In The Hitch-Hiker, Ida Lupino upends the noir genre, playing on the fear of everyday Americans. Roy Collins (Edmon O’Brien) and Gilbert Bowen (Frank Lovejoy) are two friends on their way to Mexico for a fishing trip when they’re taken hostage by Emmet Myers (William Talman), a criminal on the run. A simple story, but a mesmerizing film nonetheless, due in part to Lupino’s maneuvers as a director.
The film begins with a message, stating: “This is the true story of a man and a gun and a car. The gun belonged to the man. The car might have been yours or that young couple across the aisle. What you will see in the next seventy minutes could have happened to you. For the facts are actual.” In the ensuing opening, Lupino seems to suggest that not only can the victims be anyone, but so too the arbiters of violence. She masks the hitchhiker, placing him in the shadows of interiors, filming him from the waist below, or as in one of the film’s most striking images, filming just his hand holding a gun—a synecdoche of terror.
The thrill of The Hitch-Hiker doesn’t arise from watching a story of far-off characters with misaligned morals—femme-fatales, corrupt policemen, and the like—but rather, in the film’s construction of identity between its characters and the audience. Roy and Gilbert are ordinary, good men, making Emmet’s harassment all the more anxiety-inducing. Talman as the villain excels in this latter quality. He brings an unpredictable fury to the character and could be described as a precedent to Dennis Hopper’s equally sadistic role as Frank Booth in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986).
At one point in the film, Emmet subjects Roy and Gilbert to a William Tell-esque game. Forcing Roy to hold a bottle, Emmet holds a shooting competition between himself and Gilbert. The score, provided by Leith Stevens, throbs and bristles in the background, an accompaniment of strings adding to the tension. Lupino, too, joins in, providing a shot-reverse-shot of the three men, taking up a first-person view angle of Gilbert’s view down the barrel of the rifle before, finally, pulling her own trigger on the suspense.
Barbara Loden reportedly once said, “It is easy to be avant-garde but it is really difficult to tell a simple story well,” a credo Lupino follows here. The formality of her creativity isn’t restricting so much as they free Lupino to plunge into the psychological depth of her audience, reveling in their fear.