Jules Dassin, 1949
Starring: Richard Conte, Valentina Cortese, Lee J. Cobb
Nick, a well-traveled a ship mechanic in the war, returns home to find that his father, a truck driver, has been crippled. Though it seems to be an accident, he comes to believe that a crooked produce dealer from San Francisco, Mike Figlia, is responsible. Nick decides to put things right and gets involved in delivering a truckload of apples on a grueling 36-hour drive north, where Figlia tries to con Mike out of his stock and his money. With the help of a brazen streetwalker, Rica, Nick goes head-to-head with Mike and his gang of ruffians.
Written by A.I. Bezzerides and based on his own novel, Thieves' Market, this was director Jules Dassin’s final film in America after being blacklisted by H.U.A.C. and moving to England and then Europe. Just as his previous film noir, The Naked City, shows life in working-class ‘40s New York City, Thieves' Highway presents a surprisingly accurate view of life on the docks in San Francisco inside the busy produce market. Though Dassin used actual workers from the market as extras, this film involves far less of a look at the city as a whole, focusing more on Richard Conte (The Godfather, Ocean’s Eleven) as Nick – and this is where the film stumbles.
Though Conte is a competent actor, Nick is a frustratingly simple character. He’s proud and tough, but also physically vulnerable and unafraid to access his emotions, though he lacks any shred of individuality. He is also from the typically isolated, doomed noir protagonist, yet everything that could go wrong for Nick does. His father is crippled, he is cheated out of money for a truck that his father was forced to sell, he is nearly crushed to death by the truck, undergoes several days’ worth of sleep deprivation, and he is constantly undermined and sabotaged by Figlia and his gang. When he finally gets his money back, he is robbed and beaten. When his fiancée comes to visit, she is disgusted to learn that his money is gone and she leaves him. And so on. An element that sets this apart from the standard noir – where a luckless protagonist meets misfortune through a combination of chance and his own poor decision making – is that everything that goes wrong does so because Figlia orders it, but neither Nick nor any of his compatriots are allowed to get vengeance upon Figlia himself.
It’s difficult to sympathize with Nick because of this, and because he never really gets vengeance upon anyone who wrongs him. Though Ed (Millard Mitchell), his trucking partner for a time, winds up being something of a tragic figure, for much of the film he seems like he’s waiting for an opportunity to screw over Nick. Nick forces him to give a farmer the money Ed owes, but outside of that, Ed is free to walk all over him. The film’s ending is certainly the most disappointing aspect. Dassin had no hand in it, as he was out of the country by the time the final cut was produced, so the studio intervened. In a final scene where Nick is beating Figlia, he is interrupted by the cops in a ham-fisted deus ex machina that is teeth-grindingly frustrating. It seems that Nick might be able to pull some fitting revenge out of his hat at the last minute, but instead two police officers – the same cops who have been there all along, doing nothing to fight the violence and corruption – reprimand him and say that they will handle Figlia and his gang.
Nick and Rica’s happy ending feels horribly saccharine after the constant, crushing defeat experienced throughout the film, but it is slightly less grating thanks to the presence of Valentina Cortese (Juliet of the Spirits, The Barefoot Contessa; Dassin’s girlfriend at the time). Rica is the film’s most complex character with real warmth, eroticism, and a touch of the exotic lacking in the film’s numerous other immigrants. It is implied that Rica is a prostitute, but she is revealed as being less money-hungry than Nick’s blonde, American girlfriend. Joseph Peyney and Jack Oackie put in some solid performance as the comedic relief, two rival truckers following Ed and Nick on their journey north. This is really Lee J. Cobb’s (12 Angry Men) film as Figlia, the charming and greedy produce dealer who has a hand in everything from theft to murder.
Thieves' Highway is available on DVD from Criterion. It comes recommended, though I don’t think it’s one of Dassin’s best films. It feels overly similar to the earlier Humphrey Bogart-vehicle, They Drive By Night, another film about truckers trying to escape a corrupt industry and back-breaking, often fatal work. It turns out that that film was also based on a novel by A.I. Bezzerides, Long Haul. Thieves' Highway has many elements in common, far too many to really hold my interest. In both, the road is symbolic of blue collar life and brotherly camaraderie, but also reflects those dangers and the potential for violence, corruption, and death. If you’re going to watch a bleak, noir-themed film about truck drivers, Thieves' Highway would be my third choice after Wages of Fear and then They Drive By Night, though it is still a solid work of late ‘40s filmmaking.