Reputedly based on a true incident ("Penned from the headlines"), the story traces the movements of a hitch-hiker, Emmett Myers (Talman), who repays his highway hosts by robbing and murdering them. Initially, we are shown mere glimpses of Myers and his victims, which successfully sets the stage for the introduction of Roy Collins (Edmond O'Brien) and Gilbert Bowen (Frank Lovejoy), two friends on their way to a fishing trip in Mexico, when, unawares, they pick up Myers.
What follows is a realistic depiction of what most likely would transpire when ordinary people are suddenly faced with such extraordinary circumstances. And the strength of the film lies in the fact that when Collins and Bowen are kidnapped, held at gunpoint and forced to do the bidding of their captor, they react and behave in a manner that is both consistent with their current state of affairs and believable. There are no feigned heroics or superhuman contrivances that allow the two captives to effect an escape; instead, the story plays out in much the way one would, in reality, expect in such a situation, which, when extrapolated, effectively drives home the true horror of Collin's and Bowen's circumstance.
The lion's share of the credit for the success of this film must go to director Ida Lupino, whose almost documentary-style approach to the story lends it the necessary grit and intensity. She scores double points, as well, for not only delivering a memorable film, but doing so at a time in which few women were afforded the opportunity to perform at such a level behind the camera. Lupino's success no doubt helped pave the way for the likes of Jane Campion, Jodie Foster, Gillian Armstrong, Allison Anders and a host of other women who have since proved that gender alone does not equate to excellence and ability in the director's chair.
In arguably his best performance, character actor William Talman turns in a memorable performance as the sociopath, Myers. Forget your Freddys and Jasons; Talman's portrayal creates the kind of character that nightmares are really made of. Myers is a guy you could pass on the street, or-- yes, even give a lift to if you saw him with his thumb out on the highway-- without giving him a second thought. And that's what makes him so scary; his disguise is that he doesn't have a disguise, and it's so much more effective than having a hockey mask or hands with steel fingers could ever be.
O'Brien and Lovejoy also turn in credible performances, creating characters who, like Talman's Myers, are real. Watching them, you believe that Collins is, indeed, an auto mechanic, and Bowen a draftsman; two friends off together to do some fishing.
The supporting cast includes Jose Torvay (Captain Alvarado); Jean Del Val (Inspector General); Clark Howat (Government Agent); and Natividad Vacio (Jose). The 71 minute running time is perfect for this film; rather than resort to superfluous filler, Lupino stays on task without ever straying, and in the end makes "The Hitch-Hiker" a ride that will leave you wondering what you would do in a like situation, and hoping that you'll never have to find out. It's the magic of the movies.