The killer admires himself in the gas station mirror. He straightens his tie and eyes his reflection with a flicker of pride, as though working out which angle would look best on his Most Wanted poster.
While bad hombre Steve Morgan adjusts his fedora and exhales billows of smoke, the camera invites us—or perhaps dares us?—to drink him in. Think of it as the tough guy equivalent of a femme fatale applying her lipstick or running a brush through her luscious locks.
Meanwhile, James ‘Fergie’ Ferguson, the tipsy sap who ill-advisedly gave Steve a lift, coos to his wife on the phone, despite the intrusions of a nagging mother-in-law. Steve shoots a sly glance towards the camera with the hint of a mocking smile. What a swell sucker he picked.
Just 5 minutes into the movie, we’ve got the low-down on Steve Morgan. Heck, in the first 20 seconds after the credits, we hear Steve’s snarling voice pulling a stickup, right before he shoots the manager and leaves him to die.
But these lovingly captured moments of before-the-mirror posturing and carnivorous glee tell us a whole lot more about Steve as the film’s perverse main attraction. Brought to life by the dangerous Lawrence Tierney, he’s the pin-up boy from hell. He’s a barrel of laughs and razor blades. He’s a hunky psychopathic tomcat. And the world is full of mice.
Felix Feist’s The Devil Thumbs a Ride is an icky little movie, a heady cocktail of chuckles and dread. Through some unholy miracle, writer-director Feist managed to pack two car chases, a dragnet manhunt, a stomach-churning woman-in-jeopardy sequence, and maybe the worst house party ever into a lean, mean 62-minute runtime.
This pulpy, high-octane B noir from RKO flirts so outrageously with comedy that you may not see its nastiest blows coming. Deranged tonal shifts and a farfetched plot make The Devil Thumbs a Ride more disturbing than many comparatively somber and cohesive entries in the noir canon. Murder, sadism, depravity, greed, and betrayal: that’s business as usual. But peppered with wacky sitcom-style hijinks? Now that’s twisted.
This is a movie where the bad guy casually runs over a cop and convinces his three passengers to roll with that. Where the psycho-killer has to take a break from assaulting someone to scrub a liquor stain off the rug while pouting like a scolded little boy. Where a life-or-death warning is scribbled on a piece of paper torn from a hideously racist novelty notepad in a sleazy beach house. Where the good-time gal briefly checks out from the movie to read Balzac (tee-hee!) in her pajamas then exclaims, “Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle,” upon learning that someone has been brutally slain. Like I said: icky.
More than mere cheap thrills, all the inappropriate comedy softens the viewer up for a shock with few equals in studio-era cinema.
Here’s the setup: traveling salesman James Ferguson (Ted North) is driving home to the ever-loving arms of his wife when he kindly picks up Steve, a hitchhiking robber on the lam. (Good call, Fergie. He has an honest face.) When the men stop for gas, two stranded dames, hardboiled blonde Agnes (Betty Lawford) and soft-spoken brunette Carol (Nan Leslie), ask for a ride. Sizing up Carol, Steve ushers the pair into the car, and Fergie, being an easygoing schmoe, doesn’t object.
Meanwhile the gas station attendant recognizes Steve from a radio bulletin and joins forces with the cops to hunt the criminal down. With the dragnet tightening, Steve persuades the crew to hide out in the unoccupied beach house bachelor pad owned by Fergie’s colleague. What could possibly go wrong?
If that plot sounds unbelievable, I urge you to park your skepticism at the credits. And remember: while normal people act pretty stupid in this movie, normal people act pretty stupid in real life too. The traits that Steve exploits—from mistrust of authority to thundering denial in the face of unpleasant facts—are present, more or less, in all of us.
The architecture of the film’s suspense turns the viewer into Steve’s accomplice; we know what he knows and what his companions apparently don’t. Willingly or not, we’re hep to his jive.
When the heat is on for Steve, the audience starts sweating. When he smirks, we’re in on the joke. We see Steve breaking bottles on the tires of Fergie’s car to prevent any members of his party from making a sudden exit. So, a few minutes later, when Fergie finds out about the flats, Steve’s wry, wolfish gaze over the poor sap’s shoulder is a private punchline for those of us keeping score at home.
Whether he’s spinning a sob story about reform school or swiping Fergie’s identity right in front of him, Tierney’s Steve lies with such fluency that I, like Sam Spade wondering at Miss Wonderly, can’t resist chuckling, “You’re good. You’re very good.”
Indeed, Devil toys with the viewer’s tendency to identify with—or at least enjoy the antics of—a charming psychopath, that evergreen pop culture favorite. At the risk of overanalyzing a B noir, the push-pull of attraction and repulsion towards Steve operates as a meta commentary on cinema’s addiction to violent men. This Devil reels us in with the promise of a good time, only to leave us grossed out by how far we’ve gone with a killer.
Most subversive of all, Devil reminds us that reality doesn’t respect the Production Code. And clutching the guardrails of conventional moral wisdom might lead you right off a cliff. Almost like a matched-pair experiment, the two women along for the ride take contrasting approaches to being cooped up with a killer, and let’s just say it turns out far better for one of them. Virtue might be its own reward, but sometimes it’s incompatible with survival.
Worth the price of admission then as well as now is Lawrence Tierney. One contemporary trade journal reviewer advised, “Plug Tierney as the screen’s new ‘tough guy.’” Interestingly, Tierney doesn’t engage in much tough guy business. He doesn’t throw a punch or fire more than a shot until the very end. Yet he radiates the promise of toughness, a laid-back assumption of dominance and ownership over everyone and everything around him.
Consider the speech Steve lavishes on Carol, minutes after they’ve met. Taking up more than his share of the back seat, he praises her hair, her teeth, her skin, and “them rare, hard-to-find Technicolor eyes.” An actor bent on winning our sympathy, or simply building up his appeal to the female public, might be tempted to wring this spiel and its glib cosmetic-commercial poetry for a little romantic kick.
Feist and Tierney, however, understood that this is not so much a string of compliments, or even a proposition, as a threat. He delivers the lines with a combination of oleaginous sensuality and deadpan calculation that would be humorous if it weren’t so creepy. The shadow of his fedora and head behind him crowds the tight frame further, as though his dark intentions had materialized into a silhouette. Make no mistake: Steve is itemizing her attractions like he’d make a mental note of jewels in the window of a store he’s planning to rob.
As an antisocial nightmare hitchhiker, Steve is a male counterpart to the volcanic Vera from Detour. Both of them hijack their weak-willed drivers, wheedle their captive audiences off the road, and trap them in claustrophobic private hells of booze and bad vibes. Both fuel their respective films with exhilaratingly unwholesome rock-and-roll energy. And both incarnate the underbelly of post-WWII America, but from different gender perspectives.
Just as Ann Savage’s Vera seemed to erupt with the long-silenced fury of a million women harassed, abused, and exploited, Tierney’s Steve incarnates the mid-century straight male id, the essence of toxic masculinity in a sharp suit and fedora. Rather than mere parallels, a cause-and-effect relationship connects these two landmark psychos of the noirverse. Men like Steve are the reason why Vera is, well… Vera.
Steve stands in stark contrast to the two cloyingly domestic men who round out the main cast: Fergie, a devoted married man, and Jack, the boyish gas station attendant who proudly displays a picture of his little daughter. Bookended by these happy hubbies, our resident psychopath comes across as the return of a collectively repressed killer instinct. After all, when you ship out thousands and thousands of men to shoot people in a strange land for a few years, not all of them can come home and settle down to become a Fergie or a Jack. There are bound to be complications.
In 1946, according to the Motion Picture Herald, the Office of War Information communicated with Hollywood because “Washington felt it would be a good idea for the screen to prepare the population for the arrival home of a large category of veterans in the psycho-neurotic category.” A dirtbag like Steve probably wasn’t what the OWI had in mind, but “having started delving into the realm of abnormal psychology, Hollywood’s considerable colony of writers kept right on delving,” the Herald dryly noted.
Savage’s Vera and Tierney’s Steve Morgan operate outside the margins of polite society; yet both hitchhikers paradoxically serve as bleak, noirish parodies of awful spouses. One can imagine a henpecked husband in 1945 recognizing his own ball-and-chain in shrewish Vera, as she nags Roberts to the breaking point with her get-rich-quick schemes. Steve’s habit of ordering women around—and slapping them when they don’t comply—casts him as an abusive husband figure.
No sooner does Steve reach the beach house than he starts barking orders at Carol like a domineering hubby fresh from a long day at the office. “Look, baby, you heard me: bring over that bottle and two glasses,” he snaps. A few scenes later it’s Agnes’s turn to play wifey. He literally tells her to get in the kitchen and make him a sandwich: “Hey, Aggie, if you’re cleanin’ out the icebox, how about whippin’ me up a cheese on rye?” (Because murder apparently works up an appetite? Look, I warned you this movie was icky.)
Regardless of what Steve might represent, Feist makes the most of Tierney’s intimidating physical presence and his unusual face, which could morph from stone-cold handsome in one shot to downright gruesome in the next. Or within the same shot, for that matter. When he first makes a move on Carol at the beach house—only to be interrupted by the doorbell—he’s all matinee idol in profile, then all craggy villain from the front.
Cameraman J. Roy Hunt’s lighting takes the title literally, amplifying the diabolical impact of Tierney’s mug. During tense moments, Hunt shines vampirish beams around the criminal’s eyes or makes him glow and leer like a possessed waxwork figure.
Lately I’ve been noticing how much more men’s hair seems to move in film noir compared to other classic films, but Steve’s hair in The Devil Thumbs a Ride might set the record for most activity. A big mass of wavy dark hair often escapes its Brylcreem bonds to hang rakishly across his forehead. That says something about him: even this man’s hair is out of line. It’s 1947; hair isn’t supposed to work like that. If a man’s hair moves this much in a studio film, he’s Trouble with a capital T. Not that we need confirmation.
For a lot of this movie, Steve has command of our eyeballs. A professor of mine once pointed out how much of The Big Sleep consists of Bogie walking across rooms, because Hawks knew Bogie looked good doing it. Feist capitalized similarly on Tierney here. Even when the movie parks itself in an isolated location, Steve’s self-assured gestures and perambulations maintain a sense of entertaining movement, whether he’s lighting cigarettes, surreptitiously locking doors, disabling phones and getaway vehicles, or rifling people’s pockets.
Some actors can play scary. Some actors are scary. Tierney belongs to the latter category. Nowadays it’s a meme to joke about wanting celebrities to murder you; Tierney’s star image got there about 70 years ahead of the curve. Ironically, the run of destructive behavior and arrests that derailed Tierney’s career also boosted his mystique and secured his place in noir history. Part of the morbid thrill of watching Tierney lies in wondering exactly where the actor ends and the performance begins.
He’s more or less the whole show in The Devil Thumbs a Ride and arguably better here than in the lurid Born to Kill, his big A-picture showcase from the same year. In the role of social-climbing, murder-happy Sam Wilde, he got to rack up a higher body count, indulge in more onscreen violence, and lounge on beds while smoldering with forbidden proto-punk allure. But Sam’s muddied motivations and sheer recklessness don’t do the actor any favors. Though Tierney makes an electrifying homme fatal, Sam is way out of his depth and not blessed in the brains department. Luckily, his other assets convince couger-ish divorcee Helen Brent (Claire Trevor) to cover for him, even as she reminds him, between kisses, of what an awful bungler he is.
Tierney seemed more at ease and frightening playing sharp, vicious bastard Steve Morgan, unhampered by long-range social aspirations. His occasional awkwardness, a liability in Born to Kill, only added to his unvarnished scariness and verisimilitude as Steve. At times you feel as though you’re watching an escaped psycho-killer who just wandered onto the set and started doing his thing.
The Devil Thumbs a Ride gave Tierney the chance to hone the lethal, uncomplicated charisma that catapulted him to fame in surprise box office hit Dillinger (1945). Though supported by such old pros as Edmund Lowe, Elisha Cook, Jr., and Eduardo Ciannelli, Tierney carries the film on the strength of his desperado swagger. Photoplay reviewer Sara Hamilton wasn’t too impressed by the film, but rather taken with the star: “The lad looks good in both the longshots and close-ups.” Sure, he guns down a bunch of people and chops up his moll’s boytoy with an axe, but it’s hard not to feel a little sorry for him in the end, holed up in a garret then led to his ignominious death, like a bull to a slaughterhouse.
The success of Dillinger—along with Tierney’s reputation for brawling and boozing—contributed to his typecasting as criminals and tough mugs. “For some reason they always cast me as the mean asshole,” a still-pugnacious Tierney lamented to Eddie Muller in 1999. Well, not always. He did play a few heroic guys in his prime and imbued them with more endearing flair than I would’ve expected. Yet an air of menace and haywire virility clung to Tierney, onscreen and off.
In Bodyguard (1948), he’s a 1940s Dirty Harry who gets kicked off the force after belting his superior in the jaw—which makes him suitable for framing when the boss turns up dead. In Step by Step (1946), he’s a damsel-saving, Nazi-punching ex-Marine who travels with an adorable dog. And even so, you can’t quite blame the aforementioned damsel (Anne Jeffreys) for locking her door and pushing a chest of drawers in front of it before she can sleep easily in the same hotel suite with Tierney.
After watching The Devil Thumbs a Ride, you definitely won’t blame her. Because (spoiler alert) all the film’s queasy comedy temporarily comes to a screeching halt when Steve, having eliminated all apparent obstacles, decides to force himself on Carol. Once Agnes shuts her door on them, the situation escalates rapidly, as brassy swing music—Steve’s choice to set the mood—blares shrilly from the radio.
Realistically blocked with struggles shown mostly from an unromanticized distance, this attempted rape scene hits hard even today. “Don’t make me chase ya, baby. It’s not gonna help,” Steve sneers, pushing Carol towards a divan and wrestling her arms down.
Just as he gets Carol in a headlock, the music breaks for a news bulletin. Steve lets go and Carol darts away to hear a warning about a guy called Steve Morgan who killed a theater manager and won’t hesitate to kill again. The camera tracks into a stunned close-up of Carol. A scenario that seemingly couldn’t get any worse somehow did. She’s trapped with a potential rapist. In a locked room. In the middle of nowhere. And it turns out he’s a murderer too.
Suddenly the film’s whole structure of identification shifts. The audience is no longer Steve’s knowing accomplice, but Carol’s paralyzed ally. We’re in the moment with her and this monster, and it’s scary as hell. Mercifully, Fergie returns, but not before Steve clips Carol on the jaw—loudly enough to make the viewer flinch—and warns her to “keep that little trap of yours clamped up tight.” Unaware of what he’s interrupting, Fergie proceeds to bawl Steve out for being an untidy guest.
Now ensues a white-knuckle scene of Hitchcockian normalcy-gone-wrong as Carol tries to signal to Fergie how much of a jam they’re in—without alerting Steve—while they clean up the beach house. She scribbles a note to warn Fergie, crumples it up, and passes it to him, along with the vacuum cleaner. But the note tumbles to the floor.
Clueless Fergie runs the vacuum and nudges the balled-up note closer… closer… closer to Steve as Carol watches in horror. Again, swing music from the radio frets on the viewer’s nerves, its cheeriness mocking the direness of what we’re seeing.
Steve picks up the piece of paper. And promptly tosses it in the fire. Phew.
Relieved but desperate and disgusted, Carol snatches a makeshift map and dashes out of the house. Steve, squatting on the floor, relaunches his aggressive pitch, now in the form of lewd life coaching: “You wanna be an actress, ya gotta live. What’d’ya think makes those love scenes in pictures look so real? Experience! Nothing but!” Turning his head and realizing that Carol’s about to escape his clutches and probably contact the cops, he runs after her, much to Fergie’s puzzlement and dismay.
Since the film has pivoted to Carol’s perspective, nothing bad will happen to her, right? Wrong. Dead wrong.
After a scene at police headquarters, we’re back to the beach house. Steve returns. Alone. Sullen. Casually dabbing blood from the scratches on his face. The canary is missing, and he’s got yellow feathers sticking out of his mouth. It’s both a punchline and a punch in the gut.
Obvious though the implication is, I confess that my brain refused to add it up for a few minutes. I thought, “Oh, good, she fought him off.” Because that’s how these movies have trained my brain to work. In an ordinary old Hollywood film, we’d find out that Steve only beat Carol up and locked her in the trunk of the car or something. While such a contrivance would stretch our disbelief (think Mrs. Vargas in Touch of Evil), we’d be grateful enough to accept it.
When Fergie goes out to look for Carol, we find out that this is no ordinary old Hollywood movie. That grating, upbeat swing music drifts eerily from the house. And then Fergie sees something off-screen; the camera tracks into a shocked close-up as dramatic music drowns out the radio. It’s bad. Really bad.
Carol is dead. Floating face-down in the lagoon with bruises on her jaw and God only knows where else. A sweet little gal who didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, and put up a fight. According to the strict moral laws of the day, she committed no major transgression. The film doesn’t try to victim-blame her, which is significant, given that classic Hollywood films often threaten sexual violence, but rarely inflict it on characters we care about. (The bogus implication, in most cases, is that being good is enough to save you.) Weird and wild though it seems, Feist’s no-holds-barred noir is not inconsistent with the world we inhabit; sometimes bad things happen to good people, simply for being at the wrong place at the wrong time.
At this point, there’s only one lady hitchhiker standing, so let’s spare a moment for Agnes, the film’s second most chilling character. Despite her bargain-basement Blondell mannerisms, this is no chorus girl with a heart of gold. She’s a peroxide Judas Iscariot, ready to sell you out for a pair of stockings. When Steve is assaulting Carol, Agnes peers out from her cozy pajama party of one in a side bedroom. Does she say, “Quick, Carol, hide in here” or “Hey, give it a rest, Steve. The kid said she’s tired”? Nope. She says, “Ain’t a lady entitled to some privacy? Close that door.” So much for solidarity, sister.
After emerging from her beauty rest, Agnes teasingly addresses Steve as “Romeo” before he lights her cigarette in a shot of sinister communion, strangely dark and classically noirish for the well-lit beach house, that cinches their bond of shared rottenness.
Unlike Steve, Agnes appears to have a working set of moral gears; she just doesn’t bother to wind them up too often. I detect a hint of reproach in her voice as she asks, “Why’d you have to give it to the kid?” after Fergie discovers the body. Agnes listens to Steve’s too-convenient explanation and decides not to probe further, lest she end up floating in the lagoon herself.
From the way she purses her lips, we know that she knows there was a lot more to Carol’s death than a misplaced punch on the jaw, but she aligns herself with Steve nevertheless. And takes his blood money. And tackles the role of Mrs. James Ferguson with riotous gusto, simpering over Carol’s fate while accusing the real Fergie of Steve’s crimes. Agnes, for goodness sake, Carol’s cold, wet corpse is lying on the sofa. Being a cynical survivalist is one thing, but you don’t have to be so damned enthusiastic about it.
While the film’s too-neat wrap-up informs us via newspaper that Agnes is facing jail time for her misdeeds, that fate strikes this viewer as a weak comeuppance. I’d still rather be in Agnes’s shoes than Carol’s. Better a perfidious floozy behind bars than an angelic waif 6 feet under. By denying the audience the fair outcomes it expects from Breen-sanctioned Hollywood movies, The Devil Thumbs a Ride thumbs its nose at the idea of a just universe with a cohesive moral logic. Sometimes the only one with his eye on the sparrow is the predator preparing to devour it. God is nowhere to be found in this film, but the devil? He gets around. And that, friends, is the true meaning of noir.
Perfect movies have their place, but sometimes a flawed, outlandish, off-kilter one haunts you more. Just how much of an impression did this nasty B noir make on me? Well, a few nights after I first saw it, I had a bad dream that late-1940s Lawrence Tierney was threatening me. I woke up right then, which is fortunate. Based on this movie, I wouldn’t give myself great odds.
Where can you see it? The Devil Thumbs a Ride is not currently available on a legit Region 1 DVD. I shelled out for the Region 2 Spanish DVD. It’s crisper and much easier on the eyes than some of the pixelated DVR-ed prints around the internet. The screenshots in this post show what that DVD looks like (though I color-corrected the bluish tint).
Update from Eddie Muller on Twitter: “This was just restored through a partnership of the Library of Congress and Film Noir Foundation. Only problem is that rights issues prevent us from screening the film in North America.”