Ida Lupino’s minimalist noir film The Hitch-Hiker may come to us through some fault in the space-time continuum. Its technical placement in 1953 is backed up by its solid black-and-white cinematography and by its inspiration, the then-contemporary Billy Cook murder spree. (Also by reality, if we’re going to get picky.) But while it may look like ’50s film noir, it doesn’t feel like it.
The plot–concerning two friends who pick up a spree-killing hitchhiker who, over the course of a few tense days, wears them down with constant terror and a kind of bullying unpleasantness–feels like a dispatch from the ’70s, lean and relentlessly paced and imbued with a dread that wavers back and forth between the psychological and the existential. As the friend I watched this with pointed out, it often deceptively feels like the movie is unfolding in real time: when the malicious, self-pitying Myers (William Talman) finally walks far enough away for his two hostages, Collins (Edmond O’Brien) and Bowen (Frank Lovejoy), to frantically confer with each other, you realize with a jolt that they haven’t had the chance to have an unguarded conversation this whole time. You share their feeling of seizing the all-too-short moment of planning and camaraderie.
The film’s sensibilities are also incredibly modern. The movie is set in Mexico and the U.S. Southwest, and many of the supporting characters–ordinary gas station owners, shopkeepers, bartenders–our leads encounter are Latino; the Mexican police also ably coordinate with their American counterparts to track down Myers and even (crucially) provide him with misleading information over the radio. There’s a good deal of casual, untranslated Spanish–not peppered in for flavoring, but whole exchanges. The characters and their language are strikingly unmarked, treated as part of a commonplace reality in a way that’s still fairly unusual now and must have been extraordinary in 1953.
Myers treats this casually existing Southwestern fusion culture with disdain and anger, not only racist but ragingly insecure and paranoid about his inability to speak or understand the slightest bit of “Mexican.” Now, the racist villain is a genre staple, a way to heap awfulness on a character, but usually that’s either sadistic and brutal or else thrown in very casually, with the pointed dropping of some slur. The Hitch-Hiker, unusually, doesn’t allow Myers any kind of larger-than-life evil grandeur, in this area or any other, and his racism works as a much more subtle characterization point, tagging him not just as generically “bad” but as incurious (you would almost have to actively try to know this little Spanish), jumpy, petty, and out-of-his-depth. It’s handled surprisingly gracefully.
What else? The film also has a tremendous sense of empty desert landscape, putting it in good company with a few other Western noirs and prefiguring American car culture thrillers like Duel, where the sheer amount of hostile open space is key. There are some great off-putting touches, like the way Myers’s partly paralyzed eyelid means he never completely closes that eye while sleeping, which leads to Collins and Bowen not being able to tell if he’s safely asleep or not. And there are multiple great suspense sequences, although my favorite might be the gratuitously cruel one where Myers, anxious to show off, forces Bowen into a vile riff on William Tell, where being just a hair off would result in him killing his friend.
All in all, a gripping and unusual thriller that’s made me eager to seek out more of Lupino’s directorial work, as her sensibility–showing here in not only the direction but also in the writing–is clearly an interesting and sophisticated one.
The Hitch-Hiker is streaming for free on Amazon Prime. And also a lot of other places, since it’s in the public domain.