-Hiker is strongly recommended as a study in raw suspense. Nearly all the superfluous elements are excised, cutting the running time to a fingernail chewing seventy minutes that leave a lasting impression and nerves suitably shredded.
The Hitch-Hiker: ****