Hitch-Hiker (1953)

Who’ll Be His Next Victim… YOU?

Theatrical poster to 1953's The Hitch-Hiker

Old friends Roy Collins and Gilbert Bowen pick up a hitchhiker en rambling route to a lazy fishing trip. The stranger, Emmett Myers, proves to be a psychotic fleeing from the law, guilty of thumbing his way across the countryside and murdering his victims when they have outlived their usefulness. Now, held at gunpoint, Roy and Gilbert are forced to transport the lunatic through the desolate Mexican desert to the coastal town of Santa Rosalia, where he plans to board a ferry and complete his pilgrimage to complete freedom.

It’s a pretty solid 71-minute ride with only a few lagging moments here and there. Edmond O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy as Roy and Gilbert are, in all honesty, slightly bland but this gives them an Everyman quality. William Talman as the outlaw Emmett Myers is the real standout here, stealing the show with his tough talk and his evil eye. Speaking of which, the scenes that depict Myers sleeping with one eye open, his pistol trained on his captives, are deeply unsettling and can haunt you long after the credits roll. 


Kidnapped, as found in 1953's the Hitch-Hiker

THE HITCH-HIKER is often classified as a film noir, and if it falls under that heading, then it certainly appears to be an anomaly, at least on a surface level. This doesn’t take place on the dark and rainy streets of a big city that we typically associate with noir, but rather the wide open and desolate roads of the desert, frequently in a broad and blinding daylight. But it does capture the spirit and the feeling of the genre, its emotional essence, and if that’s not enough to include it, then we’re guilty of thinking too small. Beyond its setting, though, it’s also notable for being the only film noir to be directed by a woman—or so say the experts much more knowledgeable in the art of noir than I am. The noir nearly always featured a commanding female presence onscreen—making THE HITCH-HIKER even more anomalous, as there’s scarcely a female to be found—and yes, sometimes behind the scenes as screenwriter or producer. But a female director? It was literally unheard of, at least on the American side of things.

Ida Lupino was used to doing the unheard of, though, and was truly a pioneer of female filmmakers. Her family tree was filled with entertainers of all stripes, and she said that she became an actress so as not to let the other Lupinos down. She started off in theater before making the switch to films, and appeared in eight movies in her native England—playing a bad girl in all of them—before coming to America in 1933 at the age of fifteen.  She made films for Paramount and RKO before coming to the realization that she was not happy with the quality of the roles she was being offered, and decided to fight hard to change that. After being cast in THE LIGHT THAT FAILED (1939) and THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT (1940), she started to be viewed as an A-grade quality actress, but her filmography was still a bit hit-or-miss. Marrying producer Collier Young in 1948 (her second husband), Lupino started to work behind the camera. She and her new husband, along with associate Anson Bond, produced NOT WANTED (1949), which Lupino had co-written. The film’s director, Elmer Clifton, suffered a heart attack only a few days into the shoot, and they could not afford to bring in a replacement. Lupino stepped into the director’s chair, though onscreen credit went to Clifton as a sign of respect.

Ida Lupino on the cover of Hollywood magazine

After the partnership with Anson Bond dissolved, Lupino and her husband started their very own production company, The Filmakers, making Lupino the one and only female in Hollywood who was an actress, writer, director and producer. She became only the second woman to join the Director’s Guild of America, following Dorothy Arzner. Furthermore, she and Collier were releasing quality product.

They dived right into production, releasing two meaty movies in 1950—the polio drama NEVER FEAR; and the controversial commentary on rape, OUTRAGE. Even after Collier and Lupino divorced, they continued to create movies together. Of the seven films that The Filmakers produced before its dissolution in 1954, Lupino had directed six of them herself. She would later turn to television, as well, utilizing all of the skills she had learned while running The Filmakers, to become one of the busiest television directors in the business. She carved out her own path in the world and is remembered today for being immensely talented, powerfully strong, and endlessly kind. She died of a stroke in 1995.

THE HITCH-HIKER remains one of Lupino’s most celebrated films. Robert L. Joseph, Collier Young and Ida Lupino all worked on the script, based on a story idea from Daniel Mainwaring, who was not credited. Nearly all sources say that the reason Mainwaring did not receive credit is because he had been blacklisted for being a suspected Communist, but Frank Krutnik in his book Un-American Hollywood, posits that Mainwaring was never actually blacklisted as he did receive credit on several films of the era, which would have been impossible had he been on the blacklist. If this is true, the real reason that he did not receive credit remains unknown, and those that might have known have since passed on.

These days, it’s not uncommon to see a depiction of a homicidal hitchhiker (or, alternately, the homicidal driver)—look at THE HITCHER (1986) and FREEWAY (1996), for instance. Half a century ago, though, this was not a common motif. Hitchhiking was a common practice during the Great Depression, when the economy was at an all-time low and sometimes the only way to survive was to accept the kindness of others. Even throughout the 1940s, it was considered proper etiquette to pick up a hitchhiker. But in the 1950s, things began to take a sharp turn, eventually resulting in the FBI launching a smear-and-fear campaign against the practice, warning motorists that the hitchhiker on the side of the road could easily be an “escaping criminal”, “sex maniac” or “vicious murderer”. Thumbing a ride would no longer be such an acceptable practice, instead becoming the primary method of transportation for a burgeoning (and increasingly untrustworthy) youth culture, as evidenced by Jack Kerouac’s 1957 novel On the Road.

So what happened in the 1950s to kickstart this changing tide? There were certainly a few instances where picking up a hitcher resulted in a crime being perpetrated—sometimes by the hitcher, sometimes by the driver—but perhaps none so publicized as the case of Billy Cook, whose tale served as the inspiration for this film. Billy Cook’s story is a long and twisted one, and although finding information about his exploits was easy, separating the truth from the fallacies proved to be quite difficult. There is a lot of misinformation out there, both in digital and printed format, either spread about by accident or because it simply made for a better story. In order to minimize the errors in this article, I have taken for my primary sources myriad original news articles from the time, as well as more modern newsletters published and distributed in-house by the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office.

William “Billy” Cook, Jr. was born in Joplin, Missouri in 1929, with a facial deformity—a droopy right eye that would not remain closed. When he was five years old, Billy’s mother died and his father gathered up all eight of the children and moved them into an empty mine shaft. It wasn’t long before he abandoned them altogether, allowing them to fend for themselves with only a few meager supplies. Once they were discovered by authorities, the children were placed into the care of foster families, though Billy proved the most difficult to find a home for. Eventually, the courts had to agree to pay a woman to take him in. Their relationship was a rocky one, and he drifted into a life of petty crime.

After an arrest for theft at age 12, Billy went before a judge and declared that he would rather spend time in a reform school than return to foster care. After his release from reform school, he continued on with his criminal ways and eventually wound up in state prison. Even inside, he often found himself in trouble, including the time that he beat a fellow inmate nearly to death after being taunted because of his eye. Billy was released from prison in 1950, and returned to Joplin for a brief reunion with his father, declaring that he now intended to “live by the gun.”

Billy began to roam across the country, somewhere along the way picking up a knuckle tattoo on his left hand that read “Hard Luck”. He found himself in the small town of Blythe, California, where he worked his one and only honest job—that of a dishwasher. This job did not last long, though, and he began to make his way back East, purchasing a snub-nosed .32 caliber revolver in El Paso, Texas.

Hard Luck knuckle tattoo of Billy Cook

On December 30, 1950, 56 year old mechanic Lee Archer picked up a hitchhiking Billy Cook in the area of Lubbock, Texas. Billy pulled his gun, robbed Archer of the $100 that he was carrying, and forced him into the trunk of his car. While Billy drove, seemingly aimlessly, Archer pried open the trunk of the car with a tire iron and made his escape. Eventually, Billy abandoned the vehicle between Oklahoma City and the small town of Luther, and continued on foot for a ways, until another vehicle stopped to pick him up.

This car belonged to Illinois farmer Carl Mosser, who was accompanied by his wife Thelma, their three young children, and the family dog. The Mossers were on their way to Albuquerque, New Mexico to visit Carl’s twin brother Chris, a 2nd Lieutenant in the United States Army. Billy pulled his gun and climbed into the car, forcing Carl to drive—again, aimlessly. They circled Oklahoma City, and then headed west towards Wichita Falls, Texas. They stopped at a filling station to purchase food, and once inside, Carl attacked Billy. Their scuffle caused some property damage, and the shop owner grabbed a gun of his own and told them to take it outside. Billy forced Carl back into the car, and they drove away.

Billy made Carl drive them to Carlsbad Caverns, where a second altercation took place, prompting Cook to assure Carl that next time he would not hesitate to kill him. They headed to El Paso, Texas and then to Houston, before making way for Arkansas. Eventually, Billy tired of his traveling companions and he tied their wrists together with strips of fabric torn from their own clothes. He then opened fire on the vehicle, killing all five members of the Mosser family and their pet dog. He continued driving until reaching a mining shaft near his hometown of Joplin, and tossed the corpses in. From there, he drove back to Oklahoma.

The car was abandoned in a muddy ditch near Tulsa, and was found full of bullet holes and blood by police two days later. Billy began making his return to Blythe, California. By the time that he arrived somewhere around January 6, 1951, the authorities knew who they were looking for, thanks to a series of clues that Billy had left around the crime scenes—the most damning of which was the receipt for his gun left behind in Lee Archer’s car.

Deputy Sheriff Homer Waldrip stopped by a Blythe, California motel in order to question one of their suspect’s former acquaintances. Instead, he found Billy Cook himself, who surprised the Deputy, overpowered him, and took his gun. Billy then forced Waldrip to drive him through the countryside in his police cruiser while he bragged about murdering the Mosser family. He threatened to kill Waldrip, but instead left him alive, bound and abandoned in a ditch. Billy later told police that the reason he left Waldrip alive was because he had once known the Deputy’s wife, and she was nicer to him than anyone else had ever been.

Cook continued driving in the stolen police car until he used it to stop another vehicle, this one belonging to Robert Dewey, a salesman from Seattle, Washington. Cook shot Dewey in the head with Deputy Waldrip’s pistol and took the car for a short while before abandoning it, and flagging down passing motorists James Burke and Forrest Damron, prospectors from El Centro, California who were on a hunting trip. Cook held them at gunpoint, and forced them to drive him across the Mexican border to the coastal village of Santa Rosalia. They remained his prisoners for eight long days until they stopped at a local café for dinner. Santa Rosalia Police Chief Francisco Kraus Morales recognized the men—it had become an epic manhunt at this point—and he approached Cook from behind, his gun pointed at the killer’s back. In an anti-climactic finale to his crime spree, Billy Cook was arrested without incident, taken back to the border, and handed over to eager FBI agents.

Mugshot of Billy Cook

Cook immediately feigned amnesia of the events, telling newspaper men “I hear I’m wanted for killing a bunch of people. Now I’d like to find out for sure if I did.” There was question of his sanity, and a number of specialists were called in to evaluate him, though their diagnoses were split. After a trial that deemed Billy sane enough to plea guilty but not sane enough to face the death penalty, he was sentenced to 300 years imprisonment in Alcatraz by Judge Stephen S. Chandler of the Oklahoma federal court for the murders of the Mosser family. Many were not happy with the verdict, including the Justice Department. They handed Billy over to the Imperial County court in California for judgment on his murder of Robert Dewey, assured that he would receive the death penalty if tried there. After a 50 minute deliberation, the jury found him guilty and he was sentenced to death by Judge Luray J. Mouser. Billy was executed by gas chamber at San Quentin Prison on December 12, 1952, having refused the comforts and last rites offered to him by the clergy.

Billy Cook’s gruesome story does not quite end with his death. Following the execution, Comanche, Oklahoma funeral director Gene Boydstun put Billy’s remains on display. He charged admission to thousands of curious spectators who wanted to see the dead man with their own two eyes. Enraged, members of Billy’s estranged family came together to reclaim his body, seeing to it that he was buried at Peace Church Cemetery in Joplin, Missouri, next to his long-deceased mother. It was a very brief and very quiet ceremony attended only by the presiding Reverend Dow Booe (Cook’s old Sunday School teacher), a plainclothes police officer there only to make sure that no trouble broke out, and Billy’s father, oldest sister, and a sister-in-law.

Billy Cook’s crime spree seemed to have inspired a few others, or at the very least, the perpetrators knew that by uttering Billy Cook’s name, they would wind up in the media.

On January 25, 1951, 16 year-old Lloyd Hershel Piere of New Boston, Texas shot his elderly relative, Mrs. Missouri Coleman, in the head while she relaxed in her rocking chair. When he was arrested, Piere told the District Attorney that the media coverage of Billy Cook’s crimes instilled in him an “uncontrollable desire to kill”, and that he erroneously believed that he could get away with murder where Billy Cook failed to do so. Even way back then, people were blaming the media for their own misdeeds.

On February 23, 1951, Clifford Morris Almas of Ellisnore, Missouri lead police to the spot where he had dumped the body of a sailor that he had murdered near Henderson, Texas. Afterwards, Almas wanted only to “sell his story”, much like he had heard that Billy Cook had done. He was misinformed, though, as it was Forrest Damron and James Burke, two of Cook’s surviving kidnap victims, who had sold their story a few weeks prior.

On December 10, 1951, while Billy was living out his final days in San Quentin, a young man flagged down Casa Grande, Arizona mechanic James E. Beaird while he was delivering a car. Beaird stopped and the young man pulled a gun on him, bragged that he was “tougher than Billy Cook”, and forced Beaird to drive him 135 miles through the Arizona desert. Roughly twenty miles East of Yuma, they spotted a couple parked in a vehicle on the side of the road and the gunman ordered Beaird to stop. He then climbed into the other car and forced the driver to take him away. Beaird reported the event to Yuma County Sheriff James Washum, who proceeded to set up road blocks. I have not been able to pick up this story following the initial report, however it is worth noting the coincidence that Cook’s first victim, whom also escaped with his life, was a mechanic as well.

In closing, one final thing need be said about Billy Cook. The Peace Church Cemetery in Joplin Missouri where his body was laid is said to be haunted, most likely by his spirit.

Restless in life, restless in death.


Sources:

  • “Butcher Billy Cook Awaits Trial on Murder Charge”, The Bend Bulletin (Oregon), Tuesday January 16, 1951
  • “Youth Confesses Thrill Slaying”, The Miami Daily News (Florida), Thursday January 25, 1951
  • “Prospectors Sell Story to Movies”, Spokane Daily Chronicle (Washington), Tuesday February 6, 1951
  • “Story of Killing Made Available”, Spokane Daily Chronicle (Washington), Saturday February 24, 1951
  • “Sanity Hearing Slated on Billy Cook”, The Victoria Advocate (Texas), Tuesday March 13, 1951
  • “Doctors Disagree on Sanity of Billy Cook”, Lodi News-Sentinel (California), Wednesday March 21, 1951
  • “Billy Cook Gets Life in Alcatraz”, The Miami Daily News (Florida), Wednesday March 21, 1951
  • “Badman Billy Cook Gets 300 Years in Prison”, Petersburg Times (Florida), Thursday March 22, 1951
  • “Bad Man Billy Cook Loses Appeal”, Spokane Daily Chronicle (Washington), Thursday September 25, 1952
  • “Billy Cook May Die in Chamber”, The Bend Bulletin (Oregon), Saturday November 24, 1951
  • “Billy Cook Sentenced to Die”, Wilmington Morning Star (North Carolina), Thursday November 29, 1951
  • “Tougher Than Cook, Brags Young Badman”, The Miami Daily News (Florida), Monday December 10, 1951
  • “Butcher Billy Cook Execution Tomorrow”, Spokane Daily Chronicle (Washington), Thursday December 11, 1952
  • “Butcher Billy Cook Dies in San Quentin Gas Chamber”, The Pittsburgh Press (Pennsylvania), Friday December 12, 1952
  • “Billy Cook’s Kin Protest Roman Holiday Funeral”, The Pittsburgh Press (Pennsylvania), Wednesday December 17, 1952
  • “Badman Billy Cook Buried at Secret Funeral Service”, Reading Eagle (Pennsylvania), Thursday December 18, 1952
  • “Three Days of Terror”, Lyndall Cole, Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office’s The Shield Vol.5 #2-5, February-May 2014
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