The Hitch-Hiker went a long way to reversing that trend.
Heading out on a fishing trip, friends Roy Collins (Edmond O'Brien) and Gilbert Bowen (Frank Lovejoy) are driving along on the highway when they spot a man at the side of the road thumbing for a ride. They pull over and pick him up, thinking nothing of it. Within minutes though, the man pulls a gun and begins issuing orders as to where they're going and how they'll get there. Roy and Gilbert hear on the radio that the man is Emmett Myers (William Talman), a convicted killer and a psychopath on the run from the police. With no real alternative to escape with Myers' gun pointed at their heads, the friends are forced to go along with the killer's demands. He tells them to head south into the desert and eventually Mexico. Can they manage to escape before he kills them? Can the police find them in time?
Like the best thrillers, the formula here is simple. Throw something at the audience that could actually happen to them. Yes, this situation depends on you being really dumb and picking up a hitchhiker along the side of the road, but the gist is the same. You're trying to help someone out, and it epically blows up in your face. Upon picking up Myers, Roy and Gilbert are quickly informed that as soon as Myers reaches his destination in Mexico, he's going to kill them both. Does it get scarier/creepier than that? These two friends are actually driving themselves to their own deaths. As a premise, it works. In execution? Eh, not so much.
'Hiker' is now known as the first film noir helmed by a female director, in this case actress turned director Ida Lupino, who took over the film when Elmer Clifton became sick and couldn't continue. Lupino has a knack for putting the right elements into place for a successful flick, but it never gels here. To say this movie is predictable is an understatement. Maybe in 1953, this was fresh for audiences, but watching it for the first time 60 years later, there is little to no energy or urgency. That's not a good thing when death hangs in the air over two main characters. It only runs 73 minutes, but it's basically a series of episodic scenes of Roy and Gilbert progressively losing it while seeing how mentally unbalanced Emmett is. A few scenes pack some punch, but for the most part I was bored.
With a limited cast, the focus is mostly on our lead trio. Even there, I came away disappointed. It's not necessarily any of their fault, just a script that never gives any of them much to do beyond stereotypes. Edmond O'Brien is one of my favorites, but he doesn't have much going here. His sole requirement is looking worried (understandably considering the situation) as he becomes more and more unhinged. As his buddy, Lovejoy fares slightly better, but not much. His Gilbert is eerily, freakishly calm, and his key character trait? He speaks Spanish so he can translate! Yeah! Talman is a relative bright spot as psychotic killer Myers only because he brings some energy to the part, however obviously demented. Really though, with no background or real rooting interest for Roy and Gilbert, it's hard to get behind them and root for them.
Watching a movie released in 1953, it's not hard to see where this story is going. A sadistic killer with no qualms about killing anyone and everyone? Two innocent fishermen? Predictable is one thing, but the ending even manages to find another way to disappoint. I won't give it away here so apologies for no spoilers, but the resolution is beyond unsatisfying. I certainly wanted to like this movie, but it never came together. There is some cool location shooting in the Alabama Hills around Lone, Pine California that does a fine job standing in for the Mexican desert. The story is based on the real-life story of killer Billy Cook, but that real-life drama simply doesn't translate enough to succeed. Watch the full movie HERE.
The Hitch-Hiker (1953): **/****