The Hitch-Hiker (1953) Ida Lupino

With no major female characters, Ida Lupino’s 1953 film “The Hitch-Hiker” is somewhat idiosyncratic in her feature  film directing career. Considered a director with a strong female identity, Lupino shows she can handle a gritty all male thriller just as skillfully as one of her mentors Raoul Walsh. She was also admittedly an admirer of Allan Dwan, Fritz Lang and cinematographer George Barnes. “The Hitch-Hiker” made in 1953 tells the story of  two weekend fisherman, Roy Collins (Edmund O’Brien) and Gil Bowen (Frank Lovejoy) who graciously but unfortunately pick up  hitchhiker Emmett Myers (William Talman). Myers turns out to be a psychopathic mass killer who forces the men to take him across the border to Mexico. The remainder of the film is a claustrophobic ballet of survival between the two hostages and the killer. Lupino keeps the trio in close quarters throughout the film enforcing the fear that escape is impossible. Much of the time the three men spend in cars and small backrooms, yet even in the openness of the Mexican desert Lupino’s camera confines the characters space.

    From the opening sequence, Lupino keeps you on the edge of your seat with the threat of violence about to explode at any moment. Filmed by the magnificent cameraman, Nicolas Macursa, it is filled with stark contrasty black and white imagery that enhances the moody aridness of the brutal desert heat. What is amazing is how much Lupino accomplished with such a low budget, both in front and behind the camera. Like all of Lupino’s directed features, this was a no-frills production.

The opening scenes quickly inform us what we are dealing with. A faceless hitchhiker robs and murders an equally faceless couple somewhere in Illinois as the license plate tells us. A newspaper headline flashes across the screen “Couple Murdered!” A second headline identifies the killer as Emmett Myers. We transition to another road, and another pickup and another faceless murder, this time a man. Keeping the victims faceless Lupino enhances the fear that the next murder victim could be anyone, anywhere including us, the viewer watching the film.

    We cut to two men Roy Collins and Gil Bowen; they are on a fishing trip, away from the wives, work, and life in general. Unfortunately, fate enters in the form of Emmett Myers who they misguidedly pick up. Myers quickly pulls his gun and directs the two hostages to head toward Mexico.

Unlike his previous victims, Myers does not immediately kill these men. Instead, he takes them hostage having them drive him to Mexico. On the way, he torments them with sadistic games. In one scene Myers forces Gil, Myers is holding a pistol on him, to demonstrate his hunting skills using his rifle to shoot a soda can out of Roy’s hand.

William Talman’s performance as the psychotic killer with a paralyzed right eye that remains open making it difficult for his prisoners to know when he was sleeping, is outstanding. It’s an unforgettable creepy performance packed with rage and terror. There is nothing good about this man. In a campfire scene, Myers demands Gil toss him his watch. After looking at it, Myers tells them he had a watch like this once, only he didn’t buy it, he robbed a jewelry store. Edmund O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy are perfect as the two ordinary Joes on a fishing trip, away from their wives and responsibilities, inexplicably trapped in a nightmare journey toward death. The film’s tension is all in the performances of the three leads, the divergent actions and reactions between Talman’s crazed hitch-hiker and the passive hostages.

The film’s major flaw is an ending that does not reach a satisfying climax worthy of all that has come before. A massive manhunt by both U.S. and Mexican law enforcement, on the same scale according to Time magazine of the manhunt for John Dillinger, results in Myers capture but is played out very low key.

  Lupino co-wrote the screenplay with Collier Young during the last months of their marriage. Daniel Mainwaring apparently contributed but due to HUAC investigations, RKO refused to give him any screen credit. Lupino and Young would remain business partners, in The Filmakers, and friends even after their divorce in October 1951 and her quick marriage to Howard Duff that same month (she was pregnant with a daughter fathered by Duff).

The film is based on the true story of mass murderer Billy Cook who in a 22-day murder spree killed a family of five and a sixth person, Robert Dewey, a salesman. He then kidnapped two hunters holding them hostage for eight days and forcing them to drive him over the border to Mexico before he was eventually captured in Santa Rosita, a coastal city in Baja California, the same location where the movie was filmed. Cook would die in San Quentin walking the last mile to the gas chamber in 1952. Like Cook, Emmett Myers in the film had a deformed eye that always remained open and was a full-blown psychopath. Cook’s reputation was so large that both Time magazine and Newsweek did multiple stories on him.

   Cook’s life was one of  luck…all bad. Born into a family of seven kids, his mother died when he was five years old. Soon after, Billy and his siblings were abandon by their father and eventually found by authorities in an abandon mine cave. Billy’s brothers and sisters all managed to be placed in foster homes with Billy the exception, possibly due to the deformed right eye. While a ward of the county, Billy began to exhibit violent behavior. When he was 17, Cook was sent to the Missouri State Penitentiary where his rage continued to escalate. While there, he would have the words HARD LUCK tattooed on his knuckles (reminiscent of Robert Mitchum’s phony reverend in “The Night of the Hunter” who had GOOD and EVIL tattooed on his knuckles).

Lupino was in Palm Springs, to receive the Foreign Press Association’s “Woman of the Year” award and met one of the two hunters held hostage by Cook. Fascinated by the story, The Filmakers Group soon announced they were going to do a film based on the story of the two kidnapped hunters. This was met with resounding objections from the Motion Picture Association insisting that the Production Code forbid the portrayal of modern-day outlaws. The Filmakers would eventually resign to the fact that a fictional version of the story was the only way the MPA would allow the story to be told.

By the way,  Jim Morrison’s song Riders of the Storm from their 1971 album “L. A. Woman”  is said to be partially based on or as least alludes to Billy Cook’s story. Consider the following:

There’s a killer on the road/His brain is squirming like a toad

Take a long holiday/Let you children play

If you give this man a ride/Sweet memories will die

Throughout her directing career, Ida Lupino was patronized as a woman doing a man’s job and certainly ignored artistically. Today, Lupino is recognized for her unique contribution to filmmaking in the early 1950’s as the first woman to direct a film noir (too bad she never had the opportunity to make more), her sparse gritty style, reminiscent of the many Warner Brothers films she acted in. Lupino stands firmly side by side, shoulder to shoulder with other mavericks from the same period like Nick Ray and Sam Fuller. That’s pretty damn good company to be in.

**** (out of five)

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14 comments on “The Hitch-Hiker (1953) Ida Lupino

  1. Sam Juliano says:

    This is a taut, and exceedingly tense picture that exhibits all the qualities you exhaustively present here is this first post-Christmas review. And a great choice! Musuraca’s camerawork again is superlative, and that’s a daring statement there that Lupino stands next to Ray and Fuller, but one I seriously can’t contest. Excellent embellishment there about RIDERS ON THE STORM being based on Cook’s story, which by the way you have provided some interesting information on, and yes that correlation with NIGHT OF THE HUNTER does come into play.
    Tallman was well remembered as the D.A. on PERRY MASON.
    This is really a terrific review of a film that certainly deserves the highest praise.

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    • John Greco says:

      Sam, I remember Talam well from the Perry Mason series, never won a case going up against Perry(ha!). He was also memorable in Armored Car Robbery.

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  2. John, this was wonderfully informative. I’ve seen the film but knew nothing about its real-life background or the Night of the Hunter tie-in. Lupino’s fascination with the Cook story marks the Hitch-Hiker as a profoundly individual work that transcends any speculation on a woman’s touch applied to a noir subject. And as an Edmond O’Brien film from the noir era it’s almost automatically good.

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  3. Dave says:

    I agree with Sam and Samuel, this is an excellent write up with John’s usual outstanding analysis and historical background. I have had this movie for a long time, but only watched it for the first time about a month or two ago. I don’t think I’m giving too much away in saying that this one is definitely going to be in the noir countdown. I won’t say where in the countdown, but it is definitely a taut noir thriller and proves that skillful direction and writing can make ordinarily mundan situations come off as incredibly intense.

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  4. Judy says:

    I haven’t seen this one, but it sounds good – I’d like to see more of Lupino’s work, and also more of O’Brien.

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  5. R.D. Finch says:

    John, a really great post. I saw this a couple of weeks ago and was quite impressed. As you write, it’s a tight, lean, noirish little psychological thriller that keeps the emphasis on the mind games between the amazing Talman and his two hostages (cool Lovejoy and hot-headed O’Brien). Loved the photography. I bet Lupino learned a thing or two from Nicholas Ray while making “On Dangerous Ground” (I’ve read she directed a few scenes of this) about the potency of contrast between enclosed spaces like the car and wide-open spaces like the desert. The background on the true story behind the movie was fascinating, well-researched, and completely new to me! I remember Talman well as the hapless Hamilton Burger on “Perry Mason,” but does anyone recall those chilling PSAs he made on the dangers of smoking and lung cancer in the 60s?

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    • John Greco says:

      Thanks very much R.D. – I get the impression, from what I have read, that Lupino was an astute student of many of the filmmakers she worked with. Yes, I heard the same thing about her directing a few scenes of “On Dangerous Ground.” She also directed a few scenes of Beware, My Lovely” when the director’s wife was ill and he was unavailable. Yeah, poor Ham Burger, not only stuck with an easy pun for a name but he never could win a case against Perry.

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  6. […] ***John Greco has a fantastic essay up at his place on The Hitch Hiker: https://twentyfourframes.wordpress.com/2009/12/26/the-hitch-hiker-1953-ida-lupino/ ***Dave Hicks, is readying for his big noir countdown at “GoodFellas”: […]

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  7. Tony D'Ambra says:

    A great review John, though I liked The Hitchhiker less than you. It is still a solid b-noir which starts out well, but fails to develop sufficient tension and (like you) I found the ending flat. Lupino’s direction is adequate, but the strong opening noir-lit scenes of urban hijack and murder would be largely the work of Musuraca. Even Musuraca seems to lose it in the open spaces of the Mexican desert where most of the subsequent action is played out.

    While star-billing is given to Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy as the hostages, they are constrained by their largely passive roles, it is William Talman, in a memorable portrayal as the psychotic killer, who holds the picture together. The desperado’s savage menace and barely contained hysteria is entirely convincing, and it is this for me that saves the movie from obscurity.

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    • John Greco says:

      Tony, I definitely agree with Talman’s performance holding the picture together. He personifies evil in this film. BTW, I just borrowed a book from the local library, a bio of Lupino. She was a a fasincinating woman and apparntly a strong enough personality on the set when directing. Thanks!!!

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  8. […] The hitch-hiker (1953) ida lupino « twenty four frames […]

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