The Devil Thumbs a Ride (1947): Starring Lawrence Tierney

the devil thumbs a ride.png

Felix Feist is a relatively obscure figure today and the only reason I’ve come to him has to do with two B films he was attached to, The Devil Thumbs a Ride and The Threat released two years later.

As a Southern Californian, I might obtain more glee out of name recognition than other viewers. It comes, quite literally, with the territory. These types of second-bill features hit the ground running. In this case, The Bank of San Diego gets its pockets picked by a thug.

So much is evoked stylistically, and we are reminded how integral signs become as a shorthand and cost-effective device for these quickie B-movies. Feist scripted the movie as well as directing, and we might sum it ups as a Hitchhiker’s Guide to Hell courtesy of garble-mouthed tough guy Lawrence Tierney. He certainly doesn’t skimp on his brand of scowling, unrepentant, hard-ball, and the picture is indebted to the cloaked menace he provides.

Because he’s the forger-turned-bank robber now on the lamb from the rousing authorities. Not unlike Detour (1945), it’s some fateful or cinematic force landing him in the car of a happy sap and devoted family man (Ted North) just off a joint birthday/anniversary with his best buds in San Diego. It looked to be a real gas, and he’s grinning from ear to ear. He might still be feeling the buzz from the merriment, but he’s sane enough to drive. The contrast is set up immediately, and they develop a fairly easy-going rapport since they cancel one another out.

They make a pit stop at a gas station as “Fergie” calls in on his adoring wife telling her to synchronize her watch for “3 hours and 26 minutes and 42 seconds.” Doing my own mental calculations, freeways (and automobiles) must have been a lot slower because today you could probably be doing San Diego to L.A. in 2 and a half hours (without traffic). When one of the passengers notes the driver is almost pushing 70 MPH, that might give us some indication.

Even as we eavesdrop on his conversation and Morgan snaps at the fresh-faced gas station attendant (Glen Vernon), the movie exudes the rudimentary pleasures of seeing mundane aspects of life circa 1947. The telephone. The music playing on the radio. The garb the gas station clerk wears. Each detail, whether only a studio embellishment or an authentic accent, adds something to the picture. Because elements of it are familiar to me and yet so far removed from the world I know.

the devil thumbs a ride 2

In the process, they pick up two dames looking for a lift — one of them a husky-voiced blonde (Betty Lawford) the other a diffident brunette (Nan Leslie), again juxtaposed for dramatic effect. Now our story on wheels is loaded up not unlike Arigato-san (1936) or Stagecoach (1939), albeit to a lesser degree.

In the ensuing moments, the slighted and eagle-eyed station attendant calls up the police because he thinks he’s spotted the man they’re looking for. Of course, he has. On the other end of the line, the dogged but good-natured police break their perpetual off-duty poker game to jump back into action. Roadblocks are set up all over the coast and the veteran detective on the beat (Harry Shannon) takes along the overzealous youngster to apprehend the criminal.

Staying true to actual geography, they make their way up the California coast from San Diego. First, Oceanside, then San Clemente, and then placing roadblocks at both “Capistrano” (San Juan Capistrano) and near “Laguna” (Laguna Beach). What’s more, the carpoolers set their course for a friend’s place in Newport — Newport Beach that is — and they wind up hitting all the local hot spots from my childhood. Santa Ana even gets a mention.

They set up shop in the bachelor pad in the harbor, although there’s no Bogey or Duke Wayne to be had riding the waters. All we get is a doddering nightwatchman (Andrew Tombes), a wild array of near-screwball antics, murder, and then ensuing hostage situations. Come to think of it, based on what we were promised, it pretty much measures up.

While the characters are cliched to the max and their reactions are a bit wonky, especially after rolling over a cop in pursuit, it’s easy to take delight in the cumulative effect. A title like The Devil Thumbs a Ride should be some kind of tip-off and between Tierney’s minacious countenance and the sheer shoddiness behind many of the lines of dialogue, there’s an odd tone developed. It can be near-screwball one minute, and then instantly plunged back into thriller territory.

The family man gets in hot water with his wife thanks to the conniving blonde jumping on the hone extension. The Devil still has his eyes on the other girl even as he’s anxious to wait it out and let the situation die down. Even as the cops start closing in, there’s a sense something explosive is going to happen. Because when agitated and cornered, outlaws have a habit of lashing out in a desperate struggle to survive. They don’t much care who gets in their way.

Much of The Devil Thumbs a Ride feels mediocre, but if you’ve never been acquainted with Lawrence Tierney or you’re game for a bit of post-war time capsule filmmaking, there are a few modest delights crammed into its 62 minutes.

3/5 Stars

Born to Kill (1947)

born-to-kill-1If you know what you want in life be sure of it and you can’t miss. I found that out early.  ~ Lawrence Tierney as Sam Wilde

Reno was always a Hollywood euphemism. What it stood for, of course, was divorce, a dirty word given the sensibilities of the 40s and the 50s. But then again, being the dirty, licentious, pernicious movement that it was, divorce is a perfect starting point for film-noir. That’s where we first meet Helen Brent (Claire Trevor) as she walks down the front steps of the courthouse.

She’s free of her former husband and about to leave her current residence to be closer to her sister back in San Francisco. She also has a wealthy beau on tap who seems to fit her well-to-do, refined nature. In fact, Claire Trevor is different than perhaps we’ve ever known her before, tempered and proper from the higher echelons of society — hardly a femme fatale — so it seems.

Except that’s not quite the case. Put her in contact with a certain type of man, a man of brute aggression and unfettered jealousy and she’s bound to get into trouble. It happens rather haphazardly as Sam Wilde stiff arms his way into her life. Because, the fact is, that is how he does everything. Their meet-cute happens over a craps table of all places. No words are spoken. They give each other the eyes. He is just off a fit of rage and she is looking to return home. So in the end, they wind up together, drawn to each other.

But she is spoken for, and not to be impeded by anything Sam easily shifts his sights on Helen’s younger foster sister Georgia (Audrey Long) who actually holds the wealth in the family after receiving a great inheritance. That suits Sam just fine as he closes in on this new prize. Georgia in her innocence is taken by this new man. Meanwhile, Helen at the same time abhors this man pursuing her sister and still madly desires him in some twisted way. Their affair is as passionate as ever.

born-to-kill-2However, evil always looks to catch up with the guilty party and a private investigator is poking around in all the places he can to find the culprit behind an egregious crime. Walter Slezak’s Albert Arnett is a witty sleazeball with the lowest scruples imaginable when money is concerned. But he also happens to be decent at his occupation bringing him to San Francisco in pursuit of answers.

Sam is assisted by his faithful accomplice Marty (Elisha Cook Jr.) showcasing his ability with playing crooked pushovers. In the meantime, Helen finds herself losing her fiancee in the drama while being blackmailed by the shady Arnett.

There’s now nothing buffering Helen from the explosive evil in her drawing room. Her sister’s life is torn apart and Helen and Sam must have it out once and for all. They’re too deadly — too volatile for their own good — as everything around them begins to unravel and implode. We expect nothing less in the end.

For being a lesser star, Lawrence Tierney undoubtedly made a killing off his fist-throwing brusque tough guy roles. He’s no turnip, as he puts it, and if there ever was a homme fatale — a deadly male — he most certainly would be the gold standard…

I find more bitter than death the woman whose heart is snares and nets and he who falls beneath her spell has need of God’s mercy.” This is a bit of poetic observation from Slezak but there’s also a tremendous resonance to what he says quoting straight from the Bible’s wisdom literature. But perhaps this wisdom also goes both ways since it’s not just the woman who is fallen and corrupted but most certainly her male counterpart. Humans were not Created to Kill but over time they have been Born to Kill and Born to Die too. There’s a difference and that really is the tragic lot of humanity as we know it. Vanity of vanities everything is vanity. 

This is without question Robert Wise’s toughest, deadliest, grittiest picture. He never made a film with more vices or more despicable characters. Imagine, a character who kills for no good reason at all. Just because someone gave him the cold shoulder. It really scrapes the darkest recesses of the barrel. The way of the transgressor is hard. More’s the pity. More’s the pity. It’s cynical too.

3.5/5 Stars