The Hitch-Hiker is built around a mug—that of William Talman.
Talman plays Emmett Myers, the title character, a sadistic murderer leaving multiple victims in his wake as he hitchhikes across the American West. Talman’s face—which would only harden years later for his decade-long run as the district attorney on television’s Perry Mason—is a marvel: like a piece of rock that’s had a run-in with a jackhammer, punctuated by a bulbous nose, one bright eye, and one that droops but never fully closes. It’s not only the face, but also how Talman uses it; sometimes he allows a smile to crack open the granite—but only so he can snap it shut as the exclamation point for a brutal threat.
Director Ida Lupino—who came to Hollywood as an actress and went on to establish herself as a screenwriter, producer, and director—doesn’t waste this precious resource. Early on, after Myers has been picked up by two friends (Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy) on a fishing trip, the camera pushes from the windshield of their car toward the back seat, just as Myers leans forward, thrusting that mug into a waiting pool of light. It’s one of the many moments that, at least visually, makes The Hitch-Hiker something of a desert noir. Lupino and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca may not have many city alleys to work with as Myers forces the friends to drive him to Mexico, but they find slanting shafts of light and gloomy shadows in those car interiors, at campfires, under bridges, and—in the climax—on a dark pier at night where the lamps overhead hover like glowing UFOs.
Lupino isn’t simply trying to play the noir game, however. What’s distinctive about The Hitch-Hiker is the sensitivity it has for the trauma involved. We feel the increasing desperation and panic of the two victims—especially O’Brien’s mechanic, who has a complete breakdown at one point—while also getting a hint of the trauma that has formed someone like Myers. He gives a speech early on about how the two men under his gun are “soft,” unlike him. At once bragging and lamenting, he talks about being hardened since childhood by a life of neglect, violence, and jail time. There’s a telling moment of performance in the final scene, as Myers is apprehended on that pier. As the handcuffs click, he begins uncontrollably shaking, and we see something new on that tough face: a pained panic.