After murdering a theatre manager for his cash, forger turned stick up man Steve Morgan (Lawrence Tierney) has to get out of town, and fast. As luck would have it, he thumbs a ride and is picked up by salesman Jimmie Ferguson (Ted North), who is a little merry on his latest drink, but able to stick to the lines in the road, and starts regaling Morgan about how pleased he is to be returning to his wife, Diane (Marian Carr). The criminal thinks they're newlyweds, but no, they been married for a couple of years now, they're just in love, something that cynical Morgan has no concept of. But he keeps quiet, aware that he is on to a good thing here: Ferguson is obviously a total sap...
Lawrence Tierney made his name in this sort of tough guy role, the sort who doesn't take any bullshit from anybody - though he's not averse to doling it out - and if violence is the only way he can get the advantage, he was not averse to using it, whether he was playing a good guy or a bad guy. His good guys usually had some moral shading about them, they had been falsely accused for example, but his bad guys were patently more his forte, especially when the more you heard about Tierney's private life, the more you started to believe he was not acting for these hardman characters: you would be forgiven for thinking the hard-drinking, hard-living guy was just himself.
This has given Tierney a real edge in his cult following, which was revived by Quentin Tarantino who cast him as the crime boss in Reservoir Dogs: people were interested in him again, wondering who this gravel-voiced and burly performer was, and perhaps surprised to learn his career went back, off and on, to leads in B movies from the nineteen-forties and fifties. This new cult sought out his real gems, like Born to Kill or Dillinger (where he essayed the notorious gangster as if born to the part), and this little item, with its crackerjack noir title and hardboiled storyline that showed the star to his best advantage as one of his nastiest portrayals, and with his filmography that was saying something.
Yet there was more to The Devil Thumbs a Ride than the thrills and spills, for it had a real sense of humour as well. It was not a wholesome laughter it elicited, however, more the snarky, sardonic chuckles when Morgan behaves badly, revelling in his social rule breaking as much as his grimmer behaviour: when the gas station attendant proudly shows him and Ferguson a picture of his little daughter, Morgan sarcastically makes fun of her looks and it's difficult not to snicker at his rudeness. But her does a lot worse than that, such as taking the wheel of his host's car and getting into a chase with a motorcycle cop: when he is finally persuaded to pull over, he promptly runs over said cop with the vehicle and takes off again, yet somehow is able to convince the gullible Ferguson that he has perfectly good reason for this attempted murder.
But almost everyone here was quirky, such as the pair of ladies Morgan coaxes his driver into giving a lift to as well, one the meek Carol (Nan Leslie) and the other the brassy Agnes (Betty Lawford) who is simply his moll-in-waiting. But even the relatively straightlaced Carol has her weird side, as once they hole up in a holiday home of Ferguson's boss, she admits to Morgan out of the blue that she plans to be an actress, but has changed her name from Beulah Zorn (!) about which he can barely stop himself from laughing in her face. As all this is going on, and the villain is acting up in increasingly menacing ways, the cops are on the case - or are they? The film keeps cutting back to them supposedly hard at work, but they are actually deep in a poker match instead (!). There was plenty off-kilter about this, so that when another murder occurs, it's genuinely shocking since you thought you might have been watching a comedy. One of the most idiosyncratic of the forties supporting features, and at just over an hour, one of the snappiest. Music by Paul Sawtell.