Home Video Hovel: Hitch-Hike, by West Anthony
Hitch-Hike begins with Franco Nero having sex with his wife in uncomfortably close proximity to a dead animal. It would be nice if this was as lurid as the film got, but director Pasquale Festa Campanile has a different movie in mind. The 1977 Italian thriller stars Nero and Corinne Clery as Walter and Eve, an Italian couple traveling through California who pick up a hitch-hiker named Adam (David Hess) who is — surprise! — not what he seems. Well, that’s a bit unfair, because he seems like a skeevy psycho-killer from the get-go, but I guess sleepier viewers aren’t meant to catch on quite so quickly. The couple is plunged almost immediately into rape, murder, and unsavory psychological brinksmanship before gently coming to a horrific and nihilistic end.
It’s clear from the start that Walter and Eve are trapped in a loveless and antagonistic marriage, but the unique thing about the story is the way a crisis seemingly does nothing to bring them together. In similar stories of couples being tormented by evildoers, they always start out bickering and end up bonding through adversity, ending up stronger than they ever were. Walter, in contrast, never once seems to get over the resentment he feels toward Eve for stopping the car to pick up Adam to begin with (you’d think he would be more forgiving when you consider he jumps all over her whenever he feels like it). The film feels awfully derivative of Ida Lupino’s classic 1953 film noir The Hitch-Hiker, at least up to the point where the protagonists meet up with a pair of Adam’s accomplices in crime, whereupon the film suddenly falls into a protracted scene that feels awfully derivative of Steven Spielberg’s Duel, which reaches a climax that asks us to have no idea who is transparently driving a malevolent truck.
There is a lot of this kind of activity throughout Hitch-Hike – the audience is repeatedly asked to ignore decades of collective film viewing and be shocked and surprised at every blindingly obvious story beat. Franco Nero manages to impart a kind of broken dignity to Walter, and delivers the only really good performance in the film. Corinne Clery is sadly given very little to do apart from screaming and being abused in various states of undress, while David Hess’ performance consists solely of leering and scenery-chewing that would not have been out of place in a guest performance on The Mod Squad. The three characters plod forward along their stale and well-trodden path until the final minutes, which is where Hitch-Hike manages to take a startlingly unexpected turn: the moment in which, in every other version of this story, the embattled couple overcome all obstacles and walk hand in hand into a stronger, loving future instead leads the protagonists into a far darker denouement that has to be seen to be disbelieved (it does, however, feel awfully derivative of Byron Haskin’s 1949 noir Too Late For Tears). The quiet savagery of the ending almost justifies everything that has come before it, not least because the notion that a couple would somehow be A-OK after everything that happens to Walter and Eve in this picture strikes me as a tad improbable.
Hitch-Hike has been restored and released on Blu-ray by Raro Video, and looks and sounds about as good as a low-budget Italian thriller is going to get; Ennio Morricone provides an incongruously jaunty score featuring a guitar/banjo duo that provides the only irony for miles around. The film claims to be based on a novel by Peter Kane, but all evidence indicates that neither the novelist nor his novel exist in our universe; Campanile is employing his own variant on the Coen Brothers’ “based on a true story” gambit from Fargo, which implies that source material lends authenticity to otherwise preposterous shenanigans. In this case, if Hitch-Hike is based on a published work by a gentleman with glasses and a pipe and elbow patches on his corduroy jacket, then the film couldn’t possibly be the roiling cauldron of sleaze we see before us, right? I don’t know whom the director thought he was fooling, but he certainly needn’t have bothered, because Hitch-Hike is B-grade 70’s exploitation that knows exactly what buttons it’s pushing, and the audience for this picture needs no justification for its jollies.