Director Ida Lupino deserves to be mentioned alongside the greats like Alfred Hitchcock. Lupino conquered almost all the filmed mediums of the day, acting for television and movies, as well as directing for screens big and small. Sadly, her name is known to only die-hard film buffs, and hopefully releases of her work will propel her to the prominence she so richly deserves. Her directorial début is this 1950s thriller where the fear is relateable to anyone who gets behind the wheel of a car. Just because hitchhiking is out of fashion doesn’t mean you shouldn’t fear strangers as this movie proves.
Emmett Meyers (William Talman) is a serial killer who needs to get into Mexico. Before he reaches the border he takes two fishermen hostage with the intent of killing them after they’re of no use. With that, the two men become desperate to escape this sociopath before they meet their demise.
The Hitch-Hiker sets itself up as a social drama with its brief foray into documentary style and opening narration to connect the characters to the audience. Lupino pulls no punches in emphasizing what a monster Emmett Meyers is, as we see portions of the dead bodies he’s left in his wake. When he stumbles upon Roy (Edmond O’Brien) and Gilbert (Frank Lovejoy), the audience shudders with the fear of what’s to come. Emmett pulls no punches and tells them they have an expiration date, and he isn’t afraid to pull the trigger. Emmett Meyers is probably one of the most sadistic characters in a 1950s movie I’ve seen. Talman plays the character with cold indifference, and able to foretell his two hostages every move. He literally has one eye open constantly, partially the result of a physical impediment. When one of the men believes he’ll be able to escape as Emmett sleeps, it’s jarring to see Emmett still awake, in some capacity. In case you’re unaware of how evil the man is, he kills a dog with no remorse; the sign of a true sociopath in my opinion.
The movie’s brief 71-minute runtime helps place events in real-time. As the clock winds down, you’re left just as fearful for the two mens’ lives as they are. You live every moment alongside Roy and Gilbert, questioning which minute will be their last. As the characters move deeper into Mexico, the audience is left to flounder with character speaking in Spanish and subtitles unavailable. This is possibly Lupino emphasizing how out-of-place and unaware we become upon entering a foreign land. The joint investigation with the Mexican police department shows them off as caring, compassionate, and swift in their deliverance of justice. The capture of Emmett Meyers becomes an international effort, and probably one of the first times I’ve witnessed Hispanic characters being benevolent and modern, particularly in 1953 when movies generalized Hispanic populations as backward, stupid, or period-era bandits.
Several of the scenes are downright beautiful and imbue sequences with a metaphysical quality; this isn’t just the story of two men being drug through the desert. A message of secular faith runs throughout the movie. A little girl tugs on Emmett’s sleeve, and almost dies herself, only to have Roy pull her away with a message of “God go with you” in Spanish. Later on, when it’s believed they’ll be saved, the desperation coming off the men is palpable, leaving them to pray for salvation. The realism here is necessary. You have to connect with these men, and it’s understandable that faith isn’t inherent in both of them. Their characters become nuanced through their mutual belief in something, whether it’s God or justice. Emmett himself is the Devil in the flesh; a demonic entity testing their faith, no matter where it lies.
Kino’s DVD is fantastic, especially considering this is another film widely available in the public domain. The bonus content is almost non-existent, though, so you’ll need to love the movie if you purchase this. There is an image gallery which includes promotional material used during the movie’s marketing. I love elements like this as it’s preserving a style of promotion we don’t see anymore. There’s also trailers for past Kino releases: Night Tide, White Zombie, and The Stranger.
Ida Lupino proves directing is a genderless medium. For 1953, who would have believed a woman could direct a gritty, violent tale of murder, mayhem, and salvation? The acting is well-done, even though William Talman’s evil Emmett Meyers is the stand-out. The brisk runtime and pathos to the characters makes this a must-watch for fans of film noir or suspense.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.