Thieves’ Highway (1949) Jules Dassin
Criterion Collection DVD (library)
War veteran Nick Garcos (Richard Conte, above left) returns home to discover that his father (Morris Camovsky) has lost both legs in a truck accident while working for a cheating San Francisco produce dealer named Mike Figlia (Lee J. Cobb, above center). Nick swears he’s going to get the money Figlia owes his dad – and probably get even with Figlia as well. But Nick’s dad was so broke, he was forced to sell his truck to a man named Ed Kinney (Millard Mitchell, below right).
Nick tracks down Kinney, who turns out to be a seedy guy who doesn’t want to pay what he still owes on the truck. Nick reluctantly strikes a deal with Kinney: the two men will go into business together to deliver the first crop of apples to San Francisco. But things get complicated and Nick sees signs that Kinney isn’t a guy to be trusted.
Something happens on the way to San Francisco, something I’ll leave for you to discover on your own. Let’s just say that it changes Nick’s relationship with Kinney and sets the tone for some interesting complexities. Yet the main conflict in the film comes from the battle of wills between Nick and Figlia. We quickly learn that Figlia is as underhanded as they come and Nick impresses on Figlia the fact that he’s no pushover like his dad.
The greatness of Thieves’ Highway (and it is a great film, not just a great film noir) comes from its complexity of situations and depth of characters. Nick is in way over his head, and although he’s a war veteran and has worked abroad, he has little real knowledge of how the world works. Concepts of right and wrong, fairness and equality – they don’t apply here and Nick discovers that the hard way, not only in his dealings with Figlia, but also with a seductive woman named Rica (Valentina Cortese, above right), who works for Figlia. Two supporting characters who act as something of a Greek chorus before getting involved in the action themselves are Slob (Jack Oakie, last photo, right) and Pete (Joseph Pevney, below center).
Conte appeared in several noir films (including Somewhere in the Night, Call Northside 777, Cry of the City, Whirlpool, and The Big Combo, to name just a few), but this could be his finest performance. Conte’s portrayal of Nick is that of a stranger in a strange land in more than one aspect: he’s the son of immigrant parents, unfamiliar with the corrupt produce market, and hasn’t quite adjusted to postwar life. He frequently comes across as confused and naive, but he knows he’s doing the right thing, even when he doesn’t quite know how to do it.
The supporting roles are also excellent. You’d swear director Jules Dassin found Millard Mitchell working in a sideshow carnival or in the back alleys of a Dickens novel. His portrayal of Kinney is so believable and effective, you’d think he really drove trucks for a living. Valentina Cortese not only knows how to play the role of a sort of femme fatale, she does much more with her eyes that most actors even think about doing. (The scene in which Rica plays tic-tac-toe on Nick’s chest has to be one of the sexiest moments in film noir.) And then there’s Lee J. Cobb. If ever there was a man born to play a shifty, no-good bully, it was Cobb. He’s brilliant here, whether he’s bossing people around, trying to manipulate Nick, or weaseling out of a tight spot.
I haven’t even touched on Norbert Brodine’s mostly on-location cinematography, the Alfred Newman (with an uncredited Cyril Mockridge) score, or really much of Dassin’s directing style. Thieves’ Highway covers so much territory – actual and dramatic – that it demands multiple viewings in order to fully appreciate the details of this fine film. I hope that if you haven’t seen it, that I’ve at least persuaded you to consider it.