In the studio era of the thirties, forties, and early fifties many—maybe even most—directors functioned as efficient craftsmen rather than conscious artists. Pointing this out takes nothing away from these directors or their work, it just acknowledges the reality that making movies at that time was factory work.
Take someone like Felix Ellison Feist. He worked in every genre from science fiction to musicals, and if he never won any awards or became a brand name, he also rarely made a bad film.
His best work was a series of muscular film noirs in the late forties and early fifties. In 1947, Feist took a job at RKO to write and direct a tight little thriller called The Devil Thumbs a Ride with the crazy man of noir, Lawrence Tierney. At sixty-two minutes, the film is as fast and a s fun as a joy ride. Nutjob Tierney thumbs a ride with nice guy Ted North and then turns his life into an ever darkening nightmare. In adapting the script from a sloppy novel by Robert DuSoe, Feist centered the plot around a powerful central idea: every scene makes things worse.
The result is a hell of a good time. Tierney delivers his signature performance (Quentin Tarantino, who later worked with Tierney on Reservoir Dogs, once laughingly said “The Devil Thumbs A Ride should really be called The Lawrence Tierney Story.”) Although Feist hated the upbeat ending mandated by the studio, he was proud of the film itself. Alongside Detour and The Hitch-Hiker, The Devil Thumbs a Ride deserves a place in the Hitchhiker from Hell Hall of Fame.
In 1949, Feist made another thriller for RKO, the prison break movie The Threat. Again working with scant screen time (66 minutes), Feist keeps things moving at a clip. Gangster Charles McGraw busts out of Folsom Prison and kidnaps the cop who put him there. While the film ostensibly stars Michael O’Shea as the cop, Feist focuses everything on the vicious performance of McGraw. One of the great noir performers, McGraw is riveting as he growls out his dialog and slaps around the rest of the cast.
In 1950, Feist made an overlooked little thriller called The Man Who Cheated Himself. Lee J. Cobb plays an honest cop who agrees to help his girlfriend cover up the killing of her wealthy husband. From an actor who engaged in a lot of Method-screaming in his career, Cobb’s quietly emotional performance is a revelation. (Perhaps because Feist was so good at keeping his plots moving, its easy to miss what a good actor’s director he was.) The best part of the film is the climax, a haunting sequence in San Francisco’s Fort Point—some of the best location shooting in any noir of the era.
In 1951, Feist went to Warner Brothers to make his best film, Tomorrow is Another Day. Steve Cochran stars as a man recently paroled from prison who gets involved with a dancehall girl played by Ruth Roman. When he accidently kills her sugar daddy, they go on the lam.
With a little more time and money than he was accustomed to, Feist’s direction here is outstanding. He allows the romance between the leads to take center stage. Cochran and Roman get to know each other, changing and falling in love in a way that is both believable and sweet.
This is still a crime film, though, and its notable for the way it uses silence both to develop character and to build suspense. There’s a fantastic sequence in middle of the film in which Cochran and Roman attempt to sneak into a car on top of an auto-transport truck. It’s an excellent blend of acting, camerawork, and sound. The script by Guy Endore and Art Cohn is a sharp piece of work, and Feist has a nice time with the scenes building toward the climax. As a series of mishaps start to squeeze Cochran and Roman, it’s interesting to note that the tension derives from a further complicating of their relationship. She can take the pressure, but we’re not so sure about him. Feist and the screenwriters have less success with the film’s overly tidy resolution. Many noirs have weak finishes, but the finish here is notable in its forced attempt at uplift. Still, Tomorrow is Another Day is an excellent film waiting to be discovered by noir fans. It’s a success for everyone involved, especially for Felix Feist.
While it’s unlikely that he’ll be rediscovered as an auteur, Feist should get more respect. For noir fans, at least, he leaves behind The Devil Thumbs a Ride, The Threat, The Man Who Cheated Himself, and Tomorrow is Another Day. Not bad for a factory worker.
Read all posts by Jake Hinkson for Criminal Element.