Thursday, December 19, 2019


RKO Radio Pictures, 71m 13s

Fishing pals Roy Collins (Edmond O'Brien) and Gilbert Bowen (Frank Lovejoy) are on the road from El Centro, California to San Felipe, Baja California. After a stop in Mexicali, the men make a potentially grave error when they incautiously pick up the apparently stranded Emmett Myers (William Talman), an itinerant wanted for murder. With revolver in hand, Myers quickly assumes command of the journey, now destined for the port city Santa RosalĂ­a. Myers offers no grain of hope for the unfortunate roadtrippers. "You guys are gonna die, that's all. It's just a question of when," he promises. In the meantime, there is not a moment without worry for Collins and Bowen. At one road stop, Myers gleefully forces Bowen to shoot at Collins in a cruel target practice session. The outlook for the would-be outdoorsmen seems especially grim when it is revealed Myers never sleeps in the conventional sense.

A compact film noir thriller textured with more than the usual grit, THE HITCH-HIKER plugs along in tight alignment with recurring noir tropes and themes. The far-reaching grip of fatalism that so often informs the noir narrative is pervasive in this instance. Only a truly indifferent universe could funnel a couple of decent guys into a ride share with a callous, sought-after killer like Myers. Another line of analysis might consider a misogynistic explanation for the significant plot points. The recreational trip planned by Collins and Bowen is spoiled after an impromptu detour into the seamier side of Mexican urban life, in memory of "a dame" as Myers puts it. Were it not for a brief look at the night life in Mexicali, perhaps another driver would have had the misfortune to encounter Myers and his outstretched thumb.

The unbalanced noir psychopath's erratic behavior of the late 1940s, best exemplified by the giggling maniac Tommy Udo (Richard Widmark) in KISS OF DEATH (1947), invaded the 1950s in forms as diverse as Chester (Neville Brand) from D.O.A. (1950), the aging has-been Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) clinging to SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950), the temperamental gunslinger Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins) who goes GUN CRAZY (1950), the coffee-slinging madman Vince Stone (Lee Marvin) who provides THE BIG HEAT (1953) and the disturbed introvert Leon Poole (Wendell Corey) from THE KILLER IS LOOSE (1956). One of the more contemptible villains on cinematic scorecards, Emmett Myers is the embodiment of the '50s noir psychotic, complete with diabolical laugh. From an appearance standpoint his oily skin, greasy hair and upper eyelid paralysis combine to suggest an individual one would be wise to keep at a safe distance. He shares a certain kinship with Elmo "One-Eye" Mobley, AKA Chickamaw (Howard Da Silva) of THEY LIVE BY NIGHT (1948), another disfigured noir character at large in a post-WWII society riddled with wounded men.

Persistently reckless behavior only confirms any judgment made about Myers based solely on his appearance. He not only heartlessly kills humans, but movie sin of sins, defenseless dogs that bark incessantly. His spoken word is unremittingly gruff; seldom is there any calm to his voice. Myers repeatedly employs a xenophobic attitude about Mexican people despite his plan to hide out in Mexico. And like most memorable heels of the cinema, Myers does not see himself as a social problem. He in fact congratulates himself for not participating in a debt-based society that gets people like Collins and Bowen into tough situations. Myers is proud to declare he does not owe anybody anything, and even reminds Collins and Bowen either of them could have escaped had they not felt indebted to each other. At a certain juncture in the story, Collins walks with a pronounced limp, a common noir motif that implies compromised masculinity. Nonetheless, Collins proves himself a better man than Myers, who despite all of his tough talk reveals himself to be a weak person once secured by authorities.

A criminal mug for the ages:  William Talman

In the tradition of ON DANGEROUS GROUND (1951), MOONRISE (1948) and ACE IN THE HOLE (1951), THE HITCH-HIKER is another reminder the noir film need not have primarily urban settings to create a sense of alienation and despair. When Myers, Collins and Bowen continue their journey on foot once their vehicular option has been eliminated, a Mexican desert provides a daunting noir wasteland. In another movie trend of the time, law enforcement entities prove incredibly efficient and effective. California police and Mexican authorities gladly combine their efforts for the benefit of the public. These days such selfless cooperation dates the film more than the black & white cinematography or occasionally stilted dialog ever could.

An independent production of Filmakers Inc., the company created by Ida Lupino and her husband Collier Young to manufacture social-issue programmers, THE HITCH-HIKER was inspired by the murderous exploits of Billy Cook, who went on a 22-day killing spree from Missouri to California in the early 1950s. It was directed by Lupino, who co-wrote the screenplay with producer Collier Young, by then her ex-husband. The script was based upon a story by Daniel Mainwaring, who was blacklisted at the time and thus failed to receive screen credit for his contribution. Lupino also directed two other film noir offerings, OUTRAGE (1950) and THE BIGAMIST (1953), but surely is best remembered by loyal noir fans for her appearances as an actress in HIGH SIERRA (1941), MOONTIDE (1942), ROAD HOUSE (1948), WOMAN IN HIDING (1950) and the undisputed genre classic ON DANGEROUS GROUND. Director of photography Nicholas Musuraca perfected the visual bedrock of the noir film with his mind-bendingly beautiful cinematography that distinguished director Jacques Tourneur's OUT OF THE PAST (1947). His most visually arresting work in this project comes at the concluding sequence at the docks, nicely illuminated to evoke suspense.

The basis for this review is the single-layered Blu-ray edition released by Kino Classics back in 2013, "Preserved by the Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation." Framing is at the correct theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1, though the packaging falsely indicates a 1.33:1 presentation.

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