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DVD SAVANT

Thieves' Highway


Thieves' Highway
Criterion 273
1949 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 94 min. / Street Date February 1, 2004 / 39.95
Starring Richard Conte, Valentina Cortese, Lee J. Cobb, Barbara Lawrence, Jack Oakie, Millard Mitchell, Joseph Pevney, Morris Carnovsky
Cinematography Norbert Brodine
Art Direction Chester Gore, Lyle Wheeler
Film Editor Nick DeMaggio
Original Music Alfred Newman
Written by A.I. Bezzerides from his novel Thieves' Market
Produced by Robert Bassler
Directed by Jules Dassin

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.

Synopsis:

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 perishable apples.

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

(spoiler)

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 this good.

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:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
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


Footnotes:

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.
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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.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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