Noir Nook: Torn from the headlines – The Hitchhiker (1953)
Have you ever seen an episode of the TV classic Perry Mason? Do you remember Mason’s weekly archenemy, Hamilton Burger, played by William Talman? Well, you should check out Talman’s character in 1953 Noir The hitchhiker.
It’s not a Hamilton burger.
Co-written and directed by Ida Lupino and produced by her production company The Filmakers. The hitchhiker tells the story of two buddies, Roy Collins and Gilbert Bowen (Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy), who went for a relaxing (as they mean) fishing weekend. But as with the best plans of mice and humans, things don’t go quite the way our heroes intended – they make the almost fatal mistake of picking up a hitchhiker, Emmet Myers (Talman), who happens to be a murderous psychopath. Myers kidnaps the men and forces them to drive him to Mexico. Along the way, Collins and Bowen find that their attempts to escape are hampered by Myers’ creepy ability to literally sleep with one eye open.
This captivating feature is based on the real-life case of Billy Cook, a native of Joplin, Missouri, who killed six people in a grueling three-week rampage in January 1951. Saddled with the nickname “Cockeyed” because of a congenital eye defect, Cook had a tragic childhood; After his mother died when he was five years old, his father left the boy and seven siblings in an old mine. Eventually, foster families were found for all of the children – all but Billy, whose deformed eye and incorrigible behavior made it difficult to place him. He unlocked a Missouri State ward and later, after a series of petty crimes, unlocked an inmate at the Missouri State Penitentiary. During his late teens, he had a tattoo that read “HARD LUCK” on the fingers of his left hand. After his release from prison in 1950, he was briefly reunited with his father and told him that he was determined to “live off the gun and wander”.
Later that year, Cook implemented his gun and roam strategy, hitchhiking first to California, then Texas, where in December 1950 an auto mechanic offered him a ride. Cook forced the man into the trunk of his car at gunpoint, but luckily for the mechanic, he managed to escape. Serendipity wouldn’t be on Cook’s next victim. In Oklahoma, Cook was picked up by Carl Mosser, an Illinois farmer who was traveling with his wife, their three young children, and their dog. After a horrific three day ordeal, Cook murdered the entire family (including the dog).
On the way west, Cook took an assistant sheriff hostage outside of Blythe, California, but spared the man’s life. (According to some reports that Cook used to work with the sheriff’s wife and that she was “nicer than anyone has been to him in his entire life.”) Robert Dewey, a Seattle salesman, met a less fortunate fate; After Cook killed Dewey, he took his car and left it in Mexicali, Mexico. Law enforcement across the US Southwest had been on Cook’s trail by now, but he wasn’t done. When he drove to California, he was picked up on a hunting trip by two men, James Burke and Forrest Damron. Cook kidnapped the duo, held them hostage for the next eight days, and forced them to travel to Mexico. The two men later said they were afraid to flee because Cook’s right eye was always open and they could never tell whether their kidnapper was awake or asleep.
After the men drove across the Mexican border to Santa Rosalia, Cook was recognized by Police Chief Luis Parra, who simply walked up to Cook, took his gun from his belt, and arrested him. Cook was later turned over to the FBI; At the time of his arrest, he reportedly stated, “I hate everyone’s guts and everyone hate mine.
After a trial in Oklahoma, Cook was sentenced to 300 years in prison for the murder of the Mosser family and subsequently sentenced to death in California for the murder of Robert Dewey. In December 1952, almost two years after his rampage began, Cook was executed in the gas chamber of San Quentin Prison.
Ida Lupino interviewed the two hunters who were Cook’s last prisoners and visited Cook in San Quentin shortly before his execution in order to obtain his release and use parts of his life in her film. “I was afraid of him,” said Lupino later. “I couldn’t wait to leave San Quentin to hell.” Her film, written with her ex-husband and business partner Collier Young, was released in March 1953, just months after Cook’s execution. Because of the Motion Picture Production Code that governed the portrayal of sex and crime in the films, Lupino reduced the number of Cook’s killings on screen. The Code also prevented her from using Cook’s real name in the film, but she exercised some creative freedoms with the arrest of the movie’s villain and spiced up the real, undramatic arrest with two fistfights and a shootout.
If you’ve never seen this headline-ripped gem, do yourself a favor and try it out. It was listed by the Library of Congress as “cultural, historical or aesthetic” in the National Film Registry and is available on YouTube and Prime Video as well as on DVD as part of Kino Lorber’s Ida Lupino: Filmmaker Collection. And if you are already familiar with this feature, please look at it again.
You only owe it to yourself.
– Karen Burroughs Hannsberry for Classic Movie Hub
You can read all of Karen’s Noir Nook articles here.
Karen Burroughs Hannsberry is the author of the Shadows and Satin blog, which focuses on films and performers from the Film Noir and Pre-Code era, and the Editor-in-Chief of The dark side, a bimonthly newsletter all about film noir. Karen is also the author of two books on film noir – Femme Noir: The Bad Girls of the Film and Bad Boys: The Actors of Film Noir. You can follow Karen on Twitter below @TheDarkPages.
If you want to learn more about Karen’s books, you can read more about them here on Amazon: