Written by: Ida Lupino & Collier Young
Starring: Edmond O’Brien, Frank Lovejoy, William Talman, José Torvay, Wendell Niles
Picking up hitch-hikers on the road serves as one of the biggest acts of kindness anyone could do for another individual. It involves picking a stranded person and inviting them into the intimate space of one’s vehicle. In a just world, this would be done more often but some individuals who take advantage of the generosity ruin it for all, which Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker seeks to highlight. It shows the horrors of picking up the wrong person at an inopportune time.
Driving down to Mexico for a fishing trip, Roy (Edmond O’Brien) and Gilbert (Frank Lovejoy) pick up someone they believe to be in need of a ride. Unfortunately, the person they pick up happens to be a notorious murderer who finds his prey through hitchhiking. As this hitchhiker holds them at gunpoint, the two friends try to find the opportune time to get out of this predicament.
Simply constructed with the inside of a vehicle being the main setting, The Hitch-Hiker has all the makings for an intense film that needs strong dialogue and good direction to maintain the engagement of its audience. Luckily enough, it provides this in both areas with this famously being the first film noir ever directed by a woman. Quite the milestone of the time and to no surprise it came from the brilliant mind of Ida Lupino. A trailblazer in every way as a female director, she works her magic with this film to keep the suspense at an all-time high and remind the audience of the stakes here on several occasions.
Establishing these characters and why we should care for them becomes integral to the story succeeding but knowing the history of this killer certainly works as well. Known now for his killing via this hitchhiker style, the killer needs to hitch this last ride in order to leave the country and find safety. He utilizes Roy and Gilbert for this reason, which outlines why he does not immediately kill them. The killer needs these two men for this short-term stopgap but the pressure remains clear that once the deed is done, he has no issue killing them. An unfortunate circumstance for these two friends but ultimately one they need to figure out how to survive. It’s two against one but he holds the advantage in weaponry and the benefit of holding the gun at the back of them. It stands as a good reminder of why cab drivers create separation from their patrons as their service leaves them in a compromised situation of having their backs turned to complete strangers.
The way Lupino frames most of the film continues to add intrigue, raises tension, and dynamically captures the panic involved. From the use of shadows in the car to hide the killer throughout, Myers (William Talman) becomes quite the force to be reckoned with. A man living with plenty of desperation to leave this country as he has police behind him but also a level of calmness to keep his cool in a high-stress situation. Lupino ensures to use the car to her advantage in filming all of these scenes because they’re all in an enclosed area. Any sudden move in there can make quite the difference seeing as it does not take much for these individuals to reach out and make contact with each other. All of the characters know this and the threat of any sudden moves makes Myers all the more careful with interacting with these two men on the way to his hopeful departure from this nation.
As a noir, the horror of this feature shows itself quite easily, especially viewing it through a contemporary lens. It plays on current fears of picking up strangers. Just looking at the poster shows exactly what this film wants to evoke. “Who’ll be his next victim…YOU” it reads. I certainly do not have the statistics for when hitch-hiking ceased becoming commonplace in this country but I’m sure most who watched this film who already participated in picking people up gave it some second thoughts moving forward. If anything, this film could serve as a public service announcement against it.
Despicable villainy all wrapped up into a brief but intense noir thriller. Myers represents the worst humanity has to offer by taking advantage of an act meant to symbolize compassion and aid in order to get his own sense of enjoyment from it. He makes for quite the antagonist and provides much to hate as we hope these two innocent men find a way to get away from the barrel of his gun before time runs out.