As our titular hitch-hiker ruthlessly murders unsuspecting travellers in Illinois, leaving a trail of bodies behind in the film’s opening sequence, we’re immediately stripped of any sense of comfort we may have had to begin with. The callousness and coldness with which he does it lets us know straight away that we’ve walked into one of the quintessential road thrillers of all time.
Somewhere along the way, our hitch-hiker gets picked up by Roy Collins (Edmond O’Brien) and Gil Bowen (Frank Lovejoy) and within seconds, he’s pointing his gun at them and forcing them to take him across the border to Mexico. His face finally comes out of the shadows in the scene’s climax and here he is. Emmett Myers. A cold, narcissistic, arrogant, cocky serial killer who is so detestable, he’s the definition of a ‘love to hate’ character. He taunts and torments Collins and Bowen relentlessly, he plays mind-games with them, he bullies them and he makes you want to slap him. That’s what you want from your villains. And William Talman nailed it. It’s an extraordinary performance. And the bum eye that doesn’t close even while he’s sleeping? Genius.
Ida Lupino’s masterful direction doesn’t let up either. Right from the off, she thrusts us into this nightmare, showing us these mindless killings by this sadistic ex-convict in the middle of nowhere. That feeling of claustrophobia and powerlessness only increases throughout the film. We’re in the middle of a vast desert, and yet we’re stuck. We’re stuck in this car, with these people, and we can’t go anywhere. We can’t escape. Just like Collins and Bowen. That’s the beauty of road thrillers, especially the hitch-hiker type. That’s what makes them so exciting. It’s what makes The Hitch-hiker so great. It’s tense, it’s stressful, and it’s impressive. And it’s educational as well. Never, ever pick-up a hitch-hiker, that’s my motto. I’ve become paranoid about these things and I can safely say this and Detour (1945) have ruined me forever.