Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Thieves' Highway is powerful but compromised film noir that bares some honest truths
about making a living at the lower end of the entrepreneurial
scale. Firebrand writer A.I. Bezzerides all but indicts the American system of business with his
portrait of independent truckers trying to beat the odds against a crooked produce wholesaler.
In 1949 the HUAC witch hunters were well into their wholesale blacklisting of writing talent with
progressive ideas. If their methods relied on the actual content of films instead of simple
personal smears, Bezzerides' view of ordinary business as a dirty racket would have certainly
attracted their attention. As in the similar films Try and Get Me! and
The Breaking Point no claim is made that the racketeer of Thieves' Highway
is endemic or even typical. But the average viewer can easily jump to the conclusion that every
rung in the capitalist economic ladder is rigged in favor of the established few.
Unlike those other two films, Thieves' Highway is neither hysterical nor defeatist about
the struggle to succeed in a tough economic system. It's also not a standard David vs. Goliath
story, as our likeable hero's idealism isn't enough to prevail over organized thievery. As in all
of Jules Dassin's left-leaning dramas, real-life dilemmas have no simple solutions.
Sailor Nico Garcos (Richard Conte) returns from a voyage to find his trucker father
a cripple, maimed in a suspicious accident after being stiffed in a business deal by sharpie
produce wholesaler Mike Figlia (Lee J. Cobb). Using his savings, Nico goes in with a hard-boiled
trucker, Ed Prentiss (Millard Mitchell) to profit by hauling an early-season load of desirable
golden delicious apples. Nico takes offense at Ed's hardball business philosophy but learns that
he's a solid partner; unfortunately Nico gets to market with his load first and runs headlong
into Figlia's cheap tricks ... including it seems, local B-girl Rica (Valentina Cortese). Nico
gets some cash and a check and happily calls his fiancée Polly (Barbara Lawrence) to come
for a fast wedding, not realizing he's already in Figlia's trap.
A superior thriller with powerhouse acting from underrated stars Richard Conte and Lee J. Cobb,
Thieves' Highway places its story among the immigrant working class and specifically
identifies its characters as partially assimilated Greeks, Italians and Poles. For them, learning
the ropes of a new country
is a series of hard knocks. Nico Garcos sees himself as a tough guy unlikely to fall for the same
tricks as his gullible father who sits in a wheelchair with no legs, in denial of the fact that
he's been robbed.
Bezzerides captures perfectly the dynamics that go into real business dealmaking. Nico threatens
to repossess Ed's truck, and five minutes later becomes his partner. America is the land of
opportunity but also a place of risk and betrayal. Ed has
little choice but to slam the door on his previous partners Slob and Pete (Jack Oakie and Joseph
Pevney). The judgmental Nico makes a note of Ed's disloyalty. Later, he forces him
to deal straight with the Polish growers who fill their rickety truck with precious but
The high risk of the highway is yet another factor. Nico has a new Army surplus vehicle but Ed's
truck is at least twenty years old, a death trap that barely stays in one piece. Nico is an
experienced ship's engineer but makes an almost fatal mistake while changing a tire. Ed shows his
true loyalty by rescuing Nico, placing their partnership above profit.
But Nico has to face Figlia alone, and his refusal to be intimidated by the big boss of the produce
district doesn't help when Figlia has cronies to play dirty tricks like axing Nico's tires. Without
Ed around to present a united front, Nico is sidetracked by Rica ("Come on up to my room ...")
while Figlia brazenly sells his apples right off the back of his truck. Rica switches loyalties
to Nico's side while the film moves into its violent setpieces, action capped by the famous shot of
hundreds of apples tumbling down a steep hill.
Although none of the HUAC witch hunters were trained to look for subversive content in movies,
Thieves' Highway has two major threads that in retrospect could indeed be considered
threatening to the cultural thought police. Nico fails only because he's one man against the rackets.
Competing with one another, he, Ed and Ed's ex-partners Slob and Pete are easy prey for crooked
traps - Figlia picks them off one by one. Thieves' Highway never mentions
unions, but the look of Judas-like shame on Pete's face as Figlia patronizes him with a rotten
handout job tells it all. I can see the Teamsters loving this picture even more than writer
Bezzerides' older trucker-hero picture, They Drive By Night.
Thieves' Highway also strikes a blow for a sliding scale of heroism. Nico wants to make a buck,
avenge his dad and marry his sweetheart, so he's an obvious indentification figure. Ed isn't as
glamorous and we don't see his family. We're encouraged to judge him by his willingness to cheat the
Polish apple growers. But Bezzerides and Dassin don't require that all good men act like saints
all the time. Not only is Ed a stand-up guy when things get tough, he has the experience in dealing
with crooked racketeers that Nico sorely lacks. 1
Finally, Thieves' Highway has the gall to knock an unassailable fixture of Hollywood dramas.
Whitebread Polly (knockout blonde Barbara Lawrence, later of
Kronos) is the standard
MPAA reward for middle-class heroes. The dark, foreign, immigrant prostitute Rica is supposed
to be reformed but die in some classy last minute sacrifice to save the hero, like Linda Darnell in
My Darling Clementine.
Bezzerides has Polly jump to conclusions and stomp out of her engagement immediately upon seeing
Rica. When she finds out that Nico's bankroll has been stolen, it's the last straw. She
doesn't want Nick, she wants the American bridal package deluxe. Sam Fuller must have loved that
scene, and loved the Rica character, a woman with guts.
Savant wishes that Thieves' Highway were perfect, but it isn't. As Jules Dassin (now in his 90s)
explains in his interview, after he left the picture Darryl F. Zanuck reshot the ending. It's
one of the worst examples of movie-futzing on record. 2
Nico has lost his money, his apples, and his partner. One of his trucker-competitors balks, but
the other caves in and works for Figlia for pennies, recovering what can be recovered of a lost load
of produce. There's a terrific fight in a roadside café and all of a sudden the picture
wraps up with a bunch of ridiculous non-sequitir events. The cops show up to arrest Figlia as if
the law has been preparing a case against him all this time. They deliver a stern authoritarian
speech to Nico about not taking the law into his own hands. Two or three shots later, Nico and Rica
are are happily married couple, her sins magically transformed into bliss by the love of a good man.
With Mr. Bezzerides in 1997, at the LACMA repremiere of Kiss Me Deadly
The awfulness of this cop-out makes one want to throw up. I talked to the outspoken A.I. Bezzerides on the
phone in 1997 and when I brought up the subject I could tell he was still furious. Whatever differences
between director Dassin and Darryl Zanuck about this incident were apparently resolved, because in the
next couple of years Zanuck became a champion of blacklist-threatened writers and directors and the
best friend Dassin ever had in Hollywood.
Richard Conte is excellent in his scenes with Lee J. Cobb, giving their "bluff & threaten"
negotiations fine levels of complexity. Favorite Valentina Cortese is a good 'bad' girl, and Mitchell,
Pevney and especially Jack Oakie sketch solid characters with limited screen time. The atmospheric
locations add greatly to the story; just about the only dated aspect of the film is the truck
crash scene, which nowadays would be the most realistic part of the movie.
Criterion's disc of Thieves' Highway is another of their definitive presentations, with a
flawless transfer of a great-looking B&W movie. I don't think the Fox vault print at UCLA looked
Producer Issa Clubb gets plenty of mileage from a new Jules Dassin interview in which the director
speaks openly of the politics behind the movie and has glowing praise for his actors. He reveals that
Jack Oakey was stone deaf yet delivered his lines in perfect pitch and never missed a cue - even
when his back was turned to the action.
We get a look at author Bezzerides today in an excerpt from a promo for an unfinished docu.
There's also an original trailer, and a good essay on the picture by notable critic Michael Sragow.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Thieves' Highway rates:
Supplements: Audio commentary by author Alain Silver, interview with director Jules
Dassin, trailer, insert essay by film critic Michael Sragow
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 31, 2004
1. The writers of Ride
the High Country (not
necessarily Sam Peckinpah) made classic material out of this by acknowledging that straight-laced
marshall Joel McCrea's altruism has practical limits; outlaw Randolph Scott's
crooked ways are sometimes a blessing in disguise. Schindler's List carries this idea to its limit. No
ordinary guy could walk into Auschwitz and talk the commandant into releasing a couple of boxcars
full of Jews slated for extermination. Only a devious, corrupt and experienced bastard like
Schindler could pull off such a thing.
2. Just off the top of my head, I can think of Fritz Lang's Fury
and Ted Tetzlaff's The Window as lesser examples of this; Kiss Me Deadly is not in
the same category because its ending was jiggered unofficially, after its initial release.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson