The Devil Thumbs A Ride (1947): A Dark Little Gem

devilthumbsrideThe Devil Thumbs A Ride (1947) made as a B-filler by RKO is a tight thriller that takes only 63 minutes from the first gun-shot to the last. Tough guy actor Lawrence Tierney plays Steve Morgan, a cold-blooded killer on the run.

The leaky plot and B-grade supporting cast add a camp quality to the mix, and there are plenty of high-jinks with crackling dialog and absurd twists that keep you mesmerised: a highlight is when Morgan is on his knees cleaning a spot off a rug after a house has been trashed, and asks for cleaning fluid…

Why a film noir? There is a profoundly tragic element in the needless brutal death of a young female drifter who also thumbs a ride in a morbid turn of fate. The role is nicely played by a Betty Lawford, in her only major role.

Watch it as it was intended – as the first movie in a double-feature.

4 thoughts on “The Devil Thumbs A Ride (1947): A Dark Little Gem”

  1. The brilliance of this noir is undeniable, with not a minute of its hour-long duration wasted. Tierney’s psychopathic behaviour starts with cold blooded murder in the first minute and never lets up. Yet it’s no wild-eyed craziness – it is well disguised by an authoritative and forceful presence. His smooth and convincing line of arguments and justifications holds the plot together and keeps his hapless fellow travellers and associated characters in the grip of his deadly company throughout a night ride through hell which threatens not to end.
    Such is Tierney’s strength of performance, as a viewer you are swept along for the ride too, as a willing passenger anxious yet keen to witness what his devious mind will come up with next, to ensure things keep rolling his way. Ever watchful and always seemingly a move ahead of his own immediate danger, he electrifies this film with his presence. I don’t think I’ve ever seen sustained suspense created so convincingly before by a character in a noir who combined his knowledge of human nature with a devious, quick silver psychopathic personality.
    “The Devil…” has a sharp and gritty script which fleshes out the various characters’ personalities and motives superbly with a degree of wit, despite the underlying menace of the drama. The dialogue is edgy and filled with hard boiled crime banter that adds much to the overbearing atmosphere created by Tierney’s presence.
    Casting choices are excellent, with minor characters not just tacked on to the plot as disposable extras – they all do their bit suitably, and are all well characterized as they come into Tierney’s deadly orbit – even the cops. Performances are uniformly excellent, but a special word for the brassy and brash blonde. From the bit we hear about her past, she’s evidently got the worldly savvy and sordid history to allow her to trade patter with Tierney in a way that fosters a mutual admiration we can feel. We sense that this blonde moll has lived a lot and might just have inadvertently lucked onto her soulmate in Tierney – her sharp tongue and earthy attitude make the vibe between the two of them terrific to watch. (It even had me wishing near the end for a whole new film, with them careening off together to wreak God knows what new type of havoc).

    Like the best films you see, this one is unique; it stays in your mind and you don’t want it to end. As the tension mounts, inevitably Tierney’s web of lies and deception make him take one step too many, so the ending when it comes does feel sudden and thus something of a letdown. But what an hour long ride this ‘devil’ took us on!!! My interest in the film never waned – along with the performances, there’s enough smart plot ideas, pacing and dramatic momentum in evidence here to cover two or three other good quality film noirs…and that’s not to put the others down. This is a rare noir gem worthy of the very, very best…..see it and know greatness.

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