Director Richard Fleischer had a paranoid career as a moviemaker. There was the Richard Fleischer who made all those overblown big studio special effect abominations like “Dr. Doolittle,” “Amityville 3-D,” “The Jazz Singer,” and “Fantastic Voyage.” Then there was the Richard Fleischer who made some of the tightest nifty crime thrillers like “The Boston Strangler,” “10 Rillington Street,” “Follow Me, Quietly,” “The Narrow Margin,” “The Clay Pigeon” and “Armored Car Robbery.” Fleischer was no auteur but he was a solid craftsman. Over the course of his career his output was erratic and his later years films like, “The Don is Dead” were generally poorly received and of deteriorating quality.
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)