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April 16th, 2013
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THE HITCH-HIKER (1953)

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Directed by Ida Lupino

Produced by Collier Young

Written by Daniel Manwaring (uncredited), adaptation by Robert L. Joseph, screenplay by Ida Lupino and Collier Young.

Starring: Edmond O’Brien, Frank Lovejoy, William Talman

Music by Leith Stevens

Cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca

Released: April 29, 1953

 

 THE HITCH-HIKER

A Notorious Spree-Killer and What Ida Lupino Made of His Story

Before Charles Starkweather, there was William Cook, a brutish hell-raising young punk who held a grudge against any poor soul that ever crossed his path. For a brief two-week period in 1950-51 he conducted a brutal reign of terror in the southwestern United States before he was arrested in Mexico and returned to the States where he was tried, convicted and executed for his crimes.

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Born into a family of seven kids, his mother died when he was five years old. Soon after, Billy’s father relocated him and his siblings to an abandoned mine cave and left them to fend for themselves. Authorities discovered the kids and placed all but Billy in foster homes. A deformed eye and belligerent attitude stopped him being adopted by any family so he became a ward of the state. Cook was eventually placed in the care of a woman who accepted State money to look after him but they had a poor relationship.

He soon drifted into petty crime and was eventually arrested for truancy. At the age of 12 he told a judge he would prefer a reformatory to more foster care. Cook spent several years in detention before he was transferred, aged 17, to the Missouri State Penitentiary. While in prison he assaulted another inmate with a baseball bat. He also had the fingers of his left hand tattooed with the words HARD LUCK.

Billy Cook in the grip of Mexican police

Billy Cook in the grip of Mexican police

 

When Cook was released from prison in 1950 he returned to Joplin to be briefly reunited with his father. He told him his intention was now to “live by the gun and roam.” Cook then drifted to the small desert town of Blythe, California, where he worked as a dishwasher until just before Christmas 1950. In late December he headed east again; on the way he acquired a snub-nosed .32-caliber revolver in El Paso, Texas.

On December 30, 1950, Texan mechanic Lee Archer was driving his car near Lubbock, Texas, when he picked up Billy Cook who was hitchhiking. Shortly afterward Cook robbed Archer of $100 at gunpoint and forced him into the trunk of his car. But the mechanic eventually escaped by forcing open the trunk with a tire iron before jumping out as Cook made a slow turn onto a secondary road.

After the car ran out of fuel on the highway between Claremore and Tulsa, Oklahoma, Cook posed again as a hitchhiker. This time, he was picked up by farmer Carl Mosser from Illinois who was en route to New Mexico with his wife, three children, and a dog. At gunpoint, Cook forced Mosser to drive around aimlessly for 72 hours. At one point, Mosser nearly overpowered Cook at a filling station near Wichita Falls, Texas but Cook was too strong for him. Mentally unstable and increasingly tired, Cook shot the entire family and their dog shortly afterward. He dumped their bodies in a mine shaft near Joplin, Missouri.

Billy Cook’s “Hard Luck” tattoo on his hands in a 1951 photo.

Billy Cook’s “Hard Luck” tattoo on his hands in a 1951 photo.

Cook then headed back to California after abandoning the Mosser car in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The vehicle was later discovered full of bullet holes and covered in blood. Also part of this horror scene was the receipt for Cook’s gun. The spree killer now had a name, and police across the nation were alerted to be on the lookout.

Just outside Blythe, California, a deputy sheriff named Homer Waldrip became suspicious of Cook and went to the motel where he’d earlier lived with a friend. Hoping to question the friend, he was instead taken by surprise when Cook himself jumped from behind the door and took Deputy Waldrip’s revolver. Deputy Waldrip was taken hostage by the killer. In a manner similar to Mosser, Cook forced the deputy to drive around aimlessly. It was during this drive that Cook bragged about murdering the family from Illinois. After traveling more than 40 miles, Cook ordered the deputy to pull over the car and forced the officer to lie face down in a ditch. Cook then said he was going to shoot a bullet into the back of the deputy’s head. But it did not happen. Instead Cook got back into the police car and drove away. Cook later told reporters when asked why he did not kill Deputy Waldrip that the Deputy’s wife Cecilia, with whom he worked with for a short period of time in Blythe was “nice to him, treated him like a human being and had been nicer than anyone had ever been to him in his life “

Cook then kidnapped another motorist, Robert Dewey, from Seattle. Sometime later the traveling salesman tried to wrestle the gun from Cook but was wounded in the process. The car left the road and careened into the desert. Cook murdered Dewey with a shot to the head before dumping his body in a ditch.

Billy Cook in custody: ‘I hate everybody’s guts and everybody hates mine.’

Billy Cook in custody: ‘I hate everybody’s guts and everybody hates mine.’

By now, all law enforcement agencies throughout the U.S. Southwest were on the lookout for Cook, who had returned to Blythe. He kidnapped two hunters, James Burke and Forrest Damron, and forced them to drive across the Mexican border and on about 400 miles, down to Santa Rosalia. There, Cook was recognized by Santa Rosalia police chief Luis Parra, who walked up to killer, snatched the .32 revolver from his belt and placed him under arrest. Cook was then returned to the border and handed over to waiting FBI agents.

Cook was returned to Oklahoma City to answer for the Mosser killings, and sentenced to 300 years in prison. In 1951 a California jury sentenced him to death for killing the salesman from Seattle, Robert Dewey. On December 12, 1952, Cook was executed in the gas chamber at San Quentin Prison. “I hate everybody’s guts,” he said at the time of his arrest, “and everybody hates mine.”

Comanche, OK, ndertaker Glen Boydstun was given permission by William Cook, Sr. to claim Billy’s body, which Boydstun displayed in his funeral home. It is said that at least 5,000 people, including children, filed past the coffin for one last look at the killer. The Cook family was aghast at the cashing in on Billy’s death, and ordered his body to be returned to Joplin.

In a brief nighttime rite given by Rev. Dow Booe, illuminated by flashlights and lanterns, Billy Cook was laid to rest in an unmarked grave at Joplin’s Peace Church cemetery, on the condition that his grave lie beyond the cemetery boundaries. His ghost has been sighted wandering the graveyard ever since.

Ida Lupino

Producer-director-writer Ida Lupino

Pioneering female director-writer-actress Ida Lupino happened to be in Palm Springs, to receive the Foreign Press Association’s “Woman of the Year” award, when she met one of the two hunters held hostage by Cook. Fascinated by the story, her and her husband Collier Young’s Filmmakers Group went into production on a film based on the story of the two kidnapped hunters. This was met with resounding objections from the Motion Picture Association insisting that the Production Code forbid the portrayal of modern-day outlaws. Lupino and Young responded by fictionalizing the Cook story in order to get around MPA strictures.

Released in 1953 The Hitch-Hiker tells the story of two weekend fishermen, Roy Collins (Edmund O’Brien) and Gil Bowen (Frank Lovejoy), who pick up hitchhiker Emmett Myers (William Talman). Myers turns out to be a psychopathic mass killer who forces the men to take him across the border to Mexico. The remainder of the film is a claustrophobic ballet of survival between the two hostages and the killer. Lupino keeps the trio in close quarters throughout the film enforcing the fear that escape is impossible. Much of the time the three men spend in cars and small backrooms, yet even in the openness of the Mexican desert Lupino’s camera confines the characters space.

From the opening sequence, Lupino establishes a menacing atmosphere, with violence seemingly threatening to explode at any moment. Filmed by the great cinematographer Nicolas Macursa, The Hitch-Hiker was filmed in stark, sharp-focus black and white—you can practically feel the unforgiving desert heat wafting off the screen. Nor does Macursa settle for routine shots—in one standoff he shoots from the point of view of one of the gunmen, looking down the barrel of a rifle. In another scene, as the three men race down a deserted desert road, the shot is filmed looking straight-on at the speeding vehicle, as if from the point of view of someone being chased.

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The opening scenes quickly inform us what we are dealing with. A faceless hitchhiker robs and murders an equally faceless couple somewhere in Illinois. A newspaper headline flashes across the screen “Couple Murdered!” A second headline identifies the killer as Emmett Myers. Transition to another road, and another pickup and another faceless murder, this time a man. By keeping the victims faceless Lupino enhances the fear that the next murder victim could be anyone, anywhere, and some of the camera angles—such as the POV of the speeding car noted above—suggest the viewer might be next on the hit list.

William Talman, best known for his recurring role as the hapless District Attorney always one-upped by Perry Mason in the popular TV series starring Raymond Burr, gives a chilling performance as the psychotic killer with a paralyzed right eye that remains open, making it difficult for his prisoners to know when he was sleeping. Edmund O’Brien and Frank Lovejoy are ideally cast as the two ordinary Joes on a fishing trip, away from their wives and responsibilities, inexplicably trapped in a nightmare journey. The film’s tension is all in the performances of the three leads, the divergent actions and reactions between Talman’s rage-filled killer and the passive hostages.

After all the tension Lupino had built up through the movie, the ending, when Myers is finally captured, falls a bit flat. But that doesn’t stop The Hitch-Hiker from being a classic noir, and an unusual one in being set in a desert locale and in being directed and co-written by a woman. It’s one of Lupino’s many stellar credits behind the camera, where she established herself as the first important female director of the sound era. Her acting and writing credits are equally impressive and wide ranging, but her most productive period as an artist begins here, with The Hitch-Hiker.

‘There’s a killer on the road…’: The Doors, ‘Riders On the Storm,’ inspired by the story of Billy Cook

Incidentally, The Doors’ song “Riders of the Storm” from the group’s 1971 album L. A. Woman was inspired in part by Billy Cook’s story. Consider the following lyrics:

There’s a killer on the road/His brain is squirming like a toad

Take a long holiday/Let you children play

If you give this man a ride/Sweet memories will die

According to Doors’ keyboardist Ray Manzarek, “Riders on the Storm” was the last song the original Doors recorded. The single was released in 1971, shortly before Morrison’s death.

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SELECTED SHORT SUBJECT: CRUSADER RABBIT, TV’s first cartoon series

 

Crusader Rabbit, Crusade 1, Episode 1

Crusader Rabbit, Crusade 1, Episode 2

Crusader Rabbit, Crusade 1, Episode 3

Created by Jay Ward and Alexander Anderson Jr., Crusader Rabbit  had a large and loyal following in the ‘50s, but it hasn’t fared so well with critics over the years. Ward went on to far more inspired lunacy with Rocky and Bullwinkle, but, hey, you have to start somewhere. These are the first three episodes (or Crusades) of the beloved Crusader Rabbit series.

Dan Markstein of Toonopedia is rather unsparing in his appraisal of Crusader Rabbit, opining: Television’s first cartoon series, Crusader Rabbit, embodied everything bad that came to be associated with TV animation. It was quickly and imperfectly produced on a budget that wouldn’t have bought lunch at Disney, it repeated the same episodes over and over, and its animation was limited almost to the point of stasis. It had only one saving grace–its young viewers thought it was funny.

The first glimmerings of Crusader Rabbit came when Alexander Anderson Jr., a nephew and employee of animation mogul Paul Terry, tried to interest the Terrytoons studio in producing cartoons for the fledgling television medium. When Terry rejected the idea, Anderson approached a friend, Jay Ward, who was then a successful real estate agent, to provide financing. Ward provided more than just money–as it worked out, he and Anderson were equally responsible for development of the series. It was test-marketed in 1948, as part of a one-shot titled “The Comic Strips of Television.” Another segment of that show featured Dudley Do-Right.

Crusader’s basic formula was simple–humorous adventure stories told (by narrator Roy Whaley) in short episodes, with cliffhangers, about a little smart hero (Crusader Rabbit, voiced by Lucille Bliss, who many years later was the voice of Smurfette), a big dumb hero (Rags the Tiger, voiced by Vern Loudon) and an inept recurring villain (Dudley Nightshade, voiced by Russ Coughlin). Ward would later become famous for another animated TV series with that very same formula–Rocky & Bullwinkle.

Starting in 1949, black and white Crusader Rabbit shorts began being added to the mix of theatrical cartoons appearing regularly on children’s shows. It didn’t matter that they were poorly produced–the video technology of the era made everything look that way. Episodes would appear daily, but storylines would stretch out for weeks, encouraging kids to tune in again to see how Crusader and Rags would get out of their current scrape.

Production ended in 1951, after 195 episodes had been made, and the creators went on to other things–in Ward’s case, bigger and better ones. The series was revived in 1957 (this time in color), and ran another 260 episodes; but without its creators (who had sold their interest in the characters), it never recaptured its earlier charm. The color episodes appeared in syndicated reruns as recently as the early 1980s.

Crusader and Rags appeared in only two comic books–nos. 735 and 805 of Dell’s Four-Color Comics series (1956-57). Copies are not hotly traded, but they turn up once in a while, as does an occasional Crusader Rabbit video, usually in the bargain bin. Other than that, Crusader and Rags are just a fondly but dimly remembered bit of baby boom memorabilia.



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