Sunday 28 December 2014

Noir of the Week #2: The Devil Thumbs a Ride (Felix Feist, 1947)

The Devil Thumbs a Ride (Felix Feist, 1947)

This is a fast-paced B-movie film noir, lasting barely more than an hour, starring Lawrence Tierney (who some people, sadly, may only remember from his turn in Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs) as a small time crook who hitches a ride to Los Angeles after he has murdered a movie theatre cashier.

His driver is the happy-go-lucky soused salesman, Jimmy Ferguson (Ted North) and like any good film noir, chance meetings like this can only lead to more trouble.

While family-man Jimmy is on the pay phone reassuring his wife, Morgan insults the young daughter of the gas station attendant (“With those ears she’ll probably fly before she can walk.”) and invites two young women along for the ride, during which, the three become inextricably caught up in his ever-more complicated plan of escape, Characters and audience both are lured or forced along the numerous narrative detours associated with the genre and, indeed, it is this narrative aspect that classifies the film as borderline noir because many of the standard generic conventions are absent – the femme fatale (though hitchhiker Agnes Smith (Betty Lawford) is certainly conniving and self-serving), the nuanced use of expressionistic shadow and light cinematography, flashbacks and first person-narration, which, admittedly, is something that tends to be associated with the novels more than the movies.

Eventually, it dawns on Jimmy that the police posse led by the entertainingly smart-mouthed Detective Owens (Harry Shannon) and including the afore-mentioned gas station attendant, riled, the audience is led to believe, by the comments made about his child) are after Morgan, but by that time, the quartet are hiding out at a beach house in Newport and the enclosed space only serves to escalate the tension, à la Archie Mayo’s The Petrified Forest (1936) or William Wyler’s The Desperate Hours (1955), until its denouement. The ending – and I make no apologies for the spoiler – was apparently forced on director Feist by RKO. As Morgan is cut down by police bullets, there is a transition to Jimmy in his car, but this time with his wife, who announces she is pregnant: the American nightmare is over and family life and middle-class respectability conquers all.

Although sharing some similarities to two superior movies, Edgar G, Ulmer’s Detour (1945) and Ida Lupino’s excellent The Hitch-Hiker (1953), this is by no means a major example of the genre, but it’s still a riveting film, hinging on the brilliantly unhinged performance of Tierney, one moment charismatic; the next, brutal and predatory with a crazed touch of Lady Macbeth, as he bends down on his knees to clean a spot off a rug after he has trashed a house.

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