The Hitchhiker

THE HITCHHIKER provides a tense ride from the opening minute to the 79th that closes it out, in a 1953 gem from director Ida Lupino. The script she and partner Collier Young devised was based on a one-man kidnapping & murder arc that made headlines across the country. *

Bound for a fishing trip in Baja California, buddies ‘Roy Collins’ (Edmond O’Brien) and ‘Gilbert Bowen’ (Frank Lovejoy) do the wrong right thing by picking up ‘Emmett Myers’ (William Talman) whose car has run out of gas on a lonesome stretch of desert road. Their good deed goes punished when they realize the pistol-brandishing passenger has been methodically robbing and killing other helpful motorists. As U.S. and Mexican lawmen try to track the creep and his  captives, Myers’ enjoys sadistic cat & mouse games with his latest intended victims.

With a slim budget, Lupino, cameraman Nicolas Musaraca and the grim, no-nonsense trio of  leads etch a taut drama, augmented by a spare score from Leith Stevens. Filming was done in the familiar California locations around Lone Pine and the Alabama Hills. Tossed off on double bills by RKO, it only reached 170th place for the year (Cogerson has it grossing $1,900,000) but its reputation as an excellent thriller outlived the initial offhand distribution. O’Brien and Lovejoy are fine, but the ace in the deck is Talman’s superb portrayal of the twisted killer: those who recall him mainly from his nine years of losing cases to Perry Mason on TV will be highly impressed by his believable ruthlessness in this noir.

Beyond Talman’s turn and overall quality of the production, it earns note in film history as the first mainstream film noir story directed by a woman. Lupino followed that same year with the well-reviewed The Bigamist (also with O’Brien) then switched to a long run directing for TV (one feature exception being the popular 1966 comedy The Trouble With Angels).

With José Torvay, Clark Howat, Natividad Vacio.

* Five months after the film wrapped, the real-life spree killer, Billy Cook, ended up where he belonged: San Quentin’s gas chamber.

Ida calls the shots

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