The discussion over what is and what isn’t a horror movie is one that we’ve rubbed up against over countless Shocktobers and is, quite frankly, a little boring. That said, we’d be lying if we didn’t admit that Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-hiker is a little closer to the noir or thriller genres than horror, but we wanted a reason to talk about Lupino regardless. With Dorothy Arzner’s retirement in the mid-1940s, Ida Lupino became the most prominent female Hollywood director of the ’50s, while this was the first film noir directed by a woman during the genre’s golden age. It also happens to have a very scary antagonist at the heart of it who — horror villain or not — shows that a woman director could send an audience home just as unnerved as any man could.
The Hitch-hiker opens with some sober text declaring: “This is the true story of a man and a gun a car.” This is a nod to the fact that the film was based on the real-life killing spree of Billy Cook, who in 1950 murdered several people after riding along with them across Southern California. After we see a few onscreen robberies and killings along the highway, some newspaper headlines declare Emmett Myers (played by William Talman) is the prime suspect in these killings. We then meet two friends, Roy (Edmund O’Brien) and Gilbert (Frank Lovejoy), who are driving through California toward a fishing trip in Mexico. While driving along a dirt road, they come across a man whose car seems to have broken down, so they offer him a lift. Shortly after the man gets in the car, with his face obscured by shadow, he whips out a revolver and demands that they do what he says.
Once the man reveals his face, we see that he is indeed Emmett Myers, who we saw on the front page of the newspapers chronicling his crimes. As Emmett tells the other passengers to keep on driving toward Mexico, we hear on the radio what the news is saying about this developing story and what the authorities are planning to do to thwart Myers. We also have a few scenes out in the desert where Myers tests Roy and Gilbert’s ability to refrain from turning on him, as the only thing keeping them in check is the gun Myers has pointed at them. Since Roy works as a mechanic, he figures out how to slyly make it so that the car breaks down, but Myers still insists on keeping them as hostages while the U.S. and Mexican police are hot on their trail.
The first thing you have to respect about this movie is how free of bullshit it is. At 71 minutes, it holds on tightly to its thesis of being a movie simply about a man and a gun and a car. Every scene is fairly straight to the point, and while Roy and Gilbert are clearly intent on getting out of this situation, it’s almost as if they see the ruthlessness in Myers’ face and so they know there’s no point in reasoning with him. In a longer movie, you could imagine much stagier scenes, where Myers and his captives argue back and forth, moralizing about whether or not this is a completely doomed venture. But instead, the movie focuses more on their faces, the barrenness of the desert, and the fact that Myers ain’t afraid to use that gun of his.
Speaking of Myers, even though we don’t get to know a ton about him, William Talman has such a distinctive, grizzled face that you know immediately that he’s a villain. One touch that the movie gives him is that he’s unable to close one of his eyelids, so even when he’s sleeping, he always has one eye open. This of course is emphasized in a scene late in the movie where three main characters are camped out and Myers has seemingly fallen asleep with one eye open, so Roy and Gilbert make a run for it. It’s this attribute, combined with the fact that Myers feels far more menacing than any noir heavy, that the character feels very much like a horror movie villain, even if he’s not quite in a horror movie.
One thing I mentioned back in Criterion month was an affinity for films that are very much about men, but are directed by women. I would easily put The Hitch-hiker in this category, although I’m not sure there’s a ton in this film that would indicate that the movie wasn’t directed by a man. I suppose the only thing that (literally) sticks out is how much the camera focuses on the gun that Myers has constantly pointed at the victims of his escape plan. It gives this all too common weapon a newfound phallic significance, as Myers’ toughness combined with the firearm is really the only thing keeping his alpha status and this ill-intentioned adventure alive.