From December of 1950 to January of 1951, 23-year-old Billy Cook went on a killing spree between Missouri and California, often forcing his victims to drive aimlessly for hours or days before shooting them. Frequently overlooked in this case, however, is the involvement of Homer Waldrip, a deputy the young killer allowed to live. In Ida Lupino’s 1953 film The Hitch-Hiker, William Talman plays Emmett Myersis, a petty criminal modeled after Cook, who had since been executed, and one with the same capacity for both terrifying brutality and intermittent kindness. Notable in the film noir canon for both a lack of chiaroscuro and for being the first of the genre to be helmed by a woman, the film is an efficient, microcosmic examination of humanity under duress and how depravity illuminates the not always obvious distinction between cowardice and resilience.
Myers is already wanted for multiple murders when fishing buddies Roy (Edmond O’Brien) and Gil (Frank Lovejoy) offer him a ride, their vacation suddenly mutated into a living nightmare. Much like his real-life counterpart (and sporting the same bad eye), Myers is a trigger-happy madman whose penchant for cruelty is offset by glimpses of lingering humanity, from the granting of a final meal to the existential terror he exudes when he finally realizes he’s trapped. An early, offhand crack about his hostage’s professions (“That makes you the smart one!”) frames the events to follow as the logical result of a bankrupt culture that values people by their economic worth.
This examination of middle and lower-class struggle is rendered with admirable subtlety, and is further compounded by Roy and Gil’s briefly noted status as veterans. These issues serve as a psychological undercurrent as the film thrums with a slow-burning, stark realism, one that goes so for as to completely abstain from subtitles for the not-insubstantial Spanish dialogue—lending greater dimension to Myers’s fearful intolerance of languages he doesn’t speak. The script’s habitual cutaways to the mounting police search negate some of the otherwise breathless tension, but The Hitch-Hiker’s tightly focused deconstruction of the survival instinct and trio of excellent performances more than offset such minor shortcomings, culminating in one of classic noir’s more potent chamber pieces.
The source material for this disc has its share of minor print damage, but black levels and film grain are sumptuous, and this gritty look rather befits the film in question; your mileage may vary, but speaking as a former projectionist, its aesthetic joys are hard to beat for a film of this age and nature. The mono sound mix is similarly representative of the film’s low-budget roots, occasionally fluctuating in quality (it’s hard to tell if it’s damage to the soundtrack or inconsistencies resultant of dubbing), but otherwise doing justice to a film in which silence is as terrifying as a killer’s flaring temper.
Kino’s barebones release of this brutal noir will leave fans high and dry in the special-features department, but given her no-frills approximation of exhaustive terror, director Ida Lupina would likely approve.