Cast & Crew
After two Oregon newlyweds are robbed and murdered in their car by a hitchhiker, police release a photogragh of their prime suspect, ex-convict Emmett Myers. The hitchhiker then kills and robs a salesman in central California. Soon after, two Arizona men, draughtsman Gilbert Bowen and garage owner Roy Collins, drive across the California-Mexico border on their way to a fishing vacation in Baja. Once past Mexicali, Roy and Gil offer a lift to a stranded stranger. Almost immediately, the man, Myers, pulls out a gun and forces them to stop on a side road. Myers, who freely admits his identity, confiscates Gil's rifle and ammunition, then orders them back on the highway. After warning Roy and Gil not to "get smart" like his previous victims, the excitable Myers demands to know when their wives expect them home. To keep Myers calm, Roy responds that they are not due back anytime soon. Later, while stopped for gas, Gil starts conversing in Spanish with the non-English speaking attendant, and Myers, who does not understand Spanish, flashes his gun at Gil to keep him quiet. At the next deserted side road, Myers studies a map and decides he is going to catch a ferry in Santa Rosalia, 500 miles away. Myers then shows off his shooting skills and forces Gil to fire his rifle at a tin can that Roy is holding hundreds of feet away. Gil's shot hits the can, but both men are shaken by the incident. Pushing on, the men hear a radio report about Myers, which indicates that the police do not know the killer's current whereabouts. That night, the trio sets up camp, and Myers advises Gil and Roy not to try to escape, as one of his eyelids does not close and therefore they could not know for sure if he is sleeping. The next morning, the men drive to a small town to buy provisions. Once again, Myers warns Gil not to speak Spanish to anyone, and his nervous behavior in the general store attracts the proprietor's attention. Later, over lunch, Myers brags about his toughness and accuses his hostages of being "soft." Myers then hears a radio report announcing Gil and Roy's disappearance, and during a moment alone, the hostages discuss escape plans. Soon after, on the road, the car horn starts to blare uncontrollably, and Myers orders Roy, the driver, to pull over. As Roy works under the car's hood, Myers becomes agitated when a man with a burro passes nearby. Roy fixes the horn, then later while driving, is slugged by Myers because the radio is no longer working. After Gil convinces Myers that the surrounding hills are interfering with the radio's reception, Myers calms down. At a Baja police station, meanwhile, a Mexican official tells an American agent that they have received information about the hostages and their car from the store proprietor, and both lawmen agree that Santa Rosalia is Myers' likely destination. Back on the highway, Roy's car gets a flat tire, and when a couple stops to offer Roy and Gil assistance, a hidden Myers signals to them to keep quiet, arousing the couple's suspicions. Soon after, police captain Alvarado, who has been tracking Myers, questions the couple and is directed to the spot where Roy's tire was changed. That night, Myers, who has heard a radio broadcast about the police manhunt, forces Gil and Roy to steal fuel from a gas station. While investigating at the station the next day, Alvarado discovers Gil's wedding ring, which Gil had slipped off and left. With this latest evidence, the police decide to disseminate false information about their activities over the radio. Myers, Roy and Gil, meanwhile, set up camp again, and during the night, Roy and Gil attempt to flee. Myers quickly catches them, and in the morning, takes them to a deserted mine shaft. Myers is about to force his hostages into the shaft when he hears the false police report on the car radio. Assured by the broadcast that the police are not close, Myers decides to spare Gil and Roy, but soon discovers that the car's crank shaft is ruined. Myers insists that they walk the last miles to Santa Rosalia and orders Roy, who is on the verge of a breakdown, to change clothes with him. When they finally stumble into town, Myers offers to buy his hostages beer, and in the cantina, learns that the ferry he was planning to catch has burned down. Through Gil, Myers arranges to hire a boat to take them to Guyamas that evening. Shortly before they depart, however, the bartender sees a wanted poster of Myers and notifies the police. When Myers arrives at the dock with Roy and Gil, Alvarado, who is hiding among the boats with other police officers, yells at him to freeze. Worried that the police will mistake him for the killer, Roy jumps the startled Myers and fights for his gun. During the struggle, the gun falls in the water, and Alvarado finally apprehends the correct man. While leading Myers away, Alvarado informs the relieved Americans that he will need a full report in the morning.
Jean Del Val
Albert S. D'agostino
Walter E. Keller
Harold E. Wellman
Tag line for The Hitch-hiker (1953)
Ida Lupino was a Hollywood anomaly. In addition to her career as an intense dramatic actress (with particular success in such films noir as High Sierra (1941) and While the City Sleeps, 1956), she was also the only female member of the Director's Guild in the late '40s and early '50s. With her feature films and hundreds of hours of television work combined, she remains Hollywood's most prolific woman director. And although her first films dealt with social issues of particular interest to women - unwed motherhood, rape, mother-daughter relations - with The Hitch-hiker she made a transition to the type of fast-paced, hard-hitting material that would become a specialty throughout her later career. More recently fans and critics have reevaluated such "masculine" work in light of its feminist subtext - the way her action films reduced male characters to the kinds of restless, out-of-control types usually played by women. Equally impressive was her ability to achieve professional quality on extremely low budgets (usually under $160,000), with an off-the-cuff shooting style that made her a one-woman New Wave movement. This has led to the growth of an Ida Lupino cult in whose eyes The Hitch-hiker is considered her greatest accomplishment.
Lupino moved into directing almost by accident. She and her husband, Collier Young, had created Filmways to produce low-budget films on issues that interested them. Their first outing, Not Wanted (1949), dealt with illegitimacy, questioning the social stigma on unwed mothers and their children. Originally it was to have been directed by Hollywood veteran Elmer Clifton, but when he developed heart trouble three days into the shoot, Lupino stepped in, with him sitting on the sidelines to offer advice. She gave him credit for the film, but at Young's urging continued directing on subsequent Filmways productions.
After four women's pictures, Lupino took a different approach with The Hitch-hiker. The story was based on real-life serial killer William Cook, who killed six people who picked him up as he hitched his way across the American Southwest and Mexico in 1950. He was captured after taking two prospectors hostage and sent to the gas chamber in 1952.
Lupino interviewed one of the hostages and obtained releases from both hostages and Cook himself. She then peppered the screenplay with elements of Cook's life, including his abusive childhood and a genetic deformity that made it impossible for him to close his right eye. To appease the Production Code, which objected to film versions of recent crimes, she reduced the body count from six to three, eliminating the three children Cook had murdered. But changing the kidnapped prospectors to businessmen off on an innocent fishing trip was entirely her idea. It allowed her to explore the gradual breakdown of two men living a solid, middle-class existence who are suddenly confronted with the killer's uncontrollable psychotic rage.
Work on The Hitch-hiker was complicated by two things. Eccentric tycoon Howard Hughes, who released the film through his RKO Pictures, refused to let them give screen credit to suspected Communist Daniel Mainwaring, who had written the original story for Young and Lupino. Instead, the story was credited to Mainwaring's pseudonym, Geoffrey Homes. And Lupino suddenly found herself pregnant -- but not by her husband. She and Young had been having problems, which had led her to an affair with actor Howard Duff, her co-star in the 1950 film noir Woman in Hiding. Before The Hitch-hiker started shooting, she got a quickie divorce from Young in Nevada, then married Duff.
The Hitch-hiker won solid reviews and did very well at the box office, particularly considering its low cost. Helping greatly were the cinematography of Nicholas Musuraca - a film noir veteran who had also lensed Out of the Past (1947), with Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas and Jane Greer; and The Spiral Staircase (1946), with Dorothy McGuire - and William Talman's tense performance as the killer. Talman would achieve his greatest fame as District Attorney Hamilton Burger in the popular television series Perry Mason.
The success of The Hitch-hiker actually contributed to the end of Young and Lupino's production company, Filmways. Unhappy that their distributor, RKO, had reaped the bulk of the profits from the film, Young decided to distribute future films himself, which led to the company's financial failure. But The Hitch-hiker also opened a new door for Lupino. The film caught the eye of Richard Boone, future star of the TV Western Have Gun, Will Travel. Remembering Lupino's successful direction of The Hitch-hiker's Western location scenes, he recruited her to direct for his series, her first television credit.
Producer: Collier Young
Director: Ida Lupino
Screenplay: Collier Young, Ida Lupino, Robert L. Joseph
Based on a Story by Geoffrey Homes [Daniel Mainwaring]
Cinematography: Nicholas Musuraca
Art Direction: Albert S. D'Agostino, Walter E. Keller
Music: Leith Stevens
Principal Cast: Edmond O'Brien (Roy Collins), Frank Lovejoy (Gilbert Bowen), William Talman (Emmett Myers), Jose Torvay (Capt. Alvarado), Sam Hayes (Sam), Wendell Niles (Wendell).
by Frank Miller
The Hitch-Hiker on Blu-ray
Another studio making deals with wildcat independents at that time was RKO. Its new owner Howard Hughes had practically shut down the Hollywood lot. He was still making a few pictures a year but seemingly kept as many on the shelf, either half-forgotten or waiting for his personal attention. To bridge the gap Hughes resorted to importing foreign pictures and having his short subject unit make ultra-cheap features, such as 1950's The Tattooed Stranger.
The ambitious actress Ida Lupino formed a partnership with her writer/producer husband Collier Young called The Filmmakers, for the express purpose of selling projects to Howard Hughes. Lupino was a glamorous movie star but also a tough-minded show-business professional known for getting her way on the set. The partnership (and marriage) lasted long enough to establish Lupino as a working director in Hollywood's closed shop of the 1950s. She was the first woman since Dorothy Arzner to achieve that status. Hughes trusted her to reshoot the ending of Nicholas Ray's On Dangerous Ground and kept The Filmmakers going for four or five pictures.
Lupino's last show for RKO, and perhaps her best-directed movie, is 1953's The Hitch-Hiker. The grim suspense thriller is filmed on a tiny scale but yields a surfeit of tension; it is also noted as the only classic-era film noir directed by a woman.
All of The Hitch-Hiker save for a few cutaways takes place in a car driven by mechanic Roy Collins (Edmond O'Brien and draftsman Gil Bowen (Frank Lovejoy), pals on their way to Mexico for a weekend of fishing. The lone hitchhiker they pick up on the desert road turns out to be serial killer Emmett Myers (William Talman), a cunning psychopath who has been roaming the country murdering people and taking their cars. The deranged Myers bullies the men at gunpoint and derides them as foolish weaklings. He makes it clear that his intention is to murder them both. Collins and Bowen can see no avenue of escape, and look for ways to get a signal out. They know that Myers will kill them the moment the authorities realize they're his prisoners, so they try to put the car radio out of action. But none of their plans seem to work. They drive hundreds of miles into Baja California so that their captor can catch a ferry to the Mexican mainland. Myers won't let Gil talk to the locals in Spanish. He's almost killed them several times -- how can they possibly survive?
The Hitch-Hiker abandons the romantic noir notions of the earlier decade to tell the story of a particularly heinous true-life crime. Its ruthless game of survival is distinguishable from straight thriller fare like John Sturges' Jeopardy (also 1953), which remains essentially sentimental in outlook. The twisted Emmett Myers seems less a man than a symbol of '50s anxieties. Myers visits chaos on peaceful lives, choosing his victims at random and striking out of the blue. Gil and Roy are vaguely unsatisfied with their secure but dull lives, and the grumble about escaping from responsibility. They joke about the availability of women in Mexico, a hint that their getaway weekends might not be as innocent as we think. Jus the same, their harrowing survival ordeal seems a disproportionate punishment for their sin of complacency.
Adding a macabre touch to the weirdness is Myers' malformed eyelid, which does not close. Roy and Gil cannot sneak away at night, because it's impossible to tell when their tormentor is actually sleeping. William Talman specialized in highly credible cold-blooded noir villains -- Armored Car Robbery, The Racket, City that Never Sleeps -- but Emmett Myers is his most disturbing characterization. The maniac survives by sticking to an utterly heartless M.O.: leave no living witnesses. The sight of his staring lame eye adds a touch of Edgar Allan Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart.
Edmond O'Brien and Frank Lovejoy are part of the new breed of '50s noir actors, non-heroic everymen unequipped with ju-jitsu moves or intimidating charm. They become immediate identification figures, helping each other to maintain composure under the threats and taunts of the reptilian Myers. Out of options and realizing that he may never see his wife again, Gil leaves his wedding ring behind at a gasoline stop. What are the chances that somebody will do more than just pocket the ring? It's an all but hopeless gesture.
Ida Lupino's movie benefits from the cinematography of noir ace Nicholas Musuraca, who manages to light convincing desert night scenes, and saves his fancy shadow lighting for the exciting conclusion on a Mexican wharf. As expected, quite a bit of the film was shot on a process stage with rear projected roadway views. Many exteriors are second unit work, further trimming days in which a full crew was needed. Unlike some of RKO's earlier noir adventures in Mexico, such as the Robert Mitchum/Jane Greer adventure The Big Steal, no foreign locations were used. But The Hitch-Hiker maintains Howard Hughes' policy of treating Mexican characters and particularly their police force with full respect. José Torvay's highway patrolman is a sharp cookie hot on the kidnapper's trail. In real life, an alert Mexican cop was the one to nab the armed & dangerous killer.
Stills exist of a deleted scene showing the vacationers saying goodbye to Gil's wife (above). The only scenes away from the kidnap car show some rather idealized U.S. and Mexican lawmen strategizing to protect Roy and Gil by issuing false radio announcements to make Myers think they've lost the scent. The much imitated The Hitch-Hiker remains a gripping suspense ordeal.
Ida Lupino and Collier Young wrote the final screenplay, but the original story for The Hitch-Hiker was by Daniel Mainwaring, who as Geoffrey Homes wrote the sublime RKO noir Out of the Past. Howard Hughes refused to allow Mainwearing's name to appear: "We are going to screen everyone in a creative or executive capacity. It is my determination to make RKO one studio where the work of Communist sympathizers will not be used". It was reported that Hughes once issued instructions for the title sequences of a number of RKO pictures to be re-shot, to purge the names of accused disloyal talent. The order was never carried out.
Kino Classics' Blu-ray of The Hitch-Hiker is an acceptably handsome encoding that far surpasses the quality of earlier gray-market tapes and discs. Kino sourced its transfer from "archival elements preserved by the Library of Congress", and viewers get the benefit of improved contrast and sharpness. Nicholas Musuraca's fine camerawork can finally be appreciated. The only extra is a selection of still and artwork images. The arresting package art comes from the film's original, effective ad campaign.
Bret Wood's liner notes point to The Hitch-Hiker being inspired by the true-life case of Billy Cook, a pre- Charles Starkweather serial killer who indeed had a deformed right eyelid. Cook's multi-state crime spree also ended in Mexico. His last words were, "I hate everybody's guts, and everybody hates mine."
By Glenn Erickson
The Hitch-Hiker on Blu-ray
The working titles of this film were The Difference and The Persuader. Prior to the opening credits, the following written statement appears onscreen: "This is the true story of a man and a gun and a car. The gun belonged to the man. The car might have been yours-or that young couple across the aisle. What you will see in the next seventy minutes could have happened to you. For the facts are actual." Although the story was not based on a specific event, reviewers commented on the timeliness of the film's subject matter. The opening credits are superimposed over footage depicting the murder of the newlyweds by the hitchhiker. According to a June 19, 1952 Hollywood Reporter news item, exterior shooting took place in Big Pine, CA.
The following actors were announced as cast members in Hollywood Reporter: Elizabeth Fraser, Gordon Armitage, Ben Bancroft, Louis Hart, Robert Forrest, Beverly Thompson and Judy Connard. Their appearance in the final film has not been confirmed. Hollywood Reporter production charts list Virginia Huston in the cast, but she did not appear in the final film. According to an April 1953 Daily Variety news item, an editorial in the Hobo News condemned the picture as a threat to the existence of "highway nomads" and urged its readers to stop the film's release. Another April 1953 Daily Variety item reported that RKO had received protest letters from hitchhikers complaining about the picture's ad campaign, which included such lines as "Have you ever picked up a hitch-hiker-We guarantee you won't ever after seeing this picture." Despite the protest, RKO did not change its advertisements.