Saturday, April 21, 2012

Hitch Hike (1977)

Original Italian title: Autostop Rosso Sangue

Late last year the world sadly lost one hell of a performer in David Hess. Hess was well known and respected among genre fans for his unmatched ability portraying menacing villains, most notably in Wes Craven’s debut film Last House on the Left, Ruggero Deodato’s infamous House on the Edge of the Park, and the film I’m going to discuss, 1977’s Hitch Hike. I remember the first time I saw Hess in a film it was when I was still quite young. The film was Wes Craven’s Swamp Thing. Even though the character he played in that film, Ferret, was minor, I remember thinking to myself “what’s THIS guy all about?!” The man had an undeniable presence about him, and whenever he was on the screen, you were immediately drawn in, no matter what he was doing. The man was also an incredibly talented musician and songwriter, even scoring Last House on the Left. He’s responsible for the haunting “Road Lead’s To Nowhere” song heard in the film. This is all well known information I know, but the man saying the man was multitalented is an understatement. Of the trilogy of films where he shined at playing a psychopath, it was always Hitch Hike that stood out to me as the best of the bunch.

While road tripping it through California, bickering Italian couple Eve (Corinne Cléry, probably best known for her role as Bond girl Corinne Dufour in 1979's Moonraker)
and her booze loving journalist husband Walter Mancini (Franco Nero) pick up a hitchhiker, much to Walters chagrin. The hitch hiker, Adam Konitz (Hess) claims to be a grad student on his way to the city to take a few extra courses. When Adam makes a pass at Eve, a fight breaks out between him and Walter, resulting in Adam pulling a gun, revealing that he is one of four men on the run after pulling a major robbery, a robbery Walter and Eve heard about on the radio just prior to picking up Adam. He’s split from the rest of his group and plans to keep the money, a grand total of $2 million dollars all to himself. Konitz becomes the back seat driver, ordering Walter and Eve to drive him to the border, all the while terrorizing the two with glee.

That shitty plot description might make Hitch Hike seem fairly straightforward but belive me it’s far from a predictable film. This defiantly isn’t you’re average exploitation flick. Sure, it’s got the violence and sleaze that normally comes with that tag, but what sets Hitch Hike apart from other films of it’s ilk is the surprise factor. Just as soon as you think you’ve got it all figured out, Hitch Hike takes a sharp turn (pun intended) and takes you places you never expected a film like this to go. It’s an exciting watch for sure as you’ll always be on your toes wondering where it’s all going to end up. Admittedly, it’s kind of hard to discuss it in great detail without spoiling it for those who haven’t seen it, which would be a huge disservice. But, I’ll say some of those surprises include  a brief but tense interaction with two motorcycle cops (one of the films best moments by the way, you’ll surly remember that one, let’s just say Adam is the real deal), meeting up with some characters you probably would have never expected to meet, which in turn leads to a badass chase sequence involving a huge truck, and an ending that seriously comes out of left fucking field. Even for a film like this which throws us many curveballs you won’t see that one coming. Remember that a lot of the film takes place inside a car, so along with the fact that these two people have a lunatic with a gun in the back seat of their car, the (often times witty) dialogue is important and is used as a great suspense builder. Walter and Adam do a ton of verbal (as well as physical) sparring. Adam suggests to Walter that he write a book about the whole ordeal but Walter’s response is that it won’t sell because nobody will be interested as Adam isn’t the big deal he thinks he is, he’s just “small time”. Also, when Adam does force Walter to “interview” him for said book, Walter makes the usual assumptions about Adam’s childhood that would make him turn out the way he is. Broken home, mother was a whore, and other things of the like. It’s always intense wondering how Adam will react to one of Walter’s remarks knowing how unstable he is. Even Eve gets in on the insults, claiming Adam only acts like a “real man” because he has a gun, although she would later go on to regret that. The topic of manhood actually comes up a bit during this film, but more on that below.

Along with being a road thriller, Hitch Hike in many ways could be seen as a character study, in fact I don’t think the film would have worked as well as it did had the characters not been as interesting as they are. Before we even meet Adam, we’re given just the right amount of set up to get to know Walter and Eve. It’s obvious these two can barley stand each other, hell the only time they take a break from arguing is when they’re screwing intensely. Despite all the hell that Adam puts them through on this hell ride, they STILL fight. You would think in a time like that it would be the perfect time to put aside all differences but no. It’s quite fascinating to watch how the two deal with the situation and each other, constantly hurling insults back and forth, each always trying to out smartass the other, which of course only fuels the fun Adam is having messing with them. Eve implying that Walter only married her for her fathers money, which also goes back to the topic of being a “real man”, Walter always referring to Eve as a whore, Walter tries to save himself and Eve, she insults him when his plan fails. You get the picture. There’s an interesting dynamic when it comes to Eve and the two men, as it’s obvious Walter is extremely jealous, as the whole ideal started when Adam made a pass at Eve, and Adam uses Walter’s jealously to his advantage. Adam himself is a very interesting psycho. Clearly out of his mind, yet there’s more too him than that, and throughout the film we gradually learn more about what makes him tick. There is a disturbing, charismatic charm about him, as Hess has that everyman gone horribly wrong quality about him.  All three play off each other beautifully, especially Hess and Nero. The back and forth’s between the two are always entertaining, even humorous at times, with both men constantly, purposefully mispronouncing the other’s name.

Ok Martini, or whatever you said your name was.
Ok Cunts, or whatever you said your name was.

Hitch Hike was shot in Italy but remember the story is supposed to take place in California  so director Pasquale Festa Campanile improvised and made some makeshift signs and things of the like to make places like a café and gas station seem more American. It worked pretty well because it’s mentioned in the documentary "The Devil Thumb’s a Ride" on the DVD that American tourists who were near the shoot said they were surprised to see parts of Italy that looked so American. Visually the film looks amazing, with the constant wide shots of the beautiful desert landscape and highway and the banjo heavy score by the legendary Ennio Morricone gives the film a distinct western feel, yet also unquestionably Italian. The music is put to perfect use when Adam rapes eve in front of Walter, whom is tied up and forced to watch. The music is fairly pulsating and Campanile cuts back and forth between Adam having his way with Eve and tight close up’s of Walter’s face. As the intensity in the music builds so does the look in Walter’s eyes, and the added red glow in his face from a nearby campfire make it ten times more effective. It’s perfectly photographed, and for a rape scene it’s actually very tastefully done. Well, as “tasteful” as a rape scene is going to get. Of course you can’t talk about the music in this film without mentioning the song “Sunshine” that we hear throughout the film. It’s ridiculously catchy and impossible to get out of your head after you’ve heard it but you won’t care. Obviously the tone of the song is far different from the film’s content but I guess that was the point.

For whatever reason, when Hitch Hike was first released in 1977, it barley played in any theatre’s in America, although it was a hit over sea’s. Still over the years it has become an underground classic, finally getting a great DVD treatment from the great Anchor Bay in 2002, which was subsequently re-issued a few years later by the great Blue Underground. If I had to nitpick about anything in the film, I’d say that the set up to the twist ending is a BIT far fetched. Still, an issue small as isn’t enough to ruin what I would dare call an otherwise flawless film. It’s exceptionally well written and acted (defiantly one of Franco Nero’s finest hours and again I reiterate it features Hess at his psychotic best),  it’s visually stunning, and features a great Morricone score, and it offers a hell of a lot more than most of the films that fall under the “exploitation” banner. There’s action, suspense, drama, tons of unexpected twists, not to mention a frequently naked Corinne Cléry. If you’re a fan of this type of cinema, or a fan of the late, very great David Hess or Franco Nero and Hitch Hike is not a part of your collection, my only question is why the hell not?! Although if you are a fan of Hess or Nero then you’ve probably been all over Hitch Hike for years. To put it in  Layman’s terms, it rules.

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