This film from the 50s was a quality surprise. Oftentimes older films can come across as stale or boring to modern day audiences. This story, however, was well made and the era in which it was created played no factor in the overall enjoyment of the film itself. The film grabs the audience’s attention and doesn’t let go until the end of the very last scene.
The beginning montage of the ‘Hitch-Hiker’ Killer’s exploits lays a solid foundation for the movie. The radio and newspapers all warn against picking up any and all hitch-hikers due to the rampant killings from this infamous murderer.
Enter Roy and Gilbert, friends on their way to an out-of-town fishing trip. Despite the constant warnings, the two friends decide to help a stranger who seems to be having some car trouble. Unfortunately for them they chose to stop for… the one and only Hitch-Hiker Killer. No sooner than they ask about his car trouble does he pull a gun on them. Needless to say, there was instant regret.
The two men are soon settled in the car with their new ride companion Emmett Myers, a.k.a. the Hitch-Hiker Killer. Although in the presence of this man and knowing all that he has done; the two men seem to be more annoyed with Emmett rather than afraid of what he might do. During one moment shortly after Emmett’s entrance, Gilbert is nonchalantly snacking in the passenger seat with a gun pointed at his back. This lack of fear makes it difficult for the audience to be afraid of Emmett, though of course they are wary of him throughout but never afraid.
Where the audience’s expectations were somewhat underwhelmed with the fear, or lack thereof, a pleasant surprise was the attention to detail. Emmett consistently thinks through his actions and seems to know what to do to ensure that he remains out of custody and in control of the situation. Many films make mistakes in this area, and it results in questions being asked and holes being poked in the plot.
For example, when Roy and Gilbert wanted to cut the radio wire so Emmett wouldn’t know if the cops were on their trail; he was one step ahead of them and told them not to before they even had a chance. The attention to detail continued when the police were looking for Myers. The police force was smart and highly proactive about the search. All of these elements helped to create a very believable cinematic world.
At this point, Emmett hasn’t been in the story very long and he seems to just be a mindless killer in the backseat. Until, he has Roy pull the car over and engages them in a game. Having Roy hold up a can about 20 feet away, Emmett has Gilbert shoot it out of his hands with a rifle. This is a beautifully haunting scene, as Gilbert tries to refuse to shoot, but is forced to while being held at gunpoint by Emmett. These events really help the audience get a better glimpse into the person that Emmett is and the way his mind works.
Another scene that really stands out is when Roy screams at the top of his lungs at a plane flying overhead. This came right after a low-flying helicopter zoomed above, and Emmett had everyone lay down around the brush. So when Roy gets up and screams at this plane, the audience’s emotions are divided with one part being happy that they might be saved and the other part is scared that Emmett will shoot Roy. The next few cringe-inducing seconds are spent waiting for a bullet to take down Roy, but the bullet never comes. After Roy yells, we see Emmett’s face as he watches Roy desperately try to get the plane’s attention. He doesn’t jump to his feet in rage; he sits back calmly and just chuckles to himself. Emmett knows the plane is far too high to hear or see them, so he lets Roy scream until the feeling of hopelessness falls over him.
Every time the audience wants Roy and Gilbert to escape, they remember how Emmett is perceived. He is a ruthless killer, and the two men didn’t want to risk their lives or get anyone else involved. If they did try to escape; it is revealed that Emmett has a bum eye, which doesn’t close, so the two men wouldn’t be able to tell if he is asleep or awake. The film’s continuous creative elements to explain certain points that otherwise could’ve become plot holes were impressive.
The peak of the film came to fruition when Emmett secures a boat ride to his destination. By now Emmett knows there is a good chance that people are looking for him in this town. He decides that he stands a better chance at making it to the boat successfully, if he changes clothes with Roy. His hope is, of course, that Roy will be mistaken for himself. His plan works, at least for a moment, as the police fire some shots at Roy, before realizing they have the wrong man. Jose, the man that Emmett procured the boat ride from, saw a “wanted” poster for Emmett in town. Because of this, there was a large group of cops waiting at the dock for the three men. When Emmett notices that the cops are there; Gilbert takes advantage of his lack of attention to hit the gun out of his hands. They continue to fight until Gilbert finally knocks the gun off the deck and into the water. This is a powerful scene; when Emmett loses his gun, it truly resonates with what Roy said earlier of how Myers only has power because of the gun and without it he would be weak. So it is fitting, and somewhat poetic justice that Emmett is detained by the cops only moments after losing his ‘power’.
As the police slap the cuffs on his wrists, Emmett starts to realize that there is nowhere to run and he has been caught. He makes one final attempt at escape, but cannot get far from the cop’s grasp. Emmett looks up and sees Roy and Gilbert standing nearby, as they watch him walk away in custody.
Although the characters are clearly defined, and we know what each one wants to achieve; there is a strong yearning for background information. The audience is never too sure where Emmett comes from, why he does what he does or what makes him tick. Essentially for all the characters involved, if it isn’t something we can tell by looking at them, we wouldn’t figure it out. This could have a lot to do with the 70-minute time constraint on the film, or perhaps it was decided that time was better spent using action scenes with suspense.
The Hitch-Hiker: Lupino’s Turn at Film Noir and the Male Psyche
By Colette Finkbiner
Ida Lupino was one of the few female directors working in Hollywood during the height of the film noir era of the 40s and 50s. Film noir’s dark and brooding look had its roots in the German Expressionist artistic movement from the 20s. Many expressionist filmmakers moved to Hollywood in the 30s for better opportunities and to escape growing Nazi power. With these filmmakers came the expressionistic, shadowy, visual look familiar to film noir. In America, expressionist visual ideas meshed with the hard-boiled crime and detective genre made popular in the 30s by writers such as Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Mickey Spillane. The criminals were the worst of the worst (the child murderer in Fritz Lang’s M), the detectives were flawed and violent (Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer) and the women were often scheming femme fatales (Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity). Lupino, a veteran actress of film noir herself (for roles like Lily Stevens in Road House), became interested in creating her own film that would take on the genre from a different angle.
The Hitch-Hiker script was written by Lupino, Collier Young and Robert L. Joseph. At the start of the film, the viewer is informed that the story is based on true facts. (The story was loosely based on serial killer Billy Cook.) The film’s tone is very much true film noir. A gun is shot off-screen as an unseen woman screams. We see a cop discovering a couple murdered in a car.
Another familiar tactic of the genre is the news flash. We see a montage of newspaper headlines warning about the Hitch-Hiker Slayer as a radio announcement is made over the images. The set-up is fast, mysterious (we don’t see the victims’ faces or the killer’s face) and direct – there is a serial killer on the highway. The music is dark and intense. We flash to another dead body on the side of the road. The killer remains in the shadows.
In contrast to the urban crimescape of most film noir, Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker occurs on the open road. We meet Gilbert Bowen and Roy Collins from Arizona as they are driving through the American Southwest. They have told their wives they are going hunting in the Chocolate Mountains of Southern California. Instead, they decide to head to Mexicali and then fishing in Baja. The men are lit up in their car by the daylight. Once they drive through Mexicali, the scene is night and darkness prevails. They see a man on the side of the road and offer him a lift. From the shadows, the hitch-hiker pulls a gun and finally we see the face of Emmett Myers, the Hitch-Hiker Slayer.
As he orders them to keep driving through the desert, tension rises. He takes their wallets and keeps a gun pointed at them. Myers announces he wants to go to Santa Rosalia, which is 500 miles away. We know these men are in for a long trip.
The set-up of Myers as a psychopath happens quickly with small details and actions. He starts by separating Bowen and Collins by perceived intellectual worth. Collins is a mechanic. Bowen is a draftsman. Myers calls Bowen “smart guy.” He decides to play against Collins’s feeling of fragile self-worth.
Myers has them pull over. He shoots at a rabbit – not necessarily to kill it but because it was there. He orders Collins to place a can on a rock and stand close to it. He hands Bowen a rifle and tells him to shoot the can. Bowen is able to shoot the can without harming his friend. Next, Myers has Collins hold the can in his hand. As he sweats, Bowen is ordered to shoot the can again. Myers laughs at him and tells him “it’s just a game.” Bowen successfully hits the can again.
Listening to the radio, the two friends learn that they indeed have picked up the Hitch-Hiker Slayer. He informs them that they’ll die too; it’s just a matter of when. They also learn he has a “bum” eye that never quite closes, so they can never be sure when he is asleep and make an escape.
As the men journey through Mexico, Myers proves his inherent anti-intellectualism and prejudice. He becomes angry when Bowen speaks Spanish with local Mexicans because he himself cannot speak Spanish and doesn’t know what Bowen may be saying. He uses epithets that clearly disturb Bowen. Later, we have a glimpse of Myers’s backstory. As he looks at Bowen’s watch, he remarks that he once had a similar watch. He says, “Nobody gave it. I took it.” He calls the two men “soft” because they are “suckers” and always had it easy. He expresses bitterness toward his parents and feels powerful pointing a gun at others.
The men realize they will survive only if the killer doesn’t think the police know where he is. Unfortunately, they have been missed. They hear a news report that the killer is believed to be in Mexico and the men are missing. The two friends plan to disconnect the radio wire in an effort to buy more time.
The psychopathy of the killer is illustrated further when, having forced the men to break a gas pump lock, he shoots a barking dog. Little does he realize that Bowen took the opportunity to leave behind his engraved wedding ring, which becomes key to their later discovery. Still, Collins is becoming increasingly angry and panicked. He wants to jump the killer. Bowen, however, feels they should be cautious.
Collins decides to bolt later that night. Reluctantly, Bowen joins him. It seems they will make it until Collins injures his ankle. He orders Bowen to go, but Bowen refuses to leave his friend. Myers catches up with them and nearly runs them over with the car. He clearly still needs the men. But for how long?
In the daylight, Myers orders them to stop near an old mining shaft. He again plays with his prey by ordering Collins to throw a rock into the shaft to see how deep it is. He informs them they will have one last meal. While they tensely eat, they hear that authorities have changed the search. Myers decides the men can still be useful to him. Matters change when Collins informs him that the car’s crank case is cracked and they are going nowhere. Myers says they will hike.
As the men hike through the dusty desert, Collins struggles with his injured ankle. The men see a plane fly overhead. Collins yells at the plane and collapses in frustration. Myers laughs at him, while Bowen comforts his friend. Myers further singles out Collins for slow torture once they reach the bay. He forces Collins to switch clothing with him.
After asking at a bar about a ferry, Myers arranges with a local man to rent a boat later that night. Bowen and Collins know their time is limited and uncertain. The killer taunts them about how they stick together when either one could have run off separately.
The tension ramps up as night arrives and the men make their way to the dock. Myers orders Collins, who is still wearing the killer’s clothing, to go first. Collins is his human shield. Myers and Bowen follow. From the shadows, a gun barrel shoots. Collins yells as Bowen struggles for the killer’s gun. Once handcuffed, Myers reveals his weakness by struggling and screaming. Collins begins hitting him, but Bowen stops him and calmly leads Collins away.
With The Hitch-Hiker, Lupino brought a different tenor to the genre. We see no femme fatale. The detectives are merely outliers. We see the power of friendship between two men as they struggle to survive a kidnapping. The killer acts alone and kills for no grand or organized reason other than that he can. At a time when men were expected to be hardboiled, Lupino turned the camera on the frail psyches of three men.
Three Horizons Productions is a team of independent filmmakers who want to develop, acquire, and produce multi-media projects that showcase inspirational themes, compelling stories, and provocative characters to entertain or educate international audiences. Three Horizons Productions, located in Arizona, has a global outreach.