Day 342-- Thieves' Highway (1949)

Before his blacklisting during the McCarthy era and subsequent move to Europe, Jules Dassin made a string of solid American films. He was at his U.S. peak with Thieves' Highway, a tart piece of film noir pie that is incredibly filling.

Nick Garcos (Richard Conte) is a second-generation Greek immigrant that returns from the his WWII stint as a merchant marine. He learns that his father--a produce trucker--was maimed and robbed in an accident precipitated by crooked produce retailer Mike Figlia (Lee J. Cobb).

Nick teams up with Ed (Millard Mitchell), an ornery and untrusting fruit hauler, and the two work a scheme to travel to San Fransisco and get back at Figlia.

The plot (adapted from an A.I. Bezzerides novel by the author) is tightly woven, and the depiction of the danger and folly in high-risk fruit shipping is gripping. Truck drivers jockey to beat one another for better selling prices, sometimes driving 40+ hours without sleep. Sometimes they make it. Sometimes they wreck and die. The movie got a lot of praise for the accuracy of the produce black market in the '40s.

But as a thriller, the movie also works well. Conte plays Nick well, his Army emblem-adorned truck a symbol for the youthful white knight he strives to be in the beginning of the film before the tarnish and wretchedness of the world he's jumped in take a toll on him. His face has this chiseled, Mediterranean glow that shifts well between soft-hearted nice guy and sleep-starved vigilante. There is a great see-saw act between icy blond Polly (Barb Lawrence), Nick's fiance, and Rica (Valentina Cortese), the streetwalk who fits into the plot--both play as opposite sides of the same coin. And if anyone steals the show, it's Lee Cobb--easily one of the greatest character actors in film history. He's perfect as a wannabe Honest John merchant who is nothing but crooked...and seems to hate and cherish that fact simultaneously.

But the real star is Dassin's film work. The black-white contrast is gorgeous, and the camera is always where it needs to be without being showy. There's a scene--shot over a truck that has just flipped over a cliff--where thousands of apples cascade toward the camera. It's amazing.

Thieves' Highway is an overall great movie, only marred by the few inclusions that uber-producer Darryl Zanuck added to the film without Dassin's consent (the out-of-place police message at the end, the goofy theatrics Polly provides at one point). This is yet more proof that the Golden era of American film provided some incredible genre film.


posted, with grace and poise, by Jason @ 8/13/2007 11:00:00 PM,


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