The Devil Thumbs a Ride doesn’t waste its time. Fade in on a large clock atop a bank, marking the hour. Then follow the camera as it pans down to a small old man, calmly unlocking the night deposit box. Suddenly he’s accosted by an offscreen voice—flat, thin, unfeeling—demanding the depositor hand over what he’s got. When the small man protests, a pair of arms enters the frame, a gunshot is heard, and the man collapses. The camera then pulls back—it hasn’t yet made a cut, just a silent, unhurried motion from point to point—to reveal Lawrence Tierney, picking up the stash and glancing round with the same smooth, measured motion of the camera. Now dissolve to a blinking stop sign; now again the camera pans down to reveal Tierney, calmly smoking, when he hears a car pull up. Thumb out, Tierney approaches the driver. “Goin’ north?” he asks. The car then drives off with its new passenger—and, as it turns out, straight into Hell.
You can’t get more noir than this.
The director Felix Feist directs this 1947 RKO film noir as if someone had stuck that opening clock on the film set and told him to time himself by it. We’re not two minutes into the film (counting the opening credits), and we’ve already had a robbery, a murder, a pick-up, and a quick smoke. Feist keeps his meat lean and clean; there are 60 minutes left to go in his tale and he doesn’t waste a moment. Yet Feist had enough confidence in what he was doing to include time out for two police poker games (he co-wrote the script). Those scenes play out like a Hecht-MacArthur sketch: terse, amusing, saying little but pregnant with meaning; they’re part of the film’s cold, deliberate mood. Feist directed a number of noirs, including The Man Who Cheated Himself, The Threat, The Basketball Fix, and This Woman Is Dangerous (a Joan Crawford thriller I wrote about here), but none of them is quite like The Devil Thumbs a Ride. It’s a straight dive into the abyss; no detours, no side streets, no pausing for the postman to ring twice. It hits bottom fast and keeps right on digging.
Anchoring the film is top-billed Lawrence Tierney, he of the cool, dead, beautiful visage, accented by cool, dead, unlovely eyes that seem to have no lashes or lids; they’re the orbs of a snake. I earlier wrote about Tierney here, noting that Feist knew what he was doing with Tierney in this film, continually bringing the camera back to his star’s glazed mien and letting it carry the drama. Tierney does almost nothing onscreen—his face and voice literally never change expression—but he embodies the film’s nihilist heart; he’s the soulless, spellbinding void that sucks you in. There’s something weirdly sexy about the man, the way the lighting highlights his perfect cheekbones, or how his hair flops lewdly over his forehead, like someone who’s just gotten out of bed bearing the marks of an amatory night. Tierney’s so hard, cold, and clean in his looks, he’s a sex object for the prurient—an outlet for repressed lust that leaves no smears on the sheets.
Tierney’s character is the blandly named Steve Morgan, a blank-faced sociopath who shoots and runs without a second thought, but who can appear friendly and normal enough to persuade suckers that he’s just a regular Joe, a history-free man in need of a lift, who doesn’t need to explain himself. As you watch Morgan, you realize you can’t get a reading on him; you can’t figure out his plan. Because there isn’t one. Morgan lives at the inferno’s edge, balancing on any foothold he finds, seeing ahead only to the length of the next leap. Whether he’s liquoring up a night watchman, slashing a sucker’s car tires, or stealing that same sucker’s identity, Morgan flows with the moment, like an actor in improv, lying, conniving, and seizing whatever chance, whim, or fate toss him. Where is he going, ever since he thumbed his ride? I think Morgan himself doesn’t know. He’s making it up as he goes along, yet he’s always confident that whatever he does, he’s bound to get somewhere. Come hell or high water.
The sucker in question is Jimmy ‘Fergie’ Ferguson, the good-hearted boob who gives Morgan that demonic ride. As played by Ted North, Ferguson is a born patsy, a guy with schnook written all over his pleasantly forgettable features, a happy-go-lucky sort who’s had a bit too much to drink and is hurrying home to a swell little wife, but who likes company on long, lonely drives. He’s got a good job, a good marriage, a good life, and it’s all about to go down the toilet, just because he was nice enough to pick up the Prince of Darkness. Like every sucker, Fergie gets deep into the guano, never aware of how Morgan is the one shoving his head in and holding it down. His simple drive home becomes horribly complicated horribly fast. When Fergie stops at a gas station, Morgan offers a ride to two dames looking for kicks; when he learns that a Ferguson friend owns a nearby weekend house, he makes up a sob story to force Fergie to drive them there (the devil always knows how to play a sucker). So in spite of Fergie’s objections (he’s still hurrying home to that swell wife), it’s off to the weekend house, where Morgan can host a party. And where all Hell breaks loose.
Up to that point, Feist has been showing us clocks—starting with the bank, then at the gas station, the police station, even on the night table next to Mrs. Ferguson’s bed. These timepieces tick off such marked moments as the murder, the all-points-bulletins, the card games, and Fergie’s phone calls to his wife, promising to be home in “three hours, 26 minutes, and 42 seconds.” But once we’re at the weekend house, the clocks disappear, as if Time itself were suspended. Or perhaps it no longer exists; and we’re now lost in that void, with no way to know when the horrors will end. Isn’t that a meaning of Hell? That’s where the film plunges us, with the devil present and in charge. Feist here keeps the action essentially to one room, as on a stage, with characters exiting to ‘offstage’ areas, such as a bedroom, when they’re not required. As Morgan locks the doors and cuts the phone lines, the room becomes a Sartrean ‘No Exit,’ its characters bound to its space like damned souls; even if they try to leave, they’re forced to return. There’s no place else to go except down.
In spite of the film’s grimness, Feist keeps its tone oddly jovial: scenes of Morgan flattening a highway patrolman or manhandling a young woman are intercut with ones of the poker games or Fergie on the phone arguing with his mother-in-law. The jokiness goes right on to the end, with the deus-ex-machina entrance of Mrs. Ferguson, who, claws out, starts a catfight with one of the female pick-ups. Like those old Universal horror movies that alternated between menacing monsters and comic shrieking maids, these humorous interjections are unnerving. They throw you off balance; I found I could never settle into one staid mood while watching. Like Fergie on his devilish drive, you’re never sure where this film will take you, but you sure aren’t about to let go.
Yet Devil is no jokefest. People are murdered, including the most innocent character; the film breaks the rules for audience empathy. It veers and swerves, a perverse fun-house jaunt in a house of horrors, with Old Nick at the controls, and the devil to pay at the end. It’s one of the blackest yet most exhilarating noirs I’ve ever seen, and I’ll be damned as to why it’s not better known; seeing it, I knew in my gut why I loved film noir. And isn’t that a bit like Heaven? Whatever else, it makes Devil one helluva ride.