"This is the true story of a man and a gun and a car. The gun belonged to the man. The car might have been yours - or that young couple across the aisle. What you will see in the next seventy minutes could have happened to you. For the facts are actual."
The inspiration behind The Hitch-Hiker (not to mention the Doors song "Riders on the Storm") was real-life criminal and spree killer William Edward Cook. Posing as a hitchhiker, Cook - who spent much of his youth in foster care and reformatories, spent a spell in prison, had "Hard Luck" tattooed across his fingers and was easily identifiable thanks to a deformed eyelid that never completely shut - robbed and sometimes killed whoever was kind enough to give him a lift. Immediately after Christmas in 1950, he robbed and murdered an entire farm family; mom, dad, three kids (the youngest being just 3 years old) and even their dog, and dumped the bodies in a mine shaft. Soon after, he put a bullet into the head of a traveling salesman who attempted to fight back. Two others; a mechanic Cook robbed and put in the trunk of his car who was able to crack open the trunk with a tire iron and run off, and a deputy, who was spared because Cook knew and liked his wife, managed to escape their encounter with the lives. Cook's undoing came after he kidnapped and commandeered a car being driven by a pair of hunters. After forcing them to drive him to Mexico, he was immediately identified and easily apprehended by a local police chief, and then extradited back to the U.S. to await trial. He was convicted and put to death in the San Quentin gas chamber in 1952, just a few weeks shy of his 24th birthday.
Quickly skimming over the grislier earlier portion of Cook's crime spree, Lupino's film opens with a series of shots: a man's image - finger extended - casting a silhouette across the highway before disappearing into the cars, glimpses of body parts of the victims and warnings about a "Hitch-Hiker Slayer" splashed across newspaper headlines. We then meet two men; mechanic Roy Collins (Edmond O'Brien) and draftsman Gilbert Bowen (Frank Lovejoy), who are out driving at night on their way to a lake in Arizona for fishing. They pull over to the side of the road to help out Emmett Myers (William Talman), who claims to be out of gas and agree to give him a lift a filling station in the nearest town. Once in the car, Emmett quickly brandishes his gun and forces the two to escort him through the deserts of the Southwest US into Baja, where he plans on catching a ferry in Santa Rosalia to take him to the Mexican mainland. Along the way, Emmett proves to be a dangerous and unpredictable psycho who subjects them to psychological torment (like forcing one to shoot a can from his friend's hand) and tells them "You guys are going to die... it's just a question of when." Despite the stressful situation, Roy and Gil must try to remain cool and wait for the right moment to try to escape from their violent abductor.
Though often categorized as film noir, this doesn't really possess most of the trademark noir qualities one associates with that genre. What it really is is a psycho-drama. It's also an early example of a road thriller, an early example of a psycho hitchhiker terror film and one of the first films of this type to be directed by a female. Ms. Lupino also co-wrote with her former husband Collier Young for their independent company The Filmmakers (RKO picked it up for theatrical distribution). The idea of travelers or vacationers encountering horror amidst a dusty, desolate desert backdrop would later be repeated numerous times in films like Wes Craven's THE HILLS HAVE EYES (1977) and Robert Harmon's THE HITCHER (1986). Though perhaps somewhat lacking in the kind of substantial depth that would have tipped the scale from "good" over to "great," The Hitch-Hiker remains an efficiently-made low-budget 'B' film; tense, suspenseful, fast-paced and entertaining. The performances from the three principal actors are very good, with the creepy Talman scoring the most praise in the showiest role.
As far as the "facts are actual" claims are concerned, I'd say this incorporates enough details about Cook to qualify it as fairly faithful "true crime" movie. It includes flashes of his earlier robbery/murders, the kidnapping of two hunters being forced to drive the psycho to Mexico and even the paralyzed eyelid (which prevents our heroes from telling whether or not he's asleep). It even throws in nods to the real-life Cook's troubled life. Like many others who resort to crime, Cook had a tough row to hoe from early on. His mother passed away when he was five years old and he and his siblings were abandoned by his father soon after; left in a cave and forced to fend for themselves. After being discovered by authorities, all of the kids were immediately placed in foster care... all of them except for Billy, whose deformity made him a difficult child to find a home for. After a few unsuccessful placements in temporary homes and already falling into a life of crime before even hitting puberty, Cook was placed in reformatory and then transferred out to the Missouri State Penitentiary at age 17. While the film does not touch upon those exact details, the character of Emmett does make mention of being rejected by his parents and society (blaming his eye for both), as well having been a thief and criminal ever since his teen years.
Lots of 50s sci-fi luminaries worked on this one: Leith Stevens (THE WAR OF THE WORLDS ) composed the score, it was associate produced by Christian Nyby (credited director of THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD ) and an uncredited Daniel Mainwaring (INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS ) wrote the original story. Having fallen into the public domain, it's a very easy title to find on DVD, and was considered important enough to be preserved forever by the National Film Registry in 1998.