"The Hitch-hiker" is a largely forgotten and overlooked gem in the thriller/film-noir genre. It is also Ida Lupino's best directorial effort for the big screen. For years, Lupino graced the silver screen as an actress, most notably in "They Drive by Night" and "High Sierra" (both with Bogart). In the late 1940s, Lupino formed her own production company, The Filmakers with producer/writer husband Collier Young.
The movie follows a pair of war vets, Edmond O'Brien and Frank Lovejoy who get some R and R from their wives to go fishing, and sneak off to Mexicali to troll for dames along the way. As you might well guess, they pick up even worse trouble in the form of hitchhiker Emmett Myers, played with a menacing edge by William Talman.
Myers forces the two to provide safe passage in their beat-up car down the Baja California peninsula to Santa Rosalia, where he can catch a ferry to the Mexico mainland.
The ride along the way is a harrowing trip, the suspense notched up by Young and Collier's excellent screenwriting. Daniel Mainwaring adds a lot of excellent noir dialogue in his uncredited contribution.
While O'Brien gives his usual competent good guy performance, Lovejoy and Talman really make this movie. Lovejoy gives this movie its heart: We sympathize with his character when he attempts to protect and reassure a little Mexican girl when the three stop at a dry goods store to stock up on groceries. Talman plays the killer Myers a bit off-kilter, his lean, elongated figure dominating the other two, his lazy, all-seeing eye holding them hostage while Myers yet sleeps. Talman's powerful performance looks forward to Rutger Hauer's portrayal in Robert Harmon's 1984 "The Hitcher" and Dennis Hopper in most everything he's been in since "Blue Velvet."
What most rings true with "The Hitch-hiker" is Lupino's use of actual shooting locations as opposed to set backdrops, and the cinema verite feel she gives in having her Mexican actors -- most importantly, the DF trooper who hunts down Myers -- speak in Spanish, without subtitles and without caricature. It almost has a documentary feel.
But what really makes this movie gel is RKO's sterling crew, which Lupino hired to put this movie together. One of the reasons this movie has more of a 1940s than 1950s feel is the unparalleled cinematography of Nicholas Musaraca, who was cameraman for many of RKO's best productions, most notably "Cat People" and "Out of the Past" (both directed by Jacques Tourneur). Who else but Musaraca could make a workaday Plymouth sedan appear so dominating and intimidating at it looms over the lonely dirt roads of the Mexican back country?
Musaraca's use of key lighting and deep shadows to heighten the tension really have you sitting on the edge of your seat, as does Leith Stevens' brass-heavy scoring, brimming over with trumpets as a counterpart to the car's horn and string basses portending doom with what legendary movie composer David Raksin called "fifthboding."
C. Bakaleinikoff, the great unsung conductor of RKO's soundtracks, directs with his characteristic Sturm und Drang he used in "Out of the Past" and Hitchcock's "Notorious" (1946).
Sound technicians Roy Meadows and Clem Portman mix the score, sound effects and dialogue superbly, employing a rich bass and a full, robust midrange. Characteristic of 1940s and 50s sound, you can identify every line of dialogue without any neck craning. Compare that with today's special effects extravaganzas, full of Foley effects and swoosh and clang aural graituity, in which most whispers are yet barely audible. Try as they might, today's Hollywood still can't produce a film comparable in technical consistency to the old studio system.
Personally, I rank "The Hitch-hiker" in my Top 10 favorite noir movies of all time. It belongs in such august company as "Double Indemnity," "DOA," "White Heat" and "Out of the Past."