Like many a film noir, this one starts with a car. Two cars, actually. One being driven by a serial killer, the other with two men taking a fishing vacation in the California mountains – as well as a quick detour into Tijuana.
En route out of town, the two men, played by Edmond O’Brien (D.O.A.) and Frank Lovejoy (In a Lonely Place) make the error of picking up the hitchhiking serial killer, played by William Talman (in a part that allows him to display acting chops that go far beyond registering objections to Perry Mason’s “courtroom theatrics”).
So many films noir take place in dark, urban areas. This one is unique in that its cinematography emphasizes the desert’s desolation, how small and vulnerable the men are in the sun-baked landscape, and how one wrong decision to help a man seemingly in need has led the two into a potentially deadly trap.
Another part of the film’s appeal is psychological suspense that builds while the two men grapple with whether to fight their hijacker, make a run for it, or simply go along. There’s a part where one of the men begs God for help, underscoring the point that the decision is his and no heavenly intervention exists to save him.
The film telegraphs the anxiety and paranoia of the time it was made by putting the almost PSA-like message at the beginning, in which viewers are advised that this is based on a true story and it could very well happen to them.
Without revealing spoilers, I will only say that the men take responsibility for their ordeal, bringing the movie to an ending that will have to pass for comfort.
One point of trivia: the movie was directed by Ida Lupino, one of the few female directors at the time and the only woman of that era to direct a film noir. In fact, The Hitchhiker is considered by many to be her finest film.
This is a film noir wholly deserving of two thumbs up!