Friday, January 23, 2009

The Devil Thumbs a Ride (1947)

Starring: Lawrence Tierney (Steve), Ted North (Fergie), Nan Leslie (Carol), Betty Lawford (Agnes), Harry Shannon (Owens), Glenn Vernon (Gas guy). Directed by Felix Feist.

Newcomers to the hard-boiled universe of noir may wonder after sampling a dozen or so of the genre's more dread-infused classics if the nighttime streets of 1940s U.S.A. were peopled with nothing but mortally wounded insurance salesmen; hundred-yard-dashing poisoned accountants; and surly nightclub musicians nervously masquerading as heirs - among other troublemakers. By most accounts this wasn't the case, but if it were, one needed only keep their car doors locked and wits about them to avoid becoming ensnared in their respective webs of intrigue...

However those with impaired faculties (or god-awful luck) ran the risk of possibly allowing evil incarnate in the passenger side. Such is the case for affable, well-lubricated motorist Jimmy Ferguson (North), who casually permits a hitchhiker in his snazzy gray convertible - unaware that the stranger has just shot a theater manager for his night deposits, and needs a cover. 'Fergie', as he is then christened, is returning home from some late night, out-of-town partying with colleagues when, while idling at a stop sign, 'Steve Morgan' (Tierney) insinuates his sociopathic self into the unsuspecting traveler's life with the extension of a thumb. With his large, bland face and smooth manner, Steve must've seemed like a harmless enough mug, but it isn't long before the stranger's actions raise red flags - and start killing Fergie's buzz.


While Fergie's on a gas station pay phone - assuring his lovely young wife that he's on his way home, Steve antagonizes the young attendant-on-duty - then invites two female hitchhikers along for a ride with he and Fergie. Now sought by the authorities for the hold-up and shooting, the miscreant expediently loses himself in the small cluster of travelers, and from then on straddles the precarious line between big-talking charmer - and desperate psycho-on-the-lam.

As Steve hosts the quasi double-date-on-wheels, and makes an unabashed move on Carol - the younger and more demure of the femmes (Agnes is a brassy, out-of-the-bottle blonde), he commits another alarmingly sick act - causing his companions to question his stability, and the manhunt lead by Detective Owens (Shannon) and the emotionally-bruised gas jockey (who Owens damn near deputizes) to heat up.

As the titular 'Devil', Tierney pretty much knocks it out of the park - consistently displaying both a welcome restraint, and a knack for sudden persona changes. Whenever law enforcement enters the picture he tenses up, and does something kinda great with those creepy, lifeless eyes. Like a cornered animal, he rapidly provides himself a stratagem for detection avoidance and escape.

Moving the after-hours party to a swanky beach house - courtesy of a friend of Fergie's - 'Devil' soon becomes a kind of adapted stage play, with characters entering and exiting as the melodrama builds, and as Steve's luck runs out at a precipitous rate. A nosy but comically distracted night watchman is one of the many that converge on the getaway in act three, and as Steve's contrivance unravels and mood darkens, the viewer is treated to moments of gripping tension - before what many consider to be an abrupt and impossibly cheery denouement.

With few if any traditional noir stylistics in evidence ('Devil' eschews voice-over narration and flashbacks, and the photography is never above standard), the characterizations and story arc are the only road signs signifying a transgression into noir territory. One never really senses that this is a textbook hostage thriller (see 'The Night Holds Terror' or 'Dial 1119'), and the frequently comedic dialogue consistently alleviates any accumulated tension. Still, all-in-all this is a very entertaining programmer, and one of those handfuls of films noir that seems designed for wee-small-hours viewing. Were it not for the weak-link ending, 'Devil' might be better remembered.

Written by Dave


  1. Tierney was one intimidating character - and the same in real life too. Devil and Born to Kill - some legacy!

  2. Great Job, Steve-O, and I agree it's the plot that makes it noir

  3. Hey Steve. Great blog. I added it to my RSS feed. Thanks for announcing this on the Film Noir Foundation Facebook group. Hopefully others will check this as well.

    Where are you finding your movie posters images in such large sizes? Nice to see something a little bigger than just a thumbnail. Again, nice job!

  4. An interesting post on "The Devil Thumbs a Ride" Really a good movie.


  5. Nice post about a great film! Tierney is the MAN in “The Devil Thumbs a Ride”!! After I got the chance to see it, I got everyone I could to watch it. I’ve yet to have someone not enjoy the film, even my parents thought it was great. Nobody played a mean SOB quite like Tierney . I enjoyed it so much, I wrote my own review on my site: (although it is not as good as this post.) I keep hoping someone like Criterion will pick this (along with a bunch of other Noirs such as T-Men and Raw Deal.) Anyway, great post!

  6. Just saw it in S.F, don't really consider it noir in my book but a decent cops n robbers with happy ending and Tierney is wonderful as usual, nobody can shoot a nasty glance or utter a snide remark like him, altho the nastyness is way overstated.

  7. An enjoyable RKO quickie (62 minutes) starring film noir's reigning murderous psychopath Lawrence Tierney.

    I am not entirely sure this is a true film noir; it is way too cheery. True, it has multiple deaths in it, but the whole thing moves along so breezily that it's difficult to capture any sense of desperation or fatalism, which are essential (I would think) to any real noir. It's really a film noir romp - if there is such a thing.

    This film is described as having one of Tierney's better performances, but, frankly, he's not very scary here. He seems way too chummy. I keep thinking of that scene where he's diligently trying to remove a spot from a rug, like an over-eager domestic. I would have been far more impressed if the script had him badgering and dominating Fergie, rather than stringing him along.


Comment above or join the discussion at the Back Alley Noir review section. All comments at Noir of the Week are shared at Back Alley