Roads girdle the globe
We safe in your concrete home
Hail mother motor
Hail piston rotor
- XTC, "Roads Girdle the Globe"
The road to redemption is a lost highway, a barren blacktop that sometimes turns into the longest stretch of road ever taken. The lure of the open thoroughfare, a solid cement line driving directly into the far off horizon inspires such enigmatic wanderlust that it's impossible to imagine how most humans manage to avoid its potent possibilities. Yet few people want to make their living on the road, be it in a daily commute, or as part of some business-based travel plan. The trucker may not be the bravest, or the most respected of American entrepreneurs, but it truly takes a unique individual to ride the four lane facets of this great nation in a continuous crawl to earn a buck: The loneliness; The long hours; The endless monotony of mile after mile – the hauler of freight today finds himself in a high tech world of unions, regulations and mandates that turn the once precarious occupation into a never ending search for a respectable rest stop.
But back before the world went whitewash, when capitalism was carving out a corrupt and crucial niche into a rebounding post-war economy, the trucker was a stunt man, a risk taker for minimal monetary rewards. Required to not only navigate the highways and byways, but the shady dealers and unethical farmers at either end of the route, the driver was the dupe, the manageable mark between several smooth operators. For most, the game was too grueling (and would be for decades to come). Others just went with the fraudulent flow. Like the slaughterhouses at the turn of the century, or the seedy shipyards of the modern metropolis, the freight game needed a champion, someone to expose the corruption and fuel the public outcry. But instead of a searing indictment of the industry, A. I. Bezzerides crafted Thieves' Market, a semi-autobiographical account of his days in the road ranger racket.
Purchased by 20th Century Fox and fashioned into a project for director Jules Dassin, Market became neither the hard-hitting depiction nor the wounded whistleblower most were expecting. Instead, it became a nuanced noir, an uneasy combination of hope and desolation wrapped in an intriguing tale of revenge and individual salvation. For Nick "Nico" Garcos, the path to some kind of permanent peace was indeed paved with good intentions. But somewhere along the line, he took a detour, and found himself lost on the freeway of fate. Money is not the only thing that's stolen along this sordid stretch of road. It is also possible to loose your soul along this Thieves' Highway.
Nico returns home from his travels overseas to discover that his father has been crippled at the hands of unscrupulous produce broker Mike Figlia. Determined to get a little payback for his now wheelchair-bound dad, Nico looks up Ed (the man who bought his father's truck) and the two strike up a deal. They will pick up a shipment of apples and deliver them to Figlia. It will give Nico a chance to meet the menace face-to-face, and hopefully convey a little revenge along with the fruit. After a few minor mishaps, Nico finally arrives in San Francisco, and his first meeting with Figlia is uneventful. After another confrontation, things really start to go astray. A prostitute named Rica picks up Nico. While resting in her room, Figlia tries to steal Nico's shipment. Demanding and getting payment for his crop, Nico again ends up with Rica. He is then attacked and his money taken. When Ed finally fails to show up, Nico learns the horrible truth about his whereabouts, and follows Figlia to the scene to settle the score once and for all.
Thieves' Highway is a B-picture in basis that transcends its genre oriented trappings to paint a powerful, if occasionally idealistic, portrait of intrastate trucking in the years following World War II. Using a standard storyline in which a son must avenge a wrong done to his father, and face down his own personal faults and flaws in the process, it is a moralistic battle waged along the highways and byways between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Based on a blistering, behind the scenes novel by A .I. Bezzerides (who also wrote the screenplay) and modified to fulfill a more mainstream, Hollywood ideal by studio head Darryl F. Zanuck, Thieves' is a strange combination of fable and potboiler, a melodrama drained of most hot wired histrionics to try and balance the believable with the ballyhoo. In the hands of any other filmmaker, the results would be ludicrous or laughable, an example where pastel plotting replaced everything electric about a certain story. But thanks to the steady cinematic hand of Jules Dassin, Thieves' Highway manages a tale-telling truce. It achieves all its goals, both the romantic and the rough.
Indeed, you can see a truly seething slice of bitter reality rumbling beneath the more fairytale like surface of Thieves', a narrative tension that amplifies the already ripe mood and atmosphere. Director Dassin, working within the noir nuances that he helped make famous, uses his monochrome palette more for its starkness than its symbolism, giving this wicked world of unscrupulous truckers and merchants a gritty, grimy authenticity all its own. Instead of shadows casting doubt about the intentions of the characters Thieves' is a movie draped in darkness almost exclusively. Everywhere, from the marketplace at early morning, to the office where Figlia runs his business are dimly lit and claustrophobic, crowded with both the present population and the ghosts of evil deeds done before. Rica's room is homey but hole-like, buried in the back of a building that overlooks blackened streets and a lightless harbor. About the only location bathed in sunshine is the farm where Nico and Ed pick up their apples, and yet once they leave with their load, the place seems less friendly, less open and spacious. All throughout Thieves' Highway, the nuances of noir are at play, if not always perfectly aligned or in tune with current critical analysis.
Dassin also creates a lot of interesting tension and suspense in this film, elements you just wouldn't expect from a wannabe high-minded exposé. Sensing the agenda in the little guy vs. the racket facets of the narrative, the director uses mise-en-scene, expert editing and a fatalistic foreshadowing to truly turn up the tenets of trepidation. Because Nico's cause is so gosh-darned noble, we root for him to succeed almost immediately, and when we see some of his fathers 'born every minute' tendencies in decision making, we understand how vulnerable he is, how ready for the rousting he appears. So from the moment he and Ed team up, we are waiting for the other angst-ridden shoe to drop. We hold up under the weight of a flat tired turned nearly lethal, an initial confrontation with Figlia, a rendezvous with the questionable Rica and a full blown fisticuffs face off, all the while feeling Dassin behind the lens, turning up the heat and twisting at the anticipation.
The payoff that occurs, however, is more half-hearted than heroic, simply because the subject matter demands it. At the heart of Thieves' Highway is a meditation of corruption, about how the world runs on payoffs, bribes, threats and muscle. Innocent immigrants unaware of how the capitalist sense of criminal commerce works are instantly taken. Women, still a few decades away from any sense of liberation, are either victims of the gears of greed, or are direct participants – cogs if you will – in the system that makes them suffer. Those on the outside looking in appear like pawns in a game they could never truly understand, while those on the inside appear more desperate and diseased than their reputation begins to suggest. While some could read a potential political facet in this view of the produce business (Dassin was forced to leave Hollywood for France after being blacklisted as a Communist in 1952), the truth is that the trucking and food marketing industry have been notoriously crooked since certain Sicilian families set up shop for their made men mercantilism before the turn of the century.
But Thieves' suggests that the evil is actually inside all of us, that all men carry a very human desire to swindle and deceive. Ed would cheat the apple growers on their price, or fail to offer up the difference to partner Nico. While Nico is set up as the hero, he does fall instantly for Rica and makes his intentions more than clear, even as he calls his fiancé Polly to set up a quickie wedding. Our betrothed lady herself is a transparent tart (an added story element from the omnipresent hand of Zanuck) who only wants Nico for his potential financial facets. And Rica, naturally, is the prostitute with the heart – and in some cases, head, ethos and emotions – of gold, ready to roll her mark one moment, marry him another. Such perplexing principles could be mistaken for ambivalence, or worse yet, a sense of sloppy filmmaking. But Dassin and Bezzerides are after something different here. They want to play with perception so that we never truly get comfortable with anything here. We have to believe that everyone is capable of a two-faced deception, less everything fall apart and into a standard bit of good vs. evil grandstanding.
Another disquieting facet of Thieves' Highway is the title entity itself, that long dark stretch of pavement that moves between major metropolitan centers and connects one destination, and destiny, to another. For the last few years, Nico has been out at sea (either as a merchant marine or in the war – both are implied) and has drifted around from port to port, collecting trinkets and memories. But just like the battlefields of Europe, with their whirlwind cacophony of noises and dangers, Nico's experience with the road – the deafening hum of revving motors, the omnipresent artillery of the automobile bearing down on him, offers none of the wistful bliss of his previous travels. Indeed, the pre-Interstate aspects of Thieves' Highway make for a far more dangerous situation than exists in our current, cross-country mentality. During one of the film's set piece moments – Nico changes a flat tire in the sand near the side of an insanely busy byway - the constant drone of the traffic and the overbearing threat to Nico's safety, gives us our first hint at the horrors and hardships ahead.
But it's Mike Figlia himself, as perfectly personified by Lee J. Cobb (giving one of his patented portly provocateur performances) that represents the real danger on this highway to Hell, a man who thinks nothing of cutting off the legs of people he doesn't want to pay, or stealing a shipment out from under a neophytes nose. But worse than such uncomfortable individualized ethics is his baneful business sense. Figlia represents industry in the post-war boom, a well-honed combination of free market, fleecing and finances. Using muscle and menace, along with the universal desire of all involved to make a buck, Figlia has it all figured out – at least for now. He knows all the angles and embodies all the scams. It is interesting to note that, in the end, the only way Figlia can be defeated is via an actual PHYSICAL confrontation. All the plotting and planning, scheming and swindling never really resolves itself. Indeed, since one of Thieves' Highway's main themes is that EVERYONE is crooked in one way or another, it's impossible for anyone to win unless they are willing to brawl for their seat at the top. Figlia has used intimidation and violence to resolve the vast majority of his issues. It is only when Nico drops down to this rat's repulsive level that he starts to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Every journey needs an innocent bystander, someone effected by events outside their control simply because they find themselves stuck in the middle of unexpected issues. Though he's no angel, Ed plays the plot patsy well, a muddled man made good by Nico's initial honesty and drive. Hoping for a big score, but never agreeing to pay the price he does, Ed is the backend arc of the quest. He is the cavalry that never arrives, the denouncement that only causes more confusion. As if to signal the futility of this entire endeavor, Ed gets a spectacular, sad sendoff, and yet Dassin and Bezzerides intend his fate to signify something more. So Figlia comes along to dance on his destiny, to prove that his sacrifice was all in vane and singularly foolish. While the prostitute Rica has a similar path to uneasy realization (she is really just a wannabe war bride trading flesh until her Romeo arrives), Ed is the core conceit in Dassin's design. He is meant to be the symbol of hard working citizen who can't catch a break within an organization conspiring to undermine him at every mile along the way.
To sell the slightly convoluted nature of these characters requires actors of unusual skill and specificity. Dassin pads his cast with all manner of mainstays (Jack Oakie as a buffoonish bully named Slob) but it's his decisions with the leads that are most amazing. Cobb is a given, able to deliver this kind of blustery, blistering performance in his uneasy sleep. But as our hero, Richard Conte is an eye-opener, a principled man dragged into a den of vice, and actually not too unhappy about it. It is interesting to note that, at the beginning, when Nico has returned home and is playing the conquering hero, Conte is at his least interesting. While he does radiate a kind of old world charm, you are always waiting for the intense worm to turn. When he realizes his father's fate at the hands – and axe – of Figlia, Conte shifts for the first and last time. His performance may seem like all stoic faces and powerful stare downs, but there are subtle shades of pride peppered throughout his Nico. While not a typical leading man type, Conte has the proper intensity and insularity to make Nico an atypical hero, a righter of wrongs in a world filled with thousands.
As Rica, the whore as hopeless romantic, Valentina Cortese is amazing, a perverted pixie with wide, innocent eyes. Wearing her hair in a short, curled style that exemplifies her ethnic roots, and speaking in a partially pigeon English meant to soften her sullied gal image, Cortese is in control from the moment she arrives on screen. We are instantly drawn to her unusual attractiveness and enigmatic manner. Unlike the black and white ways of everyone else in the film, Rica IS the unexpected break in the chain of events. Sure, she plays a role with Figlia and his grift, but there is an agenda all her own, a type of personal profiteering that is interesting to watch. Cortese embodies this ideal expertly, and comes across as someone we champion, even though her standards may be lax. Something similar happens with Millard Mitchell's Ed. He talks the tough talk and walks the wounded roadway with the best of them. Yet he seems genuinely effected by Nico's plight, and this makes his dead end narrative thread that much more meaningful and meaty.
Throughout, Dassin's direction is flawless, a combination of control and chaos all channeled through a single 36 hour stretch of time. As stated before, he creates a unique, almost uneasy combination of thriller and filler, a movie that wants to be epic (like, say, On the Waterfront), but has neither the time, the patience or the studio backing to make such a leap. So instead of broadening the scope to handle more universal ideals, Dassin tightens things up. He limits the locations and fractures the time frame. We see montage moments that suggest travel and tiredness along with gorgeous tracking shots that follow the indiscriminant lighting as it pierces and plays off the scenes. Dassin frames his actors in clever combinations, placing them off center of the composition to keep our eye draw to the environment they are in. The use of close-ups suggests split second moments of meaning, while the editing adds both energy and a kind of cinematic slight of hand, both of which are necessary to sell the traveling tenets of this tale. Proving why he is a well considered genius of his genre, Dassin gives Thieves' Highway a depth that others may feel is missing in this movie. His attention to directorial detail is one of this movie's major selling points.
Still, there will be those who come to Thieves' Highway expecting a hard nosed, no holds barred look at intrastate trucking and instead, feel flummoxed by the fable-like fantasy elements at play. This is heightened - not humanistic - reality, a film functioning under the auspices of grander, grandstanding ideas and a throwback Hollywood happenstance (this is still the late 40s, remember). Indeed, if you can't accept the movie on its own terms, if you can't buy into the hero's almost instantaneous change of heart, his ability to take down a racketeering mob man, ditch his old fuddy-duddy fiancé and find himself a new bride in a longshoreman's late night date, all in the span of a day and a half, then Thieves' Highway will ring a little hollow for you. But experienced on its own expert conditions, if one turns their cinematic ear to the variables and vibrations Dassin is playing with, the satisfaction will be substantial. Thieves' Highway represents quality filmmaking in search of a transcendent moment. The fact that it almost makes it, that it accidentally reaches a kind of knowing nirvana makes up for almost all of the meddling and mistakes.
Delivering a dynamic, reference quality black and white image that literally leaps off the screen, Criterion gives Thieves' Highway a tantalizing transfer polish that heightens Dassin's noir intentions. Crisp, without wandering into edge enhancement territory and removing most of the fog we've come to expect from old monochrome movies, this 1.33:1 full screen print percolates with a light to dark dynamic that perfectly illustrates the dramatic effect of such a cinematic schism. Unlike other offerings from companies claiming to understand the two-tone intention of classic Hollywood, Criterion makes sure that Thieves' Highway sizzles with bold, brash design. This is one of the best digital images the company has ever released, and proves yet again, their place in the pantheon of preservationist perfection.
Similarly sound are the auditory elements for this DVD release. While Mono can occasionally come across as flat and lifeless, there is a richness to Thieves' Highway – helped along a great deal by Alfred Newman's fascinating score – that's lacking from other older releases. Dassin enjoyed the sonic situations of the truck driver and the road, using the roar of the traffic and the bedlam at the marketplace to great sinister effect. With always understandable dialogue and a lack of shrillness or hiss, this is a wonderful aural experience, thanks in no small part to Criterion's attention to such determined details.
While sparser than usual for a Criterion release, we still get a nice collection of contextual material that really helps fill out the circumstances of Thieves' Highway. First up is a dry, if comprehensive, commentary by noted author Alain Silver. A scholar on film noir and a wealth of knowledge about this production, Silver starts out slow, but builds until he is covering almost every facet of the process. While his insights are occasionally obvious (the use of a dolly-in to suggest danger, how an overhead shot inspires fear, etc.) the background about both Dassin and Bezzerides truly supplements our understanding of the movie. Also indicating where Fox studio chief (an uncredited "Executive Producer") Darryl F. Zanuck mandated changes, and how the novel differs from the film, we get a wide-ranging and engaging look at how Thieves' both surpassed and fell short of everyone's creative expectations.
In addition, we get to hear from both Dassin and Bezzerides themselves, as Criterion provides snippets from a documentary on the author, as well as a new interview with the director. Dassin's discussion is wonderfully salient, considering the man is into his 90s now. He marvels at discovering, three months into production, that Jack Oakie was deaf, and dismisses the additions by Zanuck. He remembers Thieves' as a wonderful experience, and even recalls some of the shots (including the final moments for the character Ed) as being some favorites from his collected canon. Bezzerides gets a little less specific attention. A film about his life, called The Long Haul of A. I. Bezzerides is the foundation for a four minute 'trailer' which explores his career, as well as featuring comments from the author, on Thieves' Highway. It's evocative, but not overly informative. Bezzerides seems like an intriguing character. Hopefully, the final film does him a better service than this clip merely hints at.
Along with a trailer, an excellent essay by Michael Sragow, and a clever menu screen resembling the jittery, shaking back part of a truck loaded with boxes, the presentation of Thieves' Highway is another high water mark for Criterion's continuing efforts to restore the past glory of unrecognized film classics.
In the end, when justice has prevailed and everything seems to be resolved, Nico is back on the road again. Girl on his arm and a sense of comeuppance at his back, he appears shaken, but not swayed, by his long days journey into night hauling. He's found his foil, defeated his prey, made a little dough and ditched some dame who never really loved him in the first place. And now, he is again answering the lure of the open road, and riding off into the sunset like all good heroes do. But is he really a conqueror? After all, what has he won? For every Mike Figlia, there are another dozen more waiting to take his place. Immigrant farmers will still be shortchanged and foreign femme fatales will still end up walking the street, eking out a living the best way they can in bitter discontent. His triumphs are personal, not universal, and smack of a self-righteous disregard for everything that's been lost by those around him.
This is the result of a trip along Thieves' Highway. For every item gained, a little something – or in Nico's case, a large something – is stolen, rendered missing and mute forever. The victory over Figlia won't get his father back what he lost...nor Ed... nor Polly. Indeed, it has taken Nico away from what he once was, and turned him into a reflection of what he loathed and despised. Just like Figlia did to families up and down the California coast, Nick Garcos is also responsible for destroying lives and upending positions. Instead of the solid son made good, he is now a seasoned truck jockey, understanding the angles and working the system for his own self-centered needs. He got on that lost highway and took a trip, but he failed to realize one thing - he will never make it back home ever again. And maybe, he doesn't want to.
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