The Hitch-Hiker is lazily labelled a film noir; it’s more of a straightforward thriller- for one thing, it lacks any woman, let alone a femme fatale.
Based on real-life murderer Billy Cook (even down to his eye deformity), two men (Edmund O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy) are driving to Mexico when they naively give a ride to a hitchhiker (William Talman, intensely creepy), who holds them at gunpoint and psychologically tortures them.
The story is fodder for a slasher film and is not per se of much interest. The interest is in director Ida Lupino- the only woman to direct an authentic film noir. Lupino has a natural instinct for filmmaking; the story may be generic but it’s taut and engaging.
Early on in the film, we see her eye for a great shot with a bold close up of the hitchhiker’s gun pointing directly at the audience. You’ll definitely pay attention after that opener.
It’s one of the most literally shadowy films I’ve seen; you’ll struggle to see anything in the car or in the finale. That will certainly put some viewers off but it feels authentic; they are in a car after all. And when the two men are dumped in a Mexican desert, it’s suddenly a bright open expanse that is as desolate as any urban setting.
The film is essentially a three-hander but Lupino avoids staginess. It’s small scale but cinematic.
It’s also impressive how Lupino has directed (and co-written) a film so overtly masculine. There’s no obvious ‘woman’s touch’ or another cliché, softening out the brutality to make it more palatable- simply a talented filmmaker working with thin material because institutionalised racism in Hollywood meant she never got the chance to make a classic.