The news reports are filled with sensational bulletins of mass murderer Emmett Myers (William Talman) making his way across the Southern states of America, and killing those who innocently pick him up mistaking him for a hitch-hiker whose only intention is to get a ride somewhere along the road. He has already killed three people in cold blood and as far as the police know is not willing to give up his life of crime; they correctly believe Myers is travelling to Mexico, but the question remains who it is who will pick him up next...
The answer being two husbands in a fishing trip, Roy Collins (Edmond O'Brien) and Gilbert Bowen (Frank Lovejoy), who are making their way south of the border and happen to pick up Myers who doesn't take long to pull a gun on them from the back seat, plunging them into a number of days of sheer, worsening hell. When this film is mentioned these days it is down to the person behind the camera calling the shots, for she was Ida Lupino, formerly a fairly big star herself but once the roles began to dry up she took an unusual for the day career turn into direction, meaning at the time she was the sole female director in Hollywood, in the United States even. This has lent her a fascination that Dorothy Arzner of the previous era attracted.
But what was interesting about Lupino was that she didn't always direct what were commonly regarded as "women's pictures", the sort of thing where the female lead suffered glamorously for an hour and a half for the ladies in the audience to appreciate, as before she gave up the movies for television it was the tough, uncompromising Hitch-Hiker which was her signature work. Even when she did opt for the small screen, she wasn't directing the daytime soaps with episodes of The Untouchables and The Fugitive to her credit, plus a Twilight Zone to boot. There was very little demure about this effort, with barely a female character in it, and an inexorable sense of dread and harrowing endurance in every frame.
Worryingly this was based on a true story of an actual mass killer who operated much in the way Myers does here, and there's a title card which warns you of this, engendering a paranoia in the late night driver who sees a figure standing by the side of the road, thus probably leaving quite a few innocent unfortunates without transport. In the eighties, this idea was used to even greater effect in The Hitcher, which was more of a horror movie than Lupino intended for her work here, in spite of the presence of a murderous psychopath in the cast of characters. O'Brien and Lovejoy played the ordinary folks to the hilt, however, playing up the contrast between the decency of the common man and the aberration that Myers represented.
At least you would hope it was an aberration, because the thought of more than one or two Myers wandering the highways was an uncomfortable one, seeing nothing beyond his aggressive self-interest and the violent methods of getting his own way. As the film progresses, he gets up to such maniac tricks as forcing his two reluctant companions into a sharpshooting match, with Roy holding the can Gil has to fire at, and his control exerts a sinister influence throughout for as long as he is holding the gun - they and we know that he's quite prepared to use it - he can pretty much treat the two men how he likes. With such quirks as one half-paralysed eye which never closes when he sleeps (a weirdly nightmarish image) and a resistance to anyone speaking Spanish, Myers is content to bully his victims as long as they get him where he wants to go. The overall mood is one of grinding psychological torture, not perhaps as extreme as such thrillers would become, but undoubtedly setting the scene for relentless movie psychopaths ever after. Music by Leith Stevens.