“This is the true story of a man and a gun and a car.”
Masquerading as fact and closely adhering to the frankness of the opening title card, The Hitch-Hiker is sensational in its simplicity, conveying a detached, mechanical violence that smothers the flames of film noir’s romantic predispositions. Isolating the genre’s all-encompassing dread, director Ida Lupino exploits the paranoia and abject cruelty of our eponymous boogeyman, sneaking in a subtextual condemnation of masculinity that extols feminism through its absence of female characters. The finished product is a shrewd and succinct white-knuckler, triggering sweat-soaked panic via brutish games of dominance and agonizing pleas for survival.
Shot at ground level and carrying an ominous tune, the commencement only reveals the boots of the aggressor, capturing the sound of his pistol and the spring in his step as he extinguishes innocent lives. Our first visual introduction to Emmett Myers (William Talman) feels like a slap in the face, his paralyzed right eye and grizzled chin spinning towards us on a newspaper front page, flanked by the particulars of a criminal life that reads like an athlete’s stat sheet. Migrating south with plans to capitalize on the anonymity of Mexico’s seaside villages, Myers hitches a ride to San Felipe with two war buddies, warning his unsuspecting captives of the bounty of “dead heroes” littering the road behind them. As he leans in from the backseat, brandishing a loaded revolver, his face radiates as if hit by an interrogation lamp, symbolizing the figurative prison that ensnares the hard-bitten and barbarous.
Quarantined to the confines of a vehicle, the film spends the entirety of its 70-minute runtime on the road, keeping the tension at a boil as the tires kick up rocky gravel from the bone-dry desert floor. Editor Douglas Stewart acts as an accessory to the blistering pace, making sharp, abrupt cuts that maintain the overarching sense of anxiety, stealthily shifting from the first-person POV of a shotgun sight to the wrist of the shooter wiping sweat from his eyes. The use of expressive edits and images fills in the gaps left by the minimalistic scenario, employing shots of furrowed brows and trembling hands to uncover emotion excluded from the dialogue.
Shadow also plays a key role in conveying the desperation of each man’s struggle to endure, focusing on the thin, skeletal shape of their depleted bodies as they strike a silhouette on the vast wasteland. As the film leaves the relative safety of the car and ventures on foot toward the ocean, a grim logic comes into play, stressing the practicality of selfishness in the face of certain demise. Despite the stark pragmatism of the presentation, the unbearable torment takes on a certain poetic quality, reflected by the gentle strum of guitar on the soundtrack and the dirt-strewn faces of the victimized, certain only of death’s inevitability, oblivious to the exact moment they’ll topple into the void.
The Hitch-Hiker (RKO Radio Pictures, 1953)
Directed by Ida Lupino
Written by Daniel Mainwaring (story), Robert L. Joseph (adaptation), Ida Lupino (screenplay) and Collier Young (screenplay)
Photographed by Nicholas Musuraca