Part of the harrowing allure of the Hitch-Hiker is that it’s actually based on a true incident that occurred only a year before the events shown. It’s not as if someone took artistic license with some murderers and made it into a horror spectacle. Hitchcock’s Psycho especially comes to mind.
Instead, director Ida Lupino takes a much more universal approach with an opening title card suggesting that the events that follow about a man and a gun and a car could really happen to any of us. Perhaps it’s a cheap plotting device but it does throw the audience into the passenger seat quickly as they are introduced to a rash of murders and the hardened killer behind the spree Emmett Myers (William Talman) who soon has the entire mobilized police force looking for him.
The meat and potatoes of the film involve the brutal murderer taking two vacationing fishermen hostage and grinding away at them as he utilizes them to flee the authorities and bends them to his will. After all, he’s the one with the gun, and he’s proved numerous times he’s not squeamish about using it.
It also plays into the narrative’s hands that both Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy are not necessarily classically handsome. But they work as everymen. If Joel McCrea was the poor man’s Gary Cooper sometimes I think of Edmond O’Brien as the poor man’s Humphrey Bogart but that’s neither here nor there. Because in little films like this O’Brien left an indelible mark on film-noir. D.O.A. and The Bigamist are two other such examples. Lovejoy on his part is extremely understated, not even being able to quite place his face but we cannot help but admire his quiet stalwartness. O’Brien’s character seems the flightiest of the three and within their ranks, we’ve found a triangle that creates the contentious dynamic that’s the foundation of the film’s entire conflict.
A film of this length and from this era doesn’t have any right to be as intense as it is, yet the Hitch-Hiker proves to be just that. It’s chock full of not only frank depictions of wickedness but enough psychological torture to send tremors up the spines of an audience. It’s a real sweaty thriller. William Talman is absolutely diabolical in a performance that is as vindictive as any other role that comes to mind. It’s that evil.
Meanwhile, the deeply underrated cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca (Out of the Past) flaunts his skills in low budget filmmaking while former husband-wife duo Collier Young and Ida Lupino team up in another surprisingly compelling project, despite its meager production values. I laugh derisively at any contemporary who might have suggested Lupino could only do so-called issue-driven “Woman’s Pictures” because The Hitch-Hiker is really all about three men where the tension mounts to great proportions. Forget any other category. This is a stone cold crime film that goes beyond a simple gimmick.