Two pals, Gil and Roy, head down to Baja California for a fishing trip in The Hitch-Hiker, Ida Lupino’s noir nail-biter. Gil’s already having second thoughts, missing his wife and kids, throwing cold water on his friend’s plan to hit the bars in Mexicali for old time’s sake. “Remember Florabelle at the Alhambra club?” says Roy in an effort to bring him around. “She’s probably dead by now,” snaps Gil. “That was a long time ago.” You get the feeling he’s not the same man he was in the old days, before the war. There’s an edge to him, a wariness. From the moment the hitchhiker forces them at gunpoint to drive through the Sonoran desert, we see Gil weighing his options, calculating the chances of survival, falling back on battle-honed instincts. But battling a sadistic killer is beyond the scope of his training.
Early in their ordeal the hitchhiker, on a whim, sends Roy off to hold a tin can at arm’s length, setting up a high stakes shooting match with Gil. The tension mounts as Roy is ordered to move farther away and hold the can closer to his body. We know Gil is an excellent marksman, but for an instant he loses his nerve. Then cold fury takes over. Gil aims and blows the can out of Roy’s hand without killing his friend, but it’s a hollow victory.
“You guys are gonna die, that’s all. It’s just a matter of when,” the hitchhiker announces, his tone matter-of-fact. He could be forecasting the weather. High probability of showers in the next twenty-four hours. Lupino underscores the men’s vulnerability in stunning overexposed shots of the desolate landscape and it’s scary, how utterly alone they are. In fleeting encounters with Mexicans when they buy food or fill up the tank, their distress goes unnoticed. One night, while stealing gas at an unmanned filling station, Gil surreptitiously removes his wedding ring and leaves it on the pump. I read this not as a plea for help, but as a farewell gesture. He expects to be dead by the time it’s found, whereas Roy rages against their fate, endangering them both in a botched attempt at escape. Finally he cracks. “You haven’t got a thing except that gun,” he threatens their captor. “You better hang onto it because without it you’re nothing, you’re finished.” He’s wearing the hitchhiker’s clothes and it’s hard to tell them apart. Nothing remains of the innocent guy who fantasized about Florabelle—which is Lupino’s point, I think.