Like the movie’s rattletrap trucks lurching down the highway as they carry way-too-heavy loads, the characters in Jules Dassin’s brilliantly volatile Thieves’ Highway struggle under psychological and moral baggage until they can lay their burdens down. Working from a novel and script by A.I. Bezzerides, Dassin made this swift, fluid melodrama in 1949, after Brute Force and The Naked City. Thieves’ Highway is his best American movie. It breathes the same air of risk and desperation as his made-in-Europe masterpieces, London’s Night and the City (1950) and the Paris-set Rififi (1954). But it has a rich sensuality all its own.
The film’s hero, Nick Garcos (Richard Conte), is a World War II veteran just back from a moneymaking stint as a ship’s mechanic on a Far East voyage. Apparently, he has sailed around the world without ever getting worldly. He aims to marry his Fresno sweetheart, Polly (Barbara Lawrence), and go into business with her father. When he arrives at his childhood home he wants nothing more than to shower his loved ones with gifts: Javanese earrings for his mother (Tamara Shayne), a geisha doll with an engagement band on its ring finger for Polly. Only when he gives his father (Morris Carnovsky) a pair of Mandarin slippers does reality intrude.
With a sudden shift of a wheelchair, Nick learns that a trucking accident has crippled the elder Garcos after he sold a load of tomatoes to shady San Francisco produce dealer Mike Figlia (Lee J. Cobb). Papa Garcos woke from his crash with no money––and no legs. Behaving as abruptly as only a bruised idealist can, Nick changes short-term plans. In partnership with a hard, weary guy named Ed (Millard Mitchell), who has been patching up his father’s truck, Nick decides to haul an early harvest of Golden Delicious apples to Figlia, determined to squeeze every nickel he can out of the dealer he suspects of foul play. Ed drives Nick’s father’s truck, holding it together with “spit”; Nick buys and drives an army surplus ten-wheeler. All the symbols in this movie are rock-hard and understated. The white military star on Nick’s truck makes a mute, omnipresent comment on postwar disillusion. And each time you hear “Golden Delicious,” the image it conjures of Olympian delight contrasts sardonically with the perils of the road and the savage competition of the San Francisco marketplace.
Dassin was a man of the theater before he became a master movie craftsman, gaining his stage legs in New York’s vital Yiddish theater. Like Elia Kazan, another filmmaker who started out as an actor and came into his own as a film director during the postwar years, Dassin took the you-are-there documentary stylings of old-pro Henry Hathaway in The House on 92nd Street (1945), 13 Rue Madeleine (1947), Kiss of Death (1947), and Call Northside 777 (1948) and pioneered a noir-tinged native brand of neorealism. Dassin in Thieves’ Highway is just as deft as Kazan in Boomerang! (1947) or Panic in the Streets (1950) at using real locations for knifelike verisimilitude, then catching their most far-out and surprising emotional repercussions.
Dassin begins scenes with compositions that border on cliché––whether of a cheerful Fresno suburb or the bustling streets and crowded pier-side haunts of San Francisco’s marketplace. But each time, he punctures the cliché with cascades of complex details emerging spontaneously from the conflicted drives of the characters and the life-or-death stakes of their situations. In Thieves’ Highway, even when the jollity seems forced––as it does when Nick first emerges from a taxi to hear his father singing in the kitchen––it seems that way for a reason. Dassin soon communicates that Fresno’s sun-kissed surface is unreal and hides acrid secrets, private torment.
When it comes to men among men––and, for that matter, men among women––Dassin had an uncanny knack for uncovering the reality beneath bluster and flirtation. From the start, there’s something spoiled about Polly’s response to Nick’s return––the geisha doll disappoints her too much, until she notices the ring. (With a few keen strokes, Lawrence creates a woman of conventional expectations: the opposite of the experienced gal who becomes Nick’s dark angel in San Francisco.) Minutes later, when the youthful, overconfident Nick hooks up with the grizzled Ed, we can tell that their partnership is made in limbo, not in heaven.
Under Dassin’s direction, Conte here minted a fresh leading-man archetype––a rough-edged, virile naïf, containing equal amounts of violent distrust and gallantry. And Mitchell brings deep-grained orneriness to Ed, a summa cum laude from the school of hard knocks, willing to rook others to satisfy his sense of justice. What gives this movie its charge isn’t just the physical danger of the road and the injustice perpetrated when fixers like Figlia use dirty tricks on truckers and buyers—it’s the psychological drama of men tossed off balance by want and need as they strive to achieve equilibrium. That goes for Nick and Ed and even for two rival truckers, played by Jack Oakie and Joseph Pevney, who come on too strong with ribbing banter––until they reveal their humanity in the face of death. Dassin, like Kazan, suffuses external action with internal tensions. The movie thrives on its moments of hard-guy epiphany. Ed pulls Nick out from under his truck after Nick botches a tire change and gets his face buried in sand. When the older man bandages his neck, and these two finally forge a bond, Nick mutters that passersby might get the wrong idea.
Raoul Walsh made a handsome, spring-driven entertainment out of an earlier Bezzerides novel (Long Haul) in They Drive by Night (1940). But the challenges faced by its trucker characters were mostly on the surface, and the movie split in two between a social drama about the hazards of independent hauling and a murder tale complete with femme fatale. In Thieves’ Highway, the montages of spinning tires and speedometers and wavy highway lines suggest not mere exhaustion but the testing of the hero’s soul. When a truck careens off the asphalt and bursts into flames at Altamont, it marks a spiritual as well as a practical defeat for the brotherhood of the road. The feel of this movie is closer to Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (1951), also from a Bezzerides script, but that movie split in half, too, as part bristling urban-crime film, part rural redemption fable. Thieves’ Highway, like Robert Aldrich’s 1955 Kiss Me Deadly (from Bezzerides’ free adaptation of Mickey Spillane), is all of a piece, with simmering undercurrents of violence, disgust, and impacted sexuality. Bezzerides’ writing at its peak boasts a dynamic blend of iconoclasm and bitterness––an ideal combination for the intersection of kinetics and moodiness that is film noir.
Once the action lands in San Francisco, the movie anticipates Kazan’s 1954 On the Waterfront, partly because the marketplace is located on the waterfront and partly because Cobb, who plays Figlia, went on to play Kazan’s crooked union boss Johnny Friendly. Yet Thieves’ Highway is about honesty and cooperation versus betrayal and deceit among individuals, not about industrial corruption and codes of silence. Dassin and Cobb keep their portrait of Figlia on a modest scale––he’s a ruthless blowhard pleased with his own jokes and convinced of his invincibility, thanks to a pair of comical yes men (and a matching pair of thugs). And instead of a virtuous Catholic girl leading a working-class hero to redemption, as in Kazan’s film, Dassin gives us an Italian streetwalker. Initially paid to keep Nick in her room while Figlia fleeces him, she cozies up to Nick, then wises up to a better sense of herself. Played by Valentina Cortese with dazzling emotional clarity and erotic warmth, she’s at once this film’s beating heart and the center of its existential concerns––she dares Nick to trust his instincts and trust her, despite her shady deal-making and background.
Thieves’ Highway depicts honor among men and women who are tainted by their desire for revenge or their corner-cutting morals, even if they aren’t thieves. Cortese’s Rica, brushing Nick’s neck and face with her curly hair, tries to seduce him and awaken him to his authentic self. Bezzerides objected to several alterations to his book and deplored the casting of Dassin’s then-girlfriend Cortese in a role originally called “Tex.” But in movie terms, he was incorrect on every count––to use his phrase, the only truly “chickenshit change” was a studio-inserted scene in which cops berate Nick for taking the law into his own hands. Cortese’s sometimes comical, sometimes poignant, always live-wire oomph makes this proletariat adventure unique and gives it the ravaged soul and earthy glamour of a demimonde romance. No gal in movies has ever looked sexier or more good-humored drying her hair after a shower. When Nick says Rica has “soft hands,” she says she has “sharp claws.” She uses them only to play tic-tac-toe on his chest––a fitting game for a film in which one false move can turn ethical and commercial triumph into disaster.
Michael Sragow has been the lead movie critic for the Baltimore Sun since 2001. He edited Produced and Abandoned: The Best Films You've Never Seen (Mercury House, 1990), and is editing a two-volume collection of James Agee's writing for the Library of America (2005). He is also working on a biography of Victor Fleming for Pantheon.