Friday, October 14, 2011

The Road Leads to Nowhere: Pasquale Festa Campanile's Hitch-Hike (1977)

A mesmerizing work from Italian director Pasquale Festa Campanile, 1977's Autostop rosso sangue (Hitch-Hike) is an unforgettable, if still relatively unknown, production that stands as one of the late-seventies most unique films. Driven by Campanile’s economical, and yet stylish, direction Hitch-Hike benefits greatly from three truly wonderful performances by a trio of undervalued actors: Franco Nero, Corinne Clery and David Hess. A road-movie, set in the States but filmed in Italy, driven by one of Ennio Morricone’s greatest scores, Hitch-Hike is as smart as the great art-house films of the seventies and as down and dirty as the period’s best exploitation films.

It’s probably not the best time for husband and wife Walter and Eve Mancini to take a cross-country road trip, as the couple has entered a stage in their relationship where they clearly can’t stand each other. They are on the road already though so there is really no going back and this is especially true when the couple pick up a stranded motorist, a deranged man who makes their already volatile trip a deadly one.

Pasquale Festa Campanile was nearing his fiftieth birthday when he shot Hitch-Hike in the early part of 1977. Campanile had been directing fairly prolifically since the early sixties but he was still probably best know for his screenwriting skills which included two of Visconti’s greatest works, Rocco and His Brothers (1960) and The Leopard (1963). Campanile, who passed away in 1986, remains an undervalued figure in Italian film history but it’s hard to imagine anyone watching Hitch-Hike who will be less than impressed by his considerable skill behind the camera.

Campanile shares the screenwriting credit of Hitch-Hike with frequent collaborator Ottavio Jemma and Aldo Crudo, one of the men responsible for the extraordinary Chi Sei a few years earlier. The screenwriting trio were working from a novel by Peter Kane and their script is intelligent, as well as viciously funny, and it serves as a real showcase for each one of the film’s three iconic actors, all whom deliver superlative performances.

Franco Nero had just wrapped the haunting Keoma when he shot Hitch-Hike and as burned-out writer Walter Mancini he gives one of his greatest and most powerful performances. Silent much of the time, Nero exudes a menacing cool throughout Hitch-Hike and he’s remarkable to watch. He’s also physically devastating to look at and you would be hard-pressed to find an actor who had as much talent and beauty as Nero did in this period.

Wild-eyed and maniacal, David Hess matches Franco Nero’s controlled work with a hot-wire unhinged performance that serves as an interesting companion role to his Krug in The Last House on the Left (1972) and Alex in House on the Edge of the Park (1980). Nobody could play madness with the kind of intensity and odd-charm like David Hess and he’s incredibly electrifying in Hitch-Hike. Watching his great work today it is hard to not feel regret that he wasn’t given more opportunities in his career but at least he closed it out with one of his essential performances, in the marvelous Smash-Cut (2009).

The biggest surprise in Hitch-Hike is the work of luminous Corinne Clery, a mostly underused actress who delivers a brutally complex and wonderfully alive performance for Campanile. One of the most beautiful actresses of the seventies, the French-born Clery is probably best-known for her work in powerful The Story of O (1975) and the uber-cheesy Moonraker (1979). Clery’s looks were justifiably celebrated but her chops as an actor were almost always overlooked, and Hitch-Hike is one of the few films where she really got a chance to show what she was capable of. She is terrific in the film and easily holds her own against her two charismatic and intense leading men.

Clery isn't the only great beauty in the film as knockout cult-figure Monica Zanchi also makes a quick, but memorable, appearance early on in the film. More information on the lovely Zanchi can be found at my friend David's terrific Tomb it May Concern for those interested.

While Hitch-Hike is a sharply written, directed and performed film, much of its lasting power comes from the extraordinary score by the great Ennio Morricone. The score for Hitch-Hike is mind-boggingly great and it stands as one of the maestro’s most essential soundtracks. Campanile’s film would have been a great one with another composer but Morricone’s involvement elevates it to masterpiece level and as the haunting ending of the film plays out it is impossible to imagine more fitting music.

Hitch-Hike has been available for the better part of the last decade on an excellent DVD from Anchor-Bay. Uncut and featuring a sharp looking anamorphic widescreen transfer, the Anchor-Bay disc also includes a terrific documentary entitled The Devil Thumbs a Ride that features interviews with all three of the film's iconic stars. It can be found on the cheap over at Amazon and it, like the film, is highly recommended.


Steve Langton said...

Lovely write-up, Jeremy. This has long been a firm favourite of mine. Incredibly strong performances from the 3 leads and, in many ways, this is my favourite performance from the sadly missed David Hess. Good to see some love for this classic.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks very much Steve...I'm happy to hear you are a fan of this often overlooked film as well.

tentas said...

great film
Nero+ Hess+Clery at their best
a favorite of mine