Thieves' Highway

Director: Jules Dassin
Screenplay: A.I. Bezzerides (based on his novel Thieves Market)
Stars: Richard Conte (Nick Garcos), Valentina Cortese (Rica), Lee J. Cobb (Mike Figlia), Barbara Lawrence (Polly Faber), Jack Oakie (Slob), Millard Mitchell (Ed Prentiss), Joseph Pevney (Pete), Morris Carnovsky (Yanko Garcos), Tamara Shayne (Parthena Garcos), Kasia Orzazewski (Mrs. Polansky), Norbert Schiller (Mr. Polansky)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1949
Country: U.S.
Thieves' Highway DVD
I'll teach you to break my father's legs!After the prison-set Brute Force (1947) and the mean-streets-of-New-York exposé Naked City (1948), director Jules Dassin turned his eye to another element of modern life that characterized the dark side of the American postwar experience: long-haul trucking. Dassin certainly wasn't the first to tackle this topic, as Raoul Walsh had covered similar territory in 1940's They Drive By Night, starring Humphrey Bogart (and also based on a tough-guy novel by A.I. Bezzerides), but Dassin brought a new level of social consciousness and location authenticity, which helps balance the story's more strained melodramatic contrivances.

Richard Conte, by this point a full-blooded, hard-boiled movie star, plays Nick Garcos, a young man who has just returned from a few years abroad making money after serving in World War II. In typical film noir style, he returns from the war to find that everything on the home front is not okay; in this case, livelihood and honor of his father (Morris Carnovsky), a boisterous Greek immigrant, have been destroyed by the crippling of his legs. Nick finds out that his father, a long-haul trucker, was the victim of a scam by a corrupt produce dealer named Mike Figlia (Lee J. Cobb).

Nick immediately drops all his carefully laid plans and decides to face Figlia one-and-one and avenge his father's emasculation. Teaming up with Ed Prentiss (Millard Mitchell), a grizzled, old-school trucker who worked with his father, Nick uses all his money to buy an early crop of Golden Delicious apples and haul them to the marketplace in San Francisco, where he hopes to sell them to Figlia and squeeze every dime out of the crook that he can.

Of course, as Shakespeare said about the best-laid plans of mice and men, not everything works out precisely as Nick intended. A good portion of the film takes place on the dark highways cutting through northern California on which Nick and Ed drive their rattling old trucks, both of which are on their last legs (much like their drivers, albeit for different reasons). At one point, Nick's truck blows a tire and there is a tense, finely edited sequence in which the jack collapses and traps him underneath, which also serves as an effectively dark metaphor of the burden of the American dream gone awry crushing him.

Once in San Francisco, Thieves' Highway switches to a different track as Nick is taken in by Rica (Valentina Cortese in her U.S. film debut), a streetwise prostitute hired by Figlia to distract him, but ends up (surprise, surprise) falling for him. The scenes between Nick and Rica are one of the film's more strained narrative elements, although the tenderness she shows him is a crucial balance to the world's cruelty, which also includes Nick's sweetheart at home, Polly (Barbara Lawrence), who loves him only insofar as he can provide what she wants materially. Although not a typical femme fatale, in that the damage she evokes is purely emotional, rather than physical, Polly's icy-coldness and single-minded greed is testament to the genre's relentless distrust of women.

Thieves' Highway was shot by Norbert Brodine, a prolific cinematographer who began his career in the late teens. He had shot several noir thrillers before, including Henry Hathaway's The House on 92nd Street (1945) and Kiss of Death (1947), as well as Elia Kazan's Boomerang! (1947). Working with Dassin allowed him to extend his imagery out of stagebound sets and into actual locations, which benefits the film immensely. They turn the teaming produce market in San Francisco, which is not the first thing one would think of when listing threatening environments, into a literal den of thieves that oozes malice and corruption. Some of the film's most striking scenes, though, are on the California highways, particularly a desolate shot of an overturned truck that has crashed down a hill, leaving a trail of thousands of apples that look like corpses on a battlefield.

It turned out that Thieves' Highway was the last film Dassin would make in the U.S. before he was blacklisted when director Edward Dmytryck named him as a communist before the House on Un-American Activities Committee. Dassin fled to Europe where he continued to be a successful director, arguably doing some of his best work (especially 1955's superb heist movie Rififi). Yet, his films from the late 1940s in the U.S. continue to hold up as some of the best low-budget filmmaking of the era, primarily because Dassin infused his standard tough-guy narratives with soul. On its surface, Thieves' Highway may be a melodrama about revenge, but it's really a story about overcoming the crushing of the American dream.

Thieves' Highway Criterion Collection Director-Approved DVD

Aspect Ratio1.33:1
AudioEnglish Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural
  • Audio commentary by film scholar Alain Silver
  • Video interview with director Jules Dassin
  • Trailer for The Long Haul of A.I. Bezzerides
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection / Home Vision Entertainment
    Release DateFebruary 1, 2005

    Criterion has given us a reference-quality transfer. Thieves' Highway was transferred from a 35mm fine-grain master positive and digitally restored using the MTI Digital Restoration System, and it looks nothing short of superb. The image is crisp and highly detailed, with excellent black-and-white contrast and not a speck of dirt or debris or scratches to be found. Watching this disc, it looks like the film was made yesterday.

    The monaural soundtrack, transferred from a 35mm magnetic track, also sounds great, with minimal ambient hiss and no distracting aural artifacts.

    The screen-specific audio commentary is by film scholar Alain Silver, editor of The Film Noir Reader and author of Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles. Silver certainly knows his stuff and offers some insightful formal analysis and crucial historical background, but his tone is a little too stiff and dry. It's worth a listen just for the information, though. Also included on the disc is a new video interview with director Jules Dassin, in which he discusses the making of Thieves' Highway. Source novelist A.I. Bezzerides is highlighted in a brief excerpt/trailer for the still-in-production documentary The Long Haul of A.I. Bezzerides. Lastly, the disc contains the film's sensationalistic original theatrical trailer.

    Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection and 20th Century-Fox

    Overall Rating: (3)

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