The Hitch-Hiker is a film noir directed by Ida Lupino about two hunting buddies who pick up a mysterious hitchhiker. The movie was written by Robert L. Joseph, Lupino and her husband Collier Young based on a story by Out of the Past screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring, who was blacklisted at the time and did not receive screen credit. The film is based on the true story of Billy Cook, a psychopathic murderer, and is considered the first film noir directed by a woman. The director of photography was RKO Pictures regular Nicholas Musuraca.
The Hitch-Hiker went into production on 24 June and wrapped in late July. Location shooting took place in the Alabama Hills near Lone Pine and Big Pine, California. Working titles for the film were "The Difference" and "The Persuader".
Director Ida Lupino was a noted actress who fell into directing when Elmer Clifton got sick and couldn't finish the film he was directing for Filmways, the company started by Lupino and her husband Collier Young to make low-budget issue-oriented movies. Lupino stepped in to finish the film, and went on to direct her own projects. The Hitch-Hiker was her first hard-paced fast-moving picture after four "woman's" films about social issue.
Lupino interviewed the two prospectors that Billy Cook had held hostage, and got releases from them and from Cook as well, so that she could integrate parts of Cook's life into the script. To appease the censors at the Hays Office, however, she reduced the number of deaths to three.
The Hitch-Hiker premiered in Boston on 20 March and immediately went into general release. It was marketed with the tagline: When was the last time you invited death into your car?
Film critic Dennis Schwartz wrote of the film, "It's a pleasure to watch the action unfold without resorting to clichés. Talman's performance as a sadistic sleaze was powerful. His random crime spree strikes at the heart of middle-class America's insecurity about there being no place free of crime.
Critic John Krewson lauded the work of Ida Lupino, and wrote, "As a screenwriter and director, Lupino had an eye for the emotional truth hidden within the taboo or mundane, making a series of B-styled pictures which featured sympathetic, honest portrayals of such controversial subjects as unmarried mothers, bigamy, and rape...in The Hitch-Hiker, arguably Lupino's best film and the only true noir directed by a woman, two utterly average middle-class American men are held at gunpoint and slowly psychologically broken by a serial killer. In addition to her critical but compassionate sensibility, Lupino had a great filmmaker's eye, using the starkly beautiful street scenes in Not Wanted and the gorgeous, ever-present loneliness of empty highways in The Hitch-Hiker to set her characters apart.
Time Out Film Guide wrote of the film, "Absolutely assured in her creation of the bleak, noir atmosphere - whether in the claustrophobic confines of the car, or lost in the arid expanses of the desert - Lupino never relaxes the tension for one moment. Yet her emotional sensitivity is also upfront: charting the changes in the menaced men's relationship as they bicker about how to deal with their captor, stressing that only through friendship can they survive. Taut, tough, and entirely without macho-glorification, it's a gem, with first-class performances from its three protagonists, deftly characterised without resort to cliché.