Someone is killing drivers along deserted Southwestern desert highways, and so one wonders what Frank Lovejoy and Edmond O’Brien, a couple of guys off on a weekend fishing trip (in the desert?) are thinking when they not only pick up a solitary hitchhiker, they pick up one that appears to just have busted out of the loony ward at the prison hospital.
Enter William Talman, forever known as the luckless prosecutor embarrassed week after week (“YOUR HONOR! That’s irrelevant, immaterial and argumentative!”) by legal eagle Perry Mason. With a permanent sneer and one paralyzed eyelid, he couldn’t LOOK more like a psycho killer if he were wearing a paper hat that SAID “Psycho Killer” on it in purple crayon. Sure enough, soon the gun comes out and he delights in torturing our two sad-sack heroes on a trek to Mexico.
Interesting film, a tense, no-nonsense 70 minutes, directed with flair and artistry by the wonderful Ida Lupino, the only great noir director who happened to be a woman. The opening sequence, with no one, killer or victim, shown except for feet or covered in shadows, is a grabber, and in fact Talman’s first appearance couldn’t be any more suspenseful. Alas, the tiny budget meant that, well, for example, the police force dedicated to finding the psycho killer makes only a cameo appearance. I had also hoped that Lupino was saving what little budget she had for a spectacular closing act to rival White Heat (1949); no such luck.
It’s Talman’s picture, probably the only feature film you can say that about, and he does an excellent job as the tough guy whose only strength is in the gun he keeps in his fist at all times; he boasts that the reason he’s on top of his two captors is because he has no conscience, while they’re soft and weak. They actually more or less prove him correct in that, come to think of it. Talman doesn’t have a LOT of big-screen credits, but two of his other juicy bad guy parts have recently come to light; he plays a killer in both City that Never Sleeps (1953) and Crashout (1955), two previously-overlooked crime drama/noirs released in the past few months by Olive Films. Crashout in particular is excellent and deserves to be better known.
It’s interesting that both Talman and Raymond Burr played “good guys” on TV but were far more accomplished in films as despicable villains. Talman was briefly suspended from the Perry Mason series following a marijuana bust and a morals charge. Charges were dropped and he was reinstated to the series, no worse for the wear. I think people probably felt sorry for Hamilton Burger and his weekly embarrassment at the hands of Mason week after week; I know I always did.
O’Brien and Lovejoy are functional in thankless roles (not easy to play “soft and weak” in a film like this), and Lupino – who directed only a handful of low, low-budget films but all of them with distinction – makes the most of what she’s got for this independent production financed by the distributor, RKO, and benefiting from some loaned-out talent, including producer Christian Nyby (The Thing from Another World) and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca (The Cat People, Out of the Past, Clash by Night).
The Hitch-Hiker was written by Daniel Mainwaring (Invasion of the Body Snatchers), but he was not allowed on the RKO lot (Howard Hughes objected to his leftist leanings) and so Miss Lupino and Collier Young shared the on-screen writing credits.
The film looks terrific on Blu-ray, a big improvement over the rather dark Kino DVD. I wish they’d have asked me to do the commentary (or somebody just like me only taller), but the only extras are trailers for three other Kino releases, White Zombie with Bela Lugosi (a 1950s reissue trailer that couldn’t BE any more bombastic), The Stranger with Orson Welles, and Night Tide with Dennis Hopper. A nice photo gallery with many stills and promotional art is included, but no trailer for this film. Still, it’s a very good film and the Blu-ray is terrific. Recommended.
Clifford Weimer is a writer and film historian in Sacramento, CA. He can usually be found lurking about the dark corners of a movie theatre at inthebalcony.com.