Female Noir: The Hitch-Hiker (1953)
The story begins and we see a hitch-hiker getting into a car, only to witness the hitch-hiker later dumping the body of the driver and taking off in the stolen car.
Two men, Roy Collins (O'Brien) and Gil Bowen (Lovejoy), are on a hunting trip that takes them down to Mexico. It's uncertain what the boys are hunting for, as we see them cruising through a neon lit Mexican town full of dancing senoritas and dive bars.
When they come upon a man broken down on the side of the road, they stop to see if they can help him. It's Emmett Myers (Talman), a killer wanted for a murder spree. From the second he gets into the backseat, Myers is in charge, keeping the men alive only to drive him to his destination and mentally torturing them every mile of the way.
Whenever Myers gets tired, he pulls over to physically torture Roy and Gil, playing targets with beer cans and forcing friend to fire on friend.
Myers has a bad eye that won't close all the way. One night when they think he's asleep, the men try to get away, but it ends badly.
Myers is always playing mind games with them, especially when they stop for gas, and he threatens to kill a little girl. Bowen is particularly scared for the little girl's life.
U.S. and Mexican authorities are trying to track them down, but Myers stays one step ahead of them.
The Hitch-Hiker (1953), is a tense, stark thriller that takes the noir danger out of the seedy, darkened city streets and plants it on the road, in the middle of a blisteringly hot, sunny desert. The premise is as simple as it can be, and co-writer/director Ida Lupino milks it for every delicious drop of suspense she can.
Yes, Ida Lupino, the tough-as-nails ingenue of the 30's and 40's turned to writing, directing and producing when film roles started to slow up. She proved her no-nonsense screen persona was no act, and delivered films as hard hitting and shocking as any of her male contemporaries. (Belinda Balaski shared a great story about working with Lupino on the Bert Gordon movie Food of the Gods. She said every night Lupino would entertain the cast and crew around the hotel piano, but when her character said she wanted off the island, she meant it! Lupino left the production before all her scenes were finished filming and no one, neither Mr. B.I.G. nor a giant rat or chicken, was going to stop her!)
Ida Lupino directing Edmond O'Brien and Frank Lovejoy
For the era, it was uncommon for a woman director to work in the thriller genre. (I think just being a woman director in any genre was kind of uncommon too.) I do not know exactly what Lupino contributed to the screenplay (writing with her then husband Collier Young), but I think that it is interesting that, being co-written and directed by a woman, there are no female characters anywhere in the story, except for the little girl at the gas station.
Also, it was not common, and still not common, for a man to take two other men hostage, and then torture them. Nearly every thriller has a female protagonist. (Mario Bava's 1974 thriller Rabid Dogs comes to mind, but female characters were worked into the story.)
In any other movie, the killer would have taken a couple, a man and a woman, whether married or not, so the woman could later be used for scenes of peril. (Pasquale Festa Campanile's Hitch-Hike (1977), with Franco Nero, Corinne Clery and David Hess, for example.)
Talman plays the role of the perpetually sweaty road-psycho as menacingly as possible. O'Brien and Lovejoy are no push-overs, but they refuse to risk doing anything to jeopardize the life of the other. They are stuck, and scared to act. Some moments are downright uncomfortable, as they are pushed around and humiliated.
These little tweaks to the standard conventions of the thrillers of the day successfully elevate the uneasiness and tension of the situation. It is a thriller that maintains its tension beautifully throughout.
Although in public domain, it is an easy film to find streaming, but Kino Lorber offers what is probably the best looking copy available. If you're looking for a thriller that will kick you in the guts in 70 minutes or less, pick up The Hitch-Hiker.
William Talman, Frank Lovejoy and Edmond O'Brien.