The beautiful French actress Corinne Cléry endured an unusual amount of onscreen punishment in her early roles. Throughout the softcore epic The Story of O (1975), she’s beaten, psychologically tormented, and used as a sexual plaything. And throughout the lurid Italian road movie Hitch-Hike, she suffers much of the same treatment. Although the latter picture has strong cinematic merits, including a deep wellspring of plot twists and a wickedly fast pace, it’s difficult not to view Hitch-Hike through the prism of Cléry’s characterization. Hitch-Hike is a twisted sort of male fantasy, so the presence of a comely woman who gets off on being abused feeds into the picture’s overall themes of masculine energy run amok. Partisans of the picture, including the actors, perceive Hitch-Hike as a serious examination of troubling concepts, and that interpretation has some validity. Yet at the same time, the movie is shamelessly exploitive and sensationalistic. Unlike other ’70s movies that mixed notions of gender and violence in provocative ways, however, Hitch-Hike doesn’t shield itself against criticism through the use of believable characters and immaculate plotting. After all, Cléry’s character ignores several opportunities to escape captivity, and the main villain ludicrously survives many near-death encounters. In other words, Hitch-Hike is a thrill ride first, and a movie of ideas second. The difference matters.
Shot in Italy but designed to look like it was photographed in the California/Nevada desert, Hitch-Hike begins by introducing Walter Mancini (Franco Nero) and his wife, Eve (Cléry), two vacationing Europeans. Walter, a journalist of dubious credibility, is a self-loathing drunk who physically, sexually, and verbally abuses Eve. Theirs is a marriage of convenience, since Eve’s father is Watler’s boss, but they’re bonded by a vivacious sex life. One afternoon, the couple picks up a hitchhiker, Adam Konitz (David Hess), who turns out to be an escaped bank robber. Before long, Adam makes sport of tying up Walter and then raping Eve in front of her helpless husband—even though, per the deviant spirit of the movie, Eve enjoys being raped as much as she enjoys her usual rough sex with Walter. Violent plot twists pile atop each other as the movie speeds toward a nihilistic climax.
Cowritten and directed by Pasquale Festa Campanile, from a novel by Peter Kane, Hitch-Hike has energy to burn. The cinematography by Franco Di Giacomo and Giuseppe Ruzzolini is vibrant, the editing by Antonio Siciliano is almost savagely fast at times, and the music by Italian-cinema mainstay Ennio Morricone is suitably bizarre. (Even the dubbing, de rigeur for Italian movies of the period, is better than usual, so lip movements and voices match fairly well.) Htich-Hike is executed with above-average skill on every level except perhaps the most important ones. The story prioritizes excitement over logic and taste, Cléry and Nero give enthusiastic but unpersusive performances, and Campanile plays a tricky game of simultaneously celebrating and satirizing the male animal; after all, Campanile’s camera spends as much time lingering on the contours of Cléry’s nude body as do the eyes of the predators who bedevil her character. There’s a conversation piece buried in this gruesome movie, but the conversation it invites is not a pleasant one.