By Anders Runestad
The desert highway at night. Wind, dust, tumbleweeds, and danger. Two average guys driving on a vacation trip, and one not-so-average guy out on the road hitching a ride. The drivers apparently don’t weigh the pros and cons, or hesitate to pick up the roadside stranger, putting themselves at the mercy of a maniac named Emmett Myers. Not overly friendly from the start, his face hidden in the dark, it takes him little time to make his sinister intent clear—poised in the back seat of the car like it is his throne, with a gun aimed at his subjects. They don’t know how long they can last, but can assume that the worst is intended for them by a captor who does not pretend otherwise. If Myers is crazy or simply bad is a matter that will have to be settled outside the movie, for Ida Lupino’s 1953 road trip film noir The Hitch-Hiker will not make it easy by spelling such things out.
What The Hitch-Hiker does do is plunge the viewer into a claustrophobic nightmare that is alive with heat, sweat, close calls, and tension waiting to explode. Shot largely within the interior of the car and on location, the film mostly stays in a close third-person point of view, stuck beside two characters who can do little but take orders and abuse from their deranged captor, hoping to somehow survive the ordeal. A series of complications ensue and the film never runs out of steam (it is far too efficient to get dull), yet it all revolves around a very simple situation. It took a deft hand to pull off that trick, and it’s obvious that a filmmaker of serious ability was in charge behind the camera.
Most moviegoers knew Ida Lupino as a Hollywood leading actress and, if they thought much at all about film credits, might have been surprised by her name listed as director. The Hitch-Hiker was not Lupino’s first film as director and she had years of TV directing ahead, but it is one of her most-remembered achievements. Descended from a long line of English thespians, she accordingly started learning the craft of acting at a young age. With years of experience added up, she was propelled into films in the early years of the Sound Era. Soon starring part of the time and playing supporting parts at others, she occupied a unique middle ground as an actress—just as she would continue to appear onscreen in later years while racking up directing credits. Not content with her Hollywood acting career in the 1940s, she set up a production company and began directing her own lower budget productions.
It was the perfect setup for her to craft a classic noir. In The Hitch-Hiker, Lupino shows all the traits of a solid director: doing the hard work of filming on location, capturing dynamic visuals, and creating a finely honed film that flows relentlessly from beginning to end. But what she brought to the production went beyond competence, and into the kind of memorable details that set it apart from the pack. Take the scene where the car’s horn becomes stuck and honks for seconds of interminable, uncomfortable screen time. A less experienced filmmaker might have not embraced this disquieting sequence so much and played it shorter, but Lupino lets it drag on and keeps the obnoxious noise at a high volume. All three characters are agitated—both captives fear Myers’ wrath more than ever as he angrily demands the noise come to an end, letting them pull over to fix it with reluctance that he might lose control, his trigger finger ready to take control. And the effect on the audience is multiplied, dread for the hostages heightened along with hate for the sound that is pushing Myers past the edge. It’s a highly impressive scene, and one that stands out for the off, almost unreal feeling it creates.
Lupino’s talents as director are also greatly reflected by the cast she assembled. As an experienced actress, she would have had a precise sense of exactly who to cast in a movie requiring three principals when they are carrying nearly every scene on their shoulders. She found the perfect average joes in Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy, a pair of fifties stalwarts who most everyone who watches old movies has seen before. It could be argued that it wasn’t Marlon Brando and James Dean, but these pre-Method working actors who defined the bulk of fifties cinema. Watch the classics, and it is repeatedly the O’Briens and Lovejoys who show up like reliable old tools that always get the job done.
O’Brien was something of a specialist in moody, sometimes ill-fated leads on the less glamorous side. His star role in Rudolph Maté’s D.O.A. cast him sympathetically as a victim of fate, while his edgy police detective in Shield for Murder crosses the line all the way into corruption and worse. His role in The Hitch-Hiker shows his range, not any sort of noir tough guy but more subdued and just a hair more dominant than his friend. But he never overwhelms co-star Lovejoy, who the same year showed up in Andre de Toth’s House of Wax, the Vincent Price starring smash hit that defines the fifties 3-D craze. Like O’Brien, Lovejoy was an unpretentious actor who could float between all sorts of roles. Their interplay avoids the obvious, their relative strengths and weaknesses not always going where one expects.
If anyone dominates The Hitch-Hiker, it is William Talman as the title character. Given a first and last name and some background details, his Emmett Myers is not as strange or mythical as some other roadside psychos that border on surreal. (Rutger Hauer’s “John Ryder” in 1986’s The Hitcher being a great example.) Rather, Myers is so ordinary that it is difficult to know what to expect, and that is ideal for keeping the audience in a state of tension. A regular cast member of that quintessential comfort food TV show Perry Mason, Talman’s slightly off-kilter persona found a decidedly non-comforting outlet here before he was a weekly fixture as Perry Mason’s ever-frustrated foil Hamilton Burger. It’s an appropriate early role too, for as watchers of old crime movies know well, Perry Mason star Raymond Burr played a number of nasty guys in his early career, from Anthony Mann’s Raw Deal and Desperate, to the creepy neighbor across the courtyard who James Stewart spies in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window.
Talman keeps his voice even and calm while his face radiates brooding, measured malice and his prominent eyes create an impression that he is always watching, even when supposedly asleep while one lazy eye remains open. And in those contrasts lie his ambiguity—is Myers insane or just malevolent? Does he have some purpose in mind for his unwilling companions, or is he merely toying with them in his strangely patient way until he feels like erupting? The Hitch-Hiker doesn’t cough up easy answers, and thanks to Ida Lupino, it doesn’t take it easy on the audience either.