Hitch-Hike: The exploitation film that accidentally became a great crime drama

All of the elements were there. You had Corinne Clery, a beautiful actress who had shot to fame in the softcore S/M sensation THE STORY OF O. You had a script involving kidnapping and sexual degradation. Even a scene in the screenplay where the beautiful actress would emerge from a trailer with a rifle in her hand while completely naked. It all sounded perfect. Except for one thing. It didn’t turn out that way. HITCH-HIKE, or AUTOSTOP ROSSO SANGUE as it was known in its native Italy, became something far different.

Yes, there was some nudity. And the scene with the rifle is still considered the iconic image of the film. But the end result wasn’t the usual “have your naked and abused women and your revenge movie too.” In fact, much of it is far too disturbing and tense to be remotely erotic. Instead, against all odds, HITCH-HIKE became one of the darkest, nastiest views into the human soul since the books of Jim Thompson and James M Cain. A bleak take on the pettiness, greed and insecurities which make people do horrible things to each other in ways both big and small. It’s ugly. And, in it’s own way, on it’s own terms, it’s fantastic.

By the way, I have only seen the subtitled version of this film. The dubbed versions looked absolutely ridiculous and would have made it impossible to pay attention to any of the actual movie. I strongly suggest you do the same.

The plot of the film is not unlike that more famous road trip gone wrong movie with a similar title, THE HITCH-HIKER. Some folks pick up a stranger on the road who turns out to be a very bad person. However, unlike THE HITCH-HIKER, the folks in HITCH-HIKE are not fishing buddies. They are a married couple. And not just any married couple. But one so bitter and cruel to each other that it feels more like WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOLF or KNIFE IN THE WATER than a crime movie at times.

The husband is a newspaper reporter who has done very little reporting of late. He prefers to spend his time getting drunk and humiliating his wife or anyone else who comes across his path. His wife, as it turns out, is the bosses daughter. “The Princess,” as he calls her. In one memorable scene, the husband makes a long speech about how the day he married her, he was never taken seriously again. He implies that his career, and his manhood, were destroyed by his marriage to the rich, privileged and stunningly beautiful woman that became his wife. However, it’s also clear that as much as he blames her for her role in his decline, the person he truly loathes is himself.

The wife is harder to figure out but there is something clearly off about her. She seems far too good at forgiving her husbands unforgivable actions and enjoying a night of sex with him. And then there’s a scene I won’t give too many details about. But it’s about this same woman being forced to have sex with another man for the purpose of humiliating her husband. The way she reacts to the situation is highly dubious if not outright disturbing.

Now, take that happy couple and add a seriously psychotic bank robber and murderer into the mix and you can see how dark this film gets. The robber has a backstory about growing up with terrific, financially-stable, loving parents who were good people and good citizens. It repulsed him. In addition, the robber is so incredibly desperate to “be someone” that he has a discussion about letting the husband live so that he can write his biography. He wants the world to know who he is and why he does the things he does. A deal btw the husband refuses because he doesn’t believe the robber will stick to it, not because it’s a forgone conclusion that his wife will still be executed.

Pretty much every character in the movie is a horrible human being. That goes for the robber’s former associates to the hippie kids/bikers encountered at a roadside diner. If these people represent humanity, it’s time for the whole race to be wiped out in some sci-fi apocalypse so that the planet can be left to more worthy creatures like squirrels and chipmunks.

Let me step back for a moment here. HITCH-HIKE is good but is nowhere near perfect. Not even close. As unflinching as some of the human moments are in HITCH-HIKE are, there are still many things that still seem forced or inauthentic. This not only goes for the occasional line of clunky dialogue but for the film production, itself.

The characters in the movie are supposed to be Italian tourists traveling through Nevada and California. Except it’s not Nevada or California. It’s the Gran Sasso region of Italy. In spite of the American gas stations, signage and brands in the shot, it’s hard not to notice that the mountains in the background look a little too beautiful and “European” for California. And then there is the music by Ennio Morricone. It’s a great score. But it’s hard not be reminded of all the great spaghetti westerns Morricone had worked on with Sergio Leone and doesn’t quite seem to fit the film sometimes.

However, even with all that, there are moments in this film that are brutal, and, dare I say it, honest, in ways that are exceptional. Unusual in any film. Downright shocking in an exploitation film. Or something that should have been an exploitation film.

So, what happened? How did this thing get from girl with gun flick to an almost existential questioning on the nature of life and man? Okay, it’s never quite that lofty. But still, you see my point.

This is my theory. One of the big things was that that the husband was played by Franco Nero. Nero is most well known in America for his lead in Corbucci’s DJANGO. He knew the director of HITCH-HIKE, Pasquale Festa Capanile, and had wanted to work with him. It seemed meant to be. That is, until days before HITCH-HIKE was scheduled to begin shooting. Nero broke his arm.

Capanile refused to lose his star over something as trivial as a fractured bone. A quick rewrite was done to incorporate Nero’s broken arm into the character. Instead of being the driver on their journey, as originally scripted, his wife would have to drive him. It was a change that may have affected more than just the practicalities of traveling.

And then there was the choice of Capanile as the director in the first place. He had actually made his name in the film industry as a writer and associate of art film director Luchino Visconti. In fact, he had been deeply involved in both THE LEOPARD and ROCCO AND HIS BROTHERS. In addition, Capanile’s most famous films as a director were almost all comedies. Yet, this was the man at the helm of a movie featuring a naked girl with a gun.

And finally, there was the source material. I have never read THE VIOLENCE AND THE FURY by Peter Kane but I would like to. I’m just guessing here, but I would hazard to bet it’s a pretty hard boiled piece of literature based on the title. Even if it is, that doesn’t always mean anything. The aforementioned author, Jim Thompson, had a bunch of his bleak novels given the Hollywood treatment. The sort of screenplay adaptation that turned his book THE GETAWAY from a portrait of personal hell to a love story (albeit a violent one) in the Sam Peckenpah movie. But this time it happened. This time, some of the darkness that makes a great crime novel so compelling came through.

Grim truths would be told. There was power to be had by abusing others. There were insecurities and resentments which needed to be voiced. There were damaged people doing whatever they needed to do to get through, no matter who it hurt, or what the cost.

Hell, who needs a naked girl with a gun if you have all that? Then again, she is lovely to look at without her clothes on.