This film is an interesting piece of film noir directed by Ida Lupino in an era where there were very few women directors and is based on an all-but-forgotten true crime story of the day. What makes this film special is that it helped establish the “noir roadshow” sub-category of noir, in which the darkness and tropes of the genre play out on a broader backdrop of a travel story. It is in the process of being remade by Hannah Fidell as we speak.
So this post is not a movie review. If you are looking for some perspective on whether you should see this film, I’ll direct you to Lost Highway’s recent review, which is how I came to know about this movie. For the history geeks, I’ll direct you to the original review in the New York Times, 60 years and a few months ago, which apparently did not have much appreciation of B movies back in the day:
An unrelenting but superficial study of abnormal psychology coupled with standard chase melodrama, it moves swiftly to the obvious conclusion.
That’s true enough. The review, interestingly, makes no mention of the real-life inspiration for the film, nor the fact that at one point, one of the kidnapped men’s stress at the situation finally boils over, and he lashes out in a fit of unadulterated rage screaming at the villain: “You Stink!” Taken against his will and made to drive hundreds of miles out of his way by a psychopath who has promised to kill him at the end of the drive, and he can’t even bring yourself to even use harsh language. Ah, for the days of PG-rated rage!
In this post, I’m more interested in what happened off-screen to inspire this film, the making of the film, and its legacy more than recounting the events portrayed between opening credits and when the lights come back up. That said, you should check out the film:
Ripped from the Headlines: The Billy Cook Murders
The meat of the story in The Hitch-Hiker came from the real life case against Billy Cook, a spree-killer who killed half a dozen people while hitchhiking; his most tragic victims were the Mosser family–Carl, 33, his wife, Thelma, 29, and their three children: Pamela, 3, Gary, 5, and Ronald, 7. Cook then killed a man in California. He was sentenced to 300 years in an Oklahoma prison for killing the Mossers, and then later was sentenced to death for subsequent murder in California. He was executed in the gas chamber at San Quentin on December 12, 1952. His story was recounted about a decade later in cowboy author Glenn Shirley‘s 1963 true-crime thriller, Born to Kill. You can find a just-the-facts-ma’am rundown of Cook and his spree here.
At any rate, according to Lupino’s biographer, she based the script for The Hitch-Hiker on the Cook case–she often got ideas for her films from reading newspaper stories, according to another account. She included in her film a killer with a slight deformity to his eyelid–just as Billy Cook had. Part of the claustrophobic feeling one gets from The Hitch-Hiker is that you can’t tell if the killer in the backseat is asleep or not, because his right eye is permanently open. Lupino interviewed two of Cook’s surviving victims, and obtained releases from them and from William Cook–the killer’s father–to incorporate elements of this real life tragedy into her film, according to Lisa Livingston-Martin’s new book on the darker side of Route 66 in Missouri.
The Hitch-Hiker’s Legacy
This movie is remembered today as one of the first films of the “noir-road” films, in which noir-esque events and dark mood are taken on the road and we see the noir elements playing out on the trip. According to the essential Historical Dictionary of Film Noir, this sub-category of films developed much after the initial noir films had been and gone–indeed, noir by 1953 was already in steep decline, and most by this time were relegated, like Hitch-Hiker was, to the B movie circuit. Thus, The Hitch-Hiker is more or less the direct ancestor to much more recent films such as The Hitcher (1986, and poorly remade in 2007), Bright Angel (1991), Kalifornia (1993), Cold Around the Heart (1998), and Joy Ride (2001).
One footnote to this movie, gets to other influences of the original source material, the Billy Cook murders. Most notably that The Doors’ classic song “Riders on the Storm” (1971) as being written about the Cook case. This is likely an urban legend, despite an eerily familiar scene as the Cook case:
There’s a killer on the road/his brain is squirmin’ like a toad
Take a long holiday/let your children play
If you give this man a ride/sweet family: they will die/killer on the road . . .
According to Doors’ guitarist Robbie Krieger, “Riders” was based on the old song “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” and since other potential inspirations are imposed on this song by wishful fans, one might think one of its creators would should probably get the definitive last word and put this myth to bed.
Here are some of the sources used in this post, if you want to explore any of this further:
- Lisa Livingston-Martin, Missouri’s Wicked Route 66: Gangsters and Outlaws on the Mother Road. The History Press, 2013.
- Andrew Spicer, The Historical Dictionary of Film Noir. Scarecrow Books, 2010.
- Daniel Bubbeo, The Women of Warner Brothers: The Lives and Careers of 15 Leading Ladies. MacFarland & Co., 2002.
- William Donati, Ida Lupino: A Biography. University Press of Kentucky, 1996.
- Glenn Shirley, Born to Kill. Monarch Books, 1963.
- A.W., “At the Holiday: The Hitch-Hiker,” New York Times, 30 April 1953, p. 39.
- “6th Murder Attributed to Killer,” New York Times, 21 September 1951, p. 34.