McQueen’s masterful film is the kind that works on multiple levels simultaneously—as pure pulp entertainment but also as a commentary on how often it feels…
In 1952, Billy Cook was executed in the gas chamber at San Quentin Prison in Northern California. The body was returned to Joplin, Missouri, where Cook had been born in 1928. Cook's life and story might have been forgotten, but his crime spree inspired the first film noir directed by a woman: Ida Lupino's "The Hitch-Hiker."
In real life, Cook's mother died when he was five. His father deserted him and his other kids in an abandoned mine. While the other kids found homes, Emmett was never adopted and became a ward of the state. Eventually, he ended up in detention and was transferred to the Missouri State Penitentiary when he was 17. After his release, he eventually drifted to the California desert and worked in the two-horse town of Blythe, California for a while but left to travel to El Paso, Texas.
On December 30, 1950, he hitchhiked a ride and robbed the man at gunpoint. That man escaped. The next driver, Carl Mosser, did not. Cook killed Mosser, Mosser's wife, three children and dog and then dumped their bodies in a mine shaft near Joplin. Driving back to Blythe, Cook abducted but did not kill a deputy sheriff. Cook then kidnapped a traveling salesman from Seattle whom he killed in California. He then kidnapped two friends who were on a hunting trip and forced them to drive him across the border to Santa Rosalia (nearly 600 miles from San Diego, CA or about 12-hours by car) where he was recognized by the authorities and arrested. For his 22 days of violence, Cook was sentenced to 300 years for the Mosser murders in Oklahoma before receiving a sentence to death for the murder of the salesman in California. According to Cinema Scope, the actress-turned-director Ida Lupino visited Cook in San Quentin in preparation for this movie.
In "The Hitch-Hiker," the opening credits are superimposed over the murders. Due to the Hayes Code, the murders are cut down to three: Two Oregon newlyweds and a salesman. The police release a photo of their prime suspect: ex-con Emmett Myers (William Talman).
Two Arizona buddies Gilbert Bowen and Roy Collins have just crossed the California-Mexico border heading toward Baja California for a fishing vacation when just past Mexicali, Mexico, they make the unwise decision to pick up Emmett. He pulls his gun and freely admits to the other murders. After studying the map, he decides they will drive to Santa Rosalia, a 500-mile drive, where he believes he can catch a ferry and escape deeper into Mexico. Emmett cannot speak Spanish, but Gilbert can. During the desperate journey, Roy and Gilbert have their friendship tested by the sadistic Emmett who cannot quite understand this emotional bond.
According to AFI, there was some protest against the movie by hitchhikers for its portrayal of hitchhikers and for its ad campaign (""Have you ever picked up a hitch-hiker—We guarantee you won't ever after seeing this picture."). Fans of the original Perry Mason TV series (1957-1966) with Raymond Burr will recognize William Talman (1915-1968). Talman played Los Angeles District Attorney Hamilton Burger, a role he got because of his performance in "The Hitch-Hiker." Edmond O'Brien (1915-1985) won a Best Supporting Actor for another film, "The Barefoot Contessa" (1954) and was in such classics as "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" (1961) and "The Wild Bunch" (1969). Frank Lovejoy had been the star of an NBC radio drama series, "Night Beat." In 1998, "The Hitch-Hiker" was selected for preservation in the US National Film Registry.
"The Hitch-Hiker" can be seen for free with an Amazon Prime subscription.
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