10 May 2010

The Hitch-Hiker

This is one of the great little treasures of Film Noir, over-looked on all the *Best* and *Greatest* lists, but it's surely the finest portrait of a serial killer from its era. Unusual for the time, the film generally avoids moralizing and artificial judgments, and one could almost label the story of Emmett Myers, a hitch-hiking drifter who kills the unfortunate good Samaritans who stop to offer him a ride, a primitive docu-drama.

Written (and based on the real-life spree killer Billy Cook) and directed by Ida Lupino (fifty-seven years before all the hoopla over the *female director* Kathryn Hurt Locker Bigelow), the story is remarkably free of the cliches of the day. And there's barely a wasted shot in the crisp seventy minute telling of the tale of two Average American Joes on a get-away-from-it-all fishing trip who make the unwise decision to pick up the Hitch-Hiker, Emmet Myers. Myers forces the two buddies to take him through Mexico, making it crystal clear he'll kill them when they are no longer of service.

William Talman plays the Hitch-Hiker and gives us one of the most memorable *bad guys* in screen history. With his greasy hair, bum eye and filthily stained teeth, Talman's Emmett Myers could have been Henry Lee Lucas' father.

Even more ugly than his mug is Myers' text book sociopath's profile: alienated, lacking empathy, drowning in self-pity. Talman's Myers delivers the serial killer's sermon for the ages, as he tells his two hostages:

You guys are soft. You know what makes you that way? You're up to your neck in IOU's. You're suckers! You're scared to get out on your own. You've always had it good, so you're soft. Well, not me! Nobody ever gave me anything, so I don't owe nobody! My folks were tough. When I was born, they took one look at this puss of mine and told me to get lost.

Ida Lupino must also be commended for the film's almost anti-climatic ending, as she cleverly tweaks Hollywood for its tendency toward the *big shoot-out* finale. There's a shoot-out tease, here, but no typical Hollywood tidy *satisfactory* ending with the bad guy lying in a pool of his own blood. A movie decades ahead of its time, it remains psychologically valid in the 21st century.

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