The Hitch-Hiker, like many movies before and after it, is based upon real-world events, specifically the story of killer Billy Cook. It stars William Tallman as sociopath Emmett Myers who has been on somewhat of a killing spree and is now a man hunted high and low by law enforcement agencies everywhere. Heading out on their annual fishing trip, friends Roy and Gilbert unknowingly pick up Myers thinking him just another Joe in need of a ride. While this might seem like a somewhat common tale nearly seventy years later, nobody even daring to pick up a stranger along the side of the road with their thumb up, it never used to be as such and one could travel the country if they so wanted in just such a manner. Whether past or present, the fact that something like this could happen is frightening and it makes The Hitch-Hiker not only a compelling bit of noir, but a horror film albeit not in the traditional sense.
The interaction between the three leads are what really make this movie, the men turning in some truly riveting performances as they play off of each other. Ida Lupino who directed this film keeps it simple for the most part, the camera focused upon the men in the vehicle for the bulk of the picture and creating a situation packed with tension and fear. One can only imagine what it would be like to have a gun pointed at their back, never knowing if their life was about to end from one minute to the next, but Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy who play the hostages do a great job at conveying those emotions to the audience watching. Seeing the worry in their faces, the small ticks and furtive glances that they give and the slight tremble in their voices make the film all the more real and believable and when factoring in Myers’ harsh demeanour and knowing that he is completely insane puts it all over the top.
Setting the story within the car for a large portion of the picture is a stroke of genius as it lends an air of claustrophobia about it all. One can feel the space closing in and the longer it goes on, even when the men are finally free of the vehicle and out in the open, the fact that they cannot go anywhere outside of Myers’ presence without getting a bullet in the back continues to perpetrate that claustrophobic feeling. Much of the film is also bathed in darkness, upping the mystery and fright and effectively acting as a barrier, closing in on the men in the picture, but even when in broad daylight or amongst other people, that barrier is there and it keeps the two men from getting away from their captor, effectively chained without being so. There is a little action throughout, minor bits that lead to frustration for Gilbert and Roy and it is not until the end of the film when the men find themselves free, that one can breathe again, the blanket of fear finally lifted.
One positive about all of this is that while it might not be the most original film to ever hit the big screen, Lupino takes the basis of the real story about Cook and his crimes and turns it into a highly suspenseful work of art. Though the tale of Billy Cook was horrific in nature, far more than what was translated to the film, it still managed to create a very visceral experience for the audience, a completely enthralling movie and one that will make a person think twice before they ever decide to pick anyone up along the side of the road ever again.
4.5 out of 5