Out now on Raro, if you haven’t seen it already, now is the perfect time to check out one of the most interesting entries in the late 70s exploitation and crime cycle: Hitch-Hike (1977).
At first glance the gritty nihilism of Hitch-Hike may appear to have little in common with the bulk of director Pasquale Festa Campanile’s wider career in film. The filmmaker built his name working predominately in comedy and was highly prolific during in his time. Despite this, he is rarely discussed in the wider context of Italian cinema outside of his native homeland. This factor is maybe due to the fact that the Italian sex comedy is still hugely underrepresented in the realm of legitimate English friendly home video releases. Ironically though, many of those outside of Italy who have heard of him, usually have because of the apparent anomaly Hitch-Hike and its appeal as a prime piece of Italian exploitation film; although the director is also responsible for two erotic tinged titles:The Libertine (1968) and The Slave (1969), both of which have also gathered a limited cult fanbase in English speaking territories. While Hitch-Hike is not without its moments of black humour, the story of a married couple kidnapped and terrorized by a lone stranger they pick up during a road trip, is hardly a barrel of laughs when compared to some of the director’s more lighthearted jaunts; like the hilariously silly Caveman comedies: When Women Had Tails (1970) and When Women Lost their Tails (1972). However, there are some shared themes to be found, making Hitch-Hike surprisingly very much a typical Festa Campanile picture regardless of surface appearances; specifically in the way the filmmaker plays around with traditional gender roles in his work. Here, this relates to lead character Walter Mancini, played by the epitome of Italian macho Franco Nero; Festa Campanile cleverly playing with expectation, manipulating how audiences react to the performance. Taking everything we are expected to “know” about Franco Nero and the kind of roles he typically played, while subverting and defying those expectations. Because of this Hitch-Hike really becomes something else, and not just an amazing piece of Italian exploitation cinema, but testament to Nero’s range and capability as an actor working in the sphere of cult film.
Adapted from Peter Duke’s novel The Violence and the Fury the story follows a structure much like Mario Bava’s Rabid Dogs (1974); with most of the action taking place within the claustrophobic confines of a travelling vehicle. Campanile and his cinematographers Franco Giacomo (Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971), Who Saw Her Die? (1972) and Guiseppe Ruzzolini Oedipus Rex (1967) Teorema (1968) Short Night of the Glass Dolls (1971), handle the technical difficulties inherent in cramped shooting conditions with ease, keeping the levels of oppression turned up to eleven throughout. The director loads on the atmosphere, fuelling every frame with unease, tension, and enough shocks to satisfy even the most hardened of exploitation fans. The plot focusing on unhappily married Walter (Franco Nero) and Eve Mancini (Corinne Clery) who have their lives shattered when an escaped robber Adam (David Hess) cons the couple into picking him up from a broken down vehicle on the rouse he’s an everyday guy needing some assistance. What they don’t know is their passenger has just fled from a robbery, and is carrying the loot. He is also extremely dangerous and violent; willing to go to any lengths to ensure he evades capture and keeps his cash.
The chemistry between co-stars Nero and Hess dominates the piece. We quickly learn Walter Mancini is a failure, and a very bitter one at that. A failed husband and writer, Mancini is cuckolded by his economic situation, forced to live off his wife Eve— working for her father’s company— resorting to drink to cope with his inadequacy as a breadwinner. However, Eve is a patient woman, regardless of the poison that Walter constantly spouts at her, as he swigs down a never ending supply of booze. When Adam joins the party the fun begins; the criminal taking the position of alpha male, using this to humiliate Walter further. Hess and Nero engage in some fantastic verbal jousting, before events spiral out of control. Hess, playing his typical sadistic, obnoxious, bad guy you love to hate persona, with Nero (as cowardly subjugate) bouncing off this energy. The results are nothing short of fantastic, with the dialogue between the two often falling into bleakly comic territory. Corinne Clery is equally as memorable in her role as the lamentable Eve; her character the only true victim in the entire grisly affair. She also displays a great strength in her part, making matters all the more tragic when the film hits its unpredictable and mean spirited (yet showstopping) ending. Ultimately Clery steals the show when matters hit boiling point,rising, completely naked and touting a shotgun, taking control of two men wrapped up in petty squabbling like the overgrown kids they really are, in one of the most iconic scenes of the piece.
Incidentally, the film was directly homaged in Astron 6’s indie hit The Editor (2014), where a pinnacle rape scene was recreated on a horror/comedy/tribute canvass to interesting effect.
This new edition from Raro looks beautiful. Upgraded from a 35mm master, you can almost taste the atmosphere of stale booze, blood and sweat from inside the Mancini car. Detail is clear, and the film retains a nice texture and grain for the most part. The disc comes packaged with documentary Road to Ruin; providing background on the film, and first hand anecdotes from cast and crew.
The Bottom Line
One of the best Italian exploitation films to come out of the late seventies, Hitch-Hike is well deserving of an upgrade. Taught, nasty, and sometimes even funny, with great performances from all those involved, the film stands as testament to Pasquale Festa Campanile and his ability as a filmmaker to really push the bar in Italian cult cinema. Highly recommended.