Movies you might have missed: “Thieves’ Highway”

Movie Review

Thieves’ Highway

Director: Jules Dassin

Writers: A.I. Bezzerides (screenplay), A.I. Bezzerides (novel)

Cast: Richard Conte, Valentina Cortese and Lee J. Cobb

1949, 94 minutes, NR. Available on DVD as part of the Criterion collection.

Film Noir is a French term for movies that nonetheless find their roots in the German expressionist cinema of the Weimar Republic, and is most associated with the film world of post-war America in the late 1940s. Film noirs were characterized by their shadowy photography along with high and low camera shots and canted angles that left the audience off balance and peering into an underworld.

Noirs also focused on themes of corruption, alienation and characters in desperate situations, often caused by uncontrollable random events and the fickle finger of fate. In this world without heroes, explosive and sudden violence was common and the flaws of each character were laid bare.

Many noirs did not intentionally set out to create a film that belonged to a particular genre but rather were simply reflecting the pessimistic mood of the moment. Post-war America is often thought of in the context of a booming consumer-driven era of convenience and a refuge of smooth suburban similarity.

In reality, the years that immediately followed the Second World War were marked by housing shortages, inflation, unemployment and other hardships faced by returning veterans. Many of these veterans suffered from heir own untreated physical and psychological fractures as well.

Noir stories of the time frequently dealt with crime capers gone wrong, scams, frauds and femme fatales that led weak men to their doom. One noir however that dealt with explicitly working-class issues was Thieves’ Highway (1949) starring Richard Conte in perhaps his finest role.

The film concerns the character Nick Garcos, played by Conte, who seeks to avenge the injured pride as well as the physical infirmity of his father. Upon returning home to California from a long sea voyage, ship’s mechanic Nick bursts into the family home laden with gifts that reflect his trips to far away locales. The joy is soon reduced to sorrow when he discovers that his immigrant father has been confined to a wheelchair, following a crippling accident involving trucking produce to market.

We quickly discover that the true culprits of his fathers misfortune are the unscrupulous operators who control the produce markets and not only stoop to a seemingly limitless supply of cons and crooked deals to leave the growers and sellers with empty pockets but are willing to resort to outright violence as well.

Although he knows little of how the business works, Nick is determined to recoup his father’s financial losses. He gets lucky when he finds a U.S. Army surplus 6×6 truck to transport his goods and a supply of apples that ripened early thanks to a prime orchard location. Nick knows these apples will command high prices if they arrive to the market on time and he begins a perilous non-stop journey to reach the buyers in San Francisco. He barely arrives before the crooked operators commence their schemes to defraud him.

Lee J. Cobb is brilliant as the swaggering, cigar chomping con man Mike Figlia who dominates the marketplace. He knows a dozen ways to cheat a seller and a million reasons why the profits are rightly his and nobody else’s. Figlia cuts a broad swath through the market, alternately cajoling buyers and barking orders at his hapless underlings. Nick, though a tenderfoot, is no easy mark for this slippery villain and at one point during a test of wills and wits icily informs Figlia “your end of nothing is nothing.”

One of the things that makes Thieves’ Highway unique is the subtle subtext of America’s ethnic immigrants versus the Mayflower lineage WASPS of so-called respectable society. Nick’s fiancée Polly belongs to the latter, but upon his arrival at the market he crosses paths with the comely and exotic Rica, played by Valentina Cortesa.

Rica has in fact been sent by the evil Figlia on assignment to manipulate Nick but when she learns of his life-and-death struggles her affections become genuine. It isn’t long however when the immigrant Rica learns that she is in competition with the porcelain-skinned Polly and at one point she forces Nick to confront the differences. In comparing herself to the blonde Polly she tugs at her own kinky locks and says, “I never had pigtails.”

Like any proper noir Thieves’ Highway is filled with misfit characters, crackling dialogue, and gritty locations where neon lights are reflected in wet asphalt. Thieves’ Highway is a prime example of a cinematic art form finding a home among American backdrops and stories of struggle.

Interestingly, both the director Jules Dassin and actor Morris Carnovsky, who plays Conte’s father in the movie, were blacklisted not long after the film’s release.