Release Date(s)1953 (September 24, 2019)
Studio(s)RKO Radio Pictures (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: A
Based on a true-life murder spree, The Hitch-Hiker is a film noir directed by Ida Lupino. On a fishing trip, two middle-aged pals, Roy Collins (Edmond O’Brien) and Gil Bowen (Frank Lovejoy), pick up a hitch-hiker on the road. Little do they know that their new passenger is the convict Emmett Myers (William Talman, DA Hamilton Burger on the Perry Mason TV show), who has already left a string of dead motorists in his wake. Abused as a child, he learned early to despise people. Myers forces them at gunpoint to drive through the southwestern desert into a Mexican town where he can catch a ferry boat to escape the dragnet closing in on him.
The role is based on the real-life mass murderer William Cook, whose crimes took him halfway across the country, from Missouri to California. He slaughtered six people from 1950 to 1951 before Mexican police captured him, and he was executed in San Quentin’s gas chamber on December 12, 1951. Though the names of Cook and the two hostage survivors were changed, the events closely follow what actually happened.
Talman makes quite an effective villain, with an eye affliction and a sneer that convey danger. Basically a hostage film, its plot centers on the long trek that the two friends are forced to make. At one point, they attempt an escape but it’s foiled by Myers. Both O’Brien and Lovejoy are excellent as men trying to help each other emerge from a bad situation alive.
Taken straight from headlines of the time, the screenplay was written by Daniel Mainwaring, who also wrote Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Studio head Howard Hughes denied him screen credit because of his political radicalism during the House on Un-American Activities witch hunts. Released just three months after Cook was executed, The Hitch-Hiker fictionalizes his final run.
Lupino, who starred in the feature films High Sierra, They Drive By Night, and Out of the Fog, all made from 1940 to 1941, turned to directing when she was bypassed for better roles. No other woman was directing films at the time. She had previously directed four films focusing on women, so The Hitch-Hiker was quite different. She would go on to direct many episodes of TV series.
The only noir picture made during the heyday of film noir by a woman, The Hitch-Hiker is a gripping, fast-paced melodrama with escalating suspense. Lupino employs many trademark touches of noir, including deep-patterned shadows falling across characters, a dramatic score (by Leith Stevens), and a swift pace. The major noir element missing is the femme fatale; The Hitch-Hiker has an all-male cast.
The Unrated black-and-white Blu-ray release, featuring 1080p resolution, is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.37:1. There are a few minor scratches, but they are not overly distracting. The blacks are rich, and the range of grays show off detail, such as strands of hair, wood grain, and details in the rock structures of the desert. Nicholas Musuraca’s cinematography contrasts the bright sunlight of the southwestern and Mexican deserts with the dark night scenes as the three men camp out and with the finale, set by the waterfront. Early scenes of the hitch-hiker’s murders are filmed in a series of close-ups of details, such as a dropped purse, a car door, or a cigarette pack. We don’t see the faces of the killer or his victims, but we hear a scream and gunshots leaving no doubt about what has just happened. The waterfront scene – a studio set – is especially evocative, with a narrow pier suggesting a dark, lonely alley, moonlight reflecting off the water, and many shadows enveloping the characters.
The soundtrack is uncompressed English 2.0 mono. Dialogue is clear and distinct, whether in outdoor scenes or in the car (shot in a mock-up with rear projection creating the illusion that the car is in motion). Gun shots are much louder and have likely been “sweetened” for dramatic effect. In a brief fight scene on the pier, the sounds of punches, bodies hitting the wooden pier, and incidental scuffle noises help suggest a realistic struggle. English subtitles are available for the deaf and hard of hearing.
Bonus features on this Region A release include an audio commentary and several trailers.
Audio Commentary – Film historian Sara Smith notes that The Hitch-Hiker is “one of the tightest, sparest, most minimalist movies of its era.” Simple effects are used for maximum impact, including “tight close-ups and evocative images.” The contrast between bright sun and dark night represents the suddenness of going from normality to nightmare. A mood of terror is built by the ominous music of Leith Stevens. The Hitch-Hiker is the only film of the classic noir era directed by a woman (Ida Lupino), and one of the grittiest films without female characters. This was Lupino’s fifth film as director. Her first four focused on women and she wanted to break out of the mold so as not to “go stale.” The real-life crimes of William Cook are described. Lupino worked on the script with her husband, Collier Young. They had formed an independent production company. The major studios did not want to deal with the subject matter because of its horrific violence. Ray and Gil are middle-aged men who had fought in the war and lead ordinary lives. The movie sticks closely to actual facts. Lupino interviewed Cook and the two hostages, and obtained their permission to film their story. Cook commented to Lupino, “I hate everybody’s guts and everybody hates mine.” The Mexican police speaking Spanish adds a note of authenticity. Director of photography Nicholas Musuraca is remembered today mostly for film noir and for Val Lewton’s RKO horror films (Cat People, Bedlam). The locations used in The Hitch-Hiker were close to those used in High Sierra, starring Lupino. Ida Lupino was influenced by independent producers Louis de Rochemont and Stanley Kramer. Her films usually had a social message but later leaned more toward straight entertainment. Brief career overviews of Edmond O’Brien, Frank Lovejoy, and William Talman are provided. Lupino made films about “ordinary people in extraordinary situations.” The ending of the movie is not reassuring, but honest – “a happy ending that doesn’t feel happy.”
Trailers – Five trailers are included:
1. Shield for Murder
2. 99 River Street
3. Cry of the City
4. He Ran All the Way
– Dennis Seuling