With a deformed eye and the words Hard Luck tattooed on his fingers, Billy Cook went around America hitching rides and killing the drivers, taking six lives over a 22 day period before being tracked down by the authorities. Cook is the subject of The Hitch-Hiker a landmark noir directed by Ida Lupino. Not only was it her directorial debut (she's generally known for acting in gritty films, like Nicholas Ray's On Dangerous Ground), but it was the first noir with a women behind the camera. The fact that she chose such a frightening and bold story that's also based on fact only makes it all the more impressive.
It's a pretty sparse film, a road noir with only three characters: Roy (Edmond O'Brien) and Gilbert (Frank Lovejoy), two buddies out on a camping trip, and Emmet, the killer who hitches a ride and proceeds to hold them hostage as they trek down to Mexico. O'Brien and Lovejoy are pretty indistinguishable actors, mainly playing small roles in these types of movies their whole careers (you may remember Lovejoy from another Nicholas Ray film, the great In a Lonely Place). While competent for sure, they're also a little bland, which actually serves this film particularly well. These two aren't heroes, but average family men, reacting to the situation like any normal person would. They're timid and afraid, desperate to just make it home alive.
The ordinary nature of these two actors also helps to emphasize the completely unique quality of Emmet. He's played by William Talman, a terrifying looking actor with a gritty, twisted face and menacing eyes. He fits the physical requisites for a noir villain to a T; his almost inhuman appearance is perfectly juxtaposed with the plainness of his two victims. That Talman never found his way into anything other than B-Westerns and Noirs is actually pretty surprising.
Most of The Hitch-Hiker consists of Roy and Gilbert in the front seats of the car with Emmet directing them at gunpoint from the back seat. Often he's calculating and practical in his commands, as when he tells them to turn on the radio to catch the police reports, or exchanges his clothes with Roy to remain inconspicuous. But other times his truly maniacal nature comes through, as during a great scene in which they stop desolate desert area and he forces Gilbert to shoot a can out of Roy's hand from a distance.
Credit Lupino for having such a good sense of how to handle suspense with so little to work with. It's such a bold, sinister piece of work that could have easily veered into pulp horror but instead just maintains tight suspense through simplicity. She bothers with little exposition (though there is one scene in which Emmet explains some of his views on life which help to round him out a bit) instead focusing on things moving at a steady, rhythmic pace. It ends up feeling for more real and alive than it should coming from a first time female director working in a genre that's so heavily defined by masculine values. With such a big emphasis on female directors finding work today, Lupino's efforts here are as relevant as ever, too.