William Talman plays the psychopathic hitch-hiker Emmett in this unusual film noir. The unlucky good guys are buddies Roy and Gilbert (Edmund O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy), down in Baja on a fishing trip. Definitely a rural isolation set-up. A very simple premise, very few characters, and a desert landscape. Character and suspense will be the things to watch here.
We see an abbreviated version of a couple of quickie “Hitch-Hiker Slayer” murders. Gilbert and Roy breeze through Mexicali. Then they pick up Emmett, ominously darkened in the back seat. “Don’t make no fast moves!” Emmett blurts out, pulling his gun on them. Weird to see the erstwhile Hamilton Burger so scruffy–Talman makes a great bad guy. He’s so wound-up out-of-the-box that it looks like he’ll dig up the desert.
Taking target practice at Roy, William Tell-style, “It’s just a game” Emmett taunts. Strangely, the vastness of the desert seems claustrophobic, maybe because there’s nothing to fill it up; the car interior even more so of course. When they stop by a picturesque stream at night, it seems closed-in too. In a village store, the tension builds so that it’s dangerous just to exist. “You’re suckers!” Emmett taunts them that night.
Roy and Gill, alone for a minute, discuss possibilities. Emmett hits Roy for possibly sabotaging the car’s radio. By now there’s a dragnet closing in; Emmett’s been ID’d with the car. At a remote gas station, Emmett shoots a loud dog, but one of the guy’s leaves his ring there–which the police find. That night, they almost escape, but Roy is tripped up.
Next day, they stop at a deep well; obviously Emmett notes that it’s a convenient place to dump them after they’re killed. For some reason, the police now think that Emmett is traveling alone. That would seem to make Roy and Gil less expendable. The car’s done-in, so now they’re on foot. Can’t last too long that way. Desperately, Roy cries out at a passing plane which is just a bit too high to notice.
Nonetheless, the police find the abandoned car. Now Emnett figures if he swaps clothes with Roy it will give him some cover. Finally they stumble to the coastal town, Emmett’s destination. They find a cantina, Emmett asks about getting a boat. With a healthy bribe, they get a guy to meet them with at the docks. “You guys are really fools” Emmett keeps bugging them.
But then then the local guy sees a wanted poster with Emmett’s mug, and quickly calls the police. Now we’re down at the docks. A very eerie labyrinth, nothing but odd angles and shadows. The police have set an ambush and he’s done. But not before Roy gets in a few jabs. Emmett looks genuinely horrified, as though he’s absorbed all the fear that he’s engendered.
What a ride! This was unexpectedly fine. The atmosphere was so oppressive, in both daylight’s intense blaze and the very dark nighttimes. The dock scene was the creepiest of all–so still, yet so ominous–with an expressionist twist. The performances were very consistent; above all Talman was an oustanding antagonist. The plot was superbly helped by the rapid-fire pacing. Even so, most of the tension was psychological–not understated, but not overly histrionic either.
Farmermouse was hiding in the glove box of the Dodge sedan most of the time, then he hung out at the cantina; so he gives The Hitch-Hiker ten cervezas. 10/10.