Saturday, March 28, 2009

Thieves’ Highway (1949)

Written by clydefro

(editor's note: You can check out clydefro's blog here)

Film noir has always been predicated on the loss of innocence. There’s an inherent cynicism, a battered degree of expectation, that goes hand in hand with noir. It tends to be the only reliable area of film where we know, with almost extreme certainty, that bad things will happen to characters we like. If there’s a happy ending in noir it’s false and studio-mandated. If there’s any seed of hope left by the final credits the burgeoning distrust we’ve wrapped around our eyes refuses to fully buy in to the result. It’s a painful, often masochistic form of coping with the outside world. We still root for the protagonist, but we know he’s doomed to heart ache or a broken jaw or any number of other ailments. And, of course, we revel in it just the same.

Bad things happen in Thieves’ Highway. Actually, almost everything that occurs in the film is for the worst aside from that overly happy ending. Director Jules Dassin neither approved of the final scenes nor was consulted about them after he finished the picture and trekked over to London to make Night and the City amid the wrath of a Congress-sponsored witch hunt. It hardly ruins the movie, though, and you’d have difficulty finding a superior, more engrossing look at the proletariat class through the lens of film noir. Thieves’ Highway carefully depicts the world of produce markets and the truckers who supply them, never leaving any doubt as to which side deserves the bulk of our sympathy. It’s a relentlessly dramatic and entertaining picture that surely deserves placement alongside the very best of the film noir entries of its day. Dassin and screenwriter A.I Bezzerides bring to life a fixed match of dirty business excused by capitalism and the men who are mere pawns in a flawed game. It’s difficult to know whether Henri-Georges Clouzot saw Thieves’ Highway prior to filming his masterpiece The Wages of Fear, but he certainly should have.


While I’m familiar with a significant number of Richard Conte’s films made at Fox in the ’40s, nothing else really seem to have the pull of his work here. There are some quality pictures in there, things like Somewhere in the Night and Cry of the City, but Conte absolutely maintains the perfect temperament of nice guy sifted rage as WWII veteran and world traveler mechanic Nick Garcos in Dassin’s film. He returns home from globe trotting in the Far East, gift boxes in hand, only to find his father has been confined to a wheelchair after tangling with shady market dealer Mike Figlia (Lee J. Cobb). Nick’s girl Polly (Barbara Lawrence) is thrilled to see him, but decidedly less enthused by the geisha doll present he gives her. The ring on the doll’s hand places a nice salve on the situation, though not before the viewer gets reason to doubt Polly’s sincerity. Polly’s cute but icy. She’s the typical disposable paramour.

Nick’s all set to enter into a business arrangement with Polly’s father until he broods over Mike Figlia cheating his old man. The film ably lets Nick reveal a temper lined with rage in his promise to retrieve the money owed from Figlia’s carcass if necessary. Even with hindsight, the plan doesn’t necessarily coalesce for Nick. I don’t think the movie is ever really concerned with being a revenge tale or a means to let the son collect on the indignities served to his father. The more impressive approach of fate utterly sliding its foot into Nick’s path at every turn is used by Dassin and Bezzerides. A plan is hatched so that Nick and Ed Prentiss (the reliable Millard Mitchell) will drive in separate trucks up to San Francisco. Over 400 miles and 36 hours plus on the road without sleep. Nick wants Figlia. Ed wants the cash his Golden Delicious apples will fetch. Neither gets exactly what he bargained for, and the addition of Pete (future director Joseph Pevney) and Slob (Jack Oakie) as disgruntled followers would seem to only enhance the tension.

Thieves’ Highway is bursting with plot, far more than the typical mood-dominated film noir. Each development builds firmly on the whole and we’re ultimately left with a usual Dassin cocktail of defeatist intensity. I don’t exactly know where or how the film most appropriately should close, but the actual result does feel less than satisfying. Dassin laments this too-easy tying up of loose ends in his interview on the Criterion Collection’s magnificent DVD releaseof the film. Not only was the paternalistic, Daryl F. Zanuck-endorsed scene where the cops come in to passively reprimand Nick for not letting the police handle the situation (when they were, of course, hardly integral to overseeing the market’s depravities) added without Dassin’s input, the false smile of Nick coming in to sweep Rica (Valentina Cortese) off her feet in marriage was equally manufactured. It’s a very Hollywood addition and ending to an otherwise fiercely iconoclastic effort on Dassin’s part.

There’s ample reason to celebrate Jules Dassin’s contribution to film, especially his noir pictures indelibly imprinted in the mind of anyone who’s seen them. I’m an unabashed admirer of Dassin’s. His films like this one, Brute Force, Night and the City and Rififi, are pure, raw examples of film noir sliced efficiently to the bone. Later works outside the crime drama genre reveal a masterful director equally at home exploring female disintegration in the face of a spouse’s affair (10:30 P.M. Summer) or an all-black cast extending the boundaries of John Ford’s The Informer (Up Tight!). Almost anything Dassin touched was brilliant and interesting regardless of its overall merit. No Dassin picture after his apprenticeship at MGM is easily ignored. His diverse, yet guarded output remains one of the more fascinating in all of 20th century film. And no other filmmaker managed to so defiantly rebut the House Un-American Activities Committee while later succeeding on his own terms. Dassin refused to testify despite being named by former colleagues Edward Dmytryk and Frank Tuttle and instead moved to Europe for work. It took him five years before finally answering with Rififi, but the result ultimately earned Dassin a share of the Best Director prize at Cannes.

I think this all speaks to the high level which Dassin was working on even with films like Thieves’ Highway, which has been neglected for far too long. There’s a distinct and real affectation of empathy that Dassin continues to master in this film. He was so adept at forming favorable portrayals of these flawed, demonstrably volatile protagonists that you can’t help but cheer the characters’ potential redemption. With Nick in Thieves’ Highway, we have a man ticking away with anger and doom. He’s a mechanic, but he nonetheless fails to properly address a flat tire while traveling on the road to San Francisco. His element is completely and totally pierced. It’s difficult to establish a hold on Nick, but we still remain fascinated with his determination and sense of justice. Thieves’ Highway doesn’t necessarily endear itself as an essential unraveling of the human condition so much as it lets the viewer connect the dots at his own pace. The various external factors leading Nick to the room of the tempestuous Rica are entrenched in fate’s most shrouded rationalizations.

Yet, we take it just fine, believing in the character and his bouts with whatever hand is in front of him at the time. Much of the willingness to go along with Nick comes from Conte’s amiable characterization. He’s vulnerable and tough and believably integrated in a total mess, all at once. As I mentioned earlier, this is a film where things go horribly wrong at every possible opportunity. Dassin provides a burned-in opportunity for memory making in the dissolution of Mitchell’s character. It’s horrific, savage, and far too real for a studio film. You can smell the charred flesh and burning apples. Oblivious to the plight of his partner, Nick meanders around the market area before falling into the bed of Rica. Valentina Cortese, who also happened to be Dassin’s girlfriend at the time, is remarkably sensual playing an apparent prostitute. Rica demonstrates her claws in one highly evocative game of tic-tac-toe played out on Conte’s naked chest. It’s a moment like this that endears us all to the slightly unusual frequency of film noir.


  1. Steve thanks for posting this great piece and for mentioning Clydefro's blog.

    Thieves' Highway is the film that got me hooked on noir. I have never been the same since.

  2. Great piece for a fine movie.

    Thieves Highway is also very much an immigrant's tale as part of that overarching noir theme about chasing the American Dream through dark alleys.

    We have Nick the son of immigrants trying to marry WASPY Polly and go into business with her father, achieving basically full assimilation into mainstream culture. But he's tempted by the old world in the form of Rika who seems to come from a similar background as his parents. All the while things go down in the docks of San Francisco where it feels like people are coming in off the boats along with the merchandise.

    Not to mention the tension between Nick of Eastern European descent and Figlia the sort of caricatured Italian hustler and Mafioso. Their contrast is sort of the two paths for the children of immigrants either break your back for the American dream in something dangerous like trucking or cheat people out of their hopes and ambitions.


  4. For San Francisco railroad buffs/historians, there is a rare run by and close up of the California State Belt Railroad Alco S2 along the Embarcadero. This alone, makes this film worth watching, but add to this the warehouses and dark alleys served by the Belt Railroad (these are one of the stars of the movie). The Belt still holds a record for more miles of street running than any railroad in the US. If only we had captured more film of this gem, but Thieves' Highway does give us some of what we missed.

  5. hi steve--

    just asking for some help, i found your blog in a google search. i heard an NPR story on a film noir director from eastern europe. can't recall his name, but one of his films featured a chinese-american cop working a case in san francisco. racial issues addressed. i think i have the details correct, and i would love to see this film any ideas on who this director might be? thank you so much.

  6. Despite the stupid tacked on ending where the hero drives off into the sunset with the girl,(who was a clearly a whore),this is another worthy addition to the list of classic film noirs.


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