The Hitchhiker is a taut, edgy affair from the classic “Film-noir” era, and one of the few examples of the genre to be directed by a woman.
The plot sees two friends, Roy Collins (Edmund O'Brien) and Gilbert Bowen (Frank Lovejoy) heading off to Mexico on a fishing trip, only to be hijacked by fugitive serial killer Emmett Myers (William Talman). He needs them alive because, unlike them, he does not speak "Mexican", and a deadly cat-and-mouse game unfolds as Myers bullies, tortures and provokes the two men. Can they keep their cool and escape before they are no longer useful to him?
Although some Film Noir movies were proper Hollywood productions with A-list stars, many more were shot cheaply and quickly for smaller scale studios, and as a result, made a virtue of their limitations. The Hitchhiker is a great example of this, eschewing elaborate sets for the wide-open desert spaces of California, and with no time or money to waste, the script moves quickly, with barely a word or scene feeling extraneous.
By the 1950s, Ida Lupino was an established, respected actress who had moved into writing, producing, and directing, and deserves recognition as one of the pioneers of feminist cinema (although, interestingly, in this film, there are no female characters shown at all). Here, in her fourth outing behind the camera, she makes great use of the desert locations, and far from representing freedom, the wide-open spaces, when juxtaposed with the tiny car the characters are trapped with, only emphasise the claustrophobia of the situation.
Aside from the locations, the real star of the show is William Talman. His ferociously evil and sleazy performance as Myers is underpinned with some original character touches, such his paralysed right eye lid, the upshot of which is that he sleeps with one eye open, daring his captives to guess whether or not he is watching them. This is typical of the mind games that he plays with the other two, designed to slowly but surely break them. However, this is not a one-note performance, and Myer’s cockiness repeatedly shifts to paranoia whenever he needs his captives to act as translators, the one time when he is completely in their power, and that, combined with his itchy trigger finger leads to some very tense moments.
Film Noir usually revolves around crime, and the protagonists are either those who are involved with it professionally, such as cops, detectives or crooks, or, as here, ordinary people who are unwittingly dragged into it, often as a result of a completely random event. These two are not macho tough guys, but utterly normal individuals, family men ("Except for the war, this is the first time I've been away from the kids") who normally do very little that could be considered adventurous.
Their friendship is their greatest asset morally, and their compassion and empathy for each other and the other human beings that they encounter along the way is the major thing that sets them apart from their low life tormentor. It is also, however, the thing that on several occasions sabotages their chances of escape, as they both seem unable to leave the other person behind in order to save their own lives
The ending feels like a bit of an anti-climax, but that is more a reflection on the intensity of what has gone on before, and does not spoil what is an excellent piece of Film-Noir that deserves its place alongside more well-known examples.