A hay cart trundles through a sunny field above Fresno, California, in the opening shot of Thieves’ Highway. This is not an image you expect to see in film noir, which most often breeds in cities, alienated from the natural world and traditional ways. But postwar noir, traveling through back roads, deserts, border towns, and rural fields, proved that corruption spreads far beyond the urban jungle. Thieves’ Highway—the last movie Jules Dassin made in Hollywood before fleeing the country to escape the blacklist—is one of at least three crime dramas from 1949 that plough up the dark underbelly of agriculture to find toxic greed poisoning the system that puts food on our tables.
Based on the novel Thieves’ Market by proletarian writer and one-time truck-driver A. I. “Buzz” Bezzerides, Thieves’ Highway begins with Nick Garcos (Richard Conte) returning to Fresno after a stint as a Navy mechanic. His ebullient reunion with his Greek immigrant parents is shattered when he learns that his father has lost his legs in a trucking accident caused by a crooked produce dealer named Mike Figlia (Lee J. Cobb). Seeking revenge, he teams up with an experienced driver, Ed Kinney (Millard Mitchell), to haul the season’s first Golden Delicious apples to San Francisco so he can find Figlia. The hard-bitten Ed is a different kind of tough guy: a working stiff ready to cheat, chisel, or drive thirty-six hours in a truck “held together with spit,” whatever it takes to make a living.
The apples themselves, already loaded with symbolism (the fruit of knowledge, the apple of discord), illustrate a radical point: that putting a cash price on things destroys their inherent value. In a sun-dappled orchard, a Polish farmer, enraged at being paid less than he was promised for his apples, hurls boxes of them off a truck, screaming, “Seventy-five cents! Seventy-five cents!” The fruit rolls wastefully on the ground, an image foreshadowing the film’s most famous shot, when after the same truck has careened off the road and exploded, apples tumble silently down the hillside toward the flaming wreck. When the dead trucker’s partner finds out that money-grubbers have gone out to collect the scattered load to sell, he echoes the farmer, kicking over crates of apples in the street and fuming, “Four bits a box! Four bits a box!” Bite into the produce business, this film says, and you will find the rotten core of capitalism.
Film noir was, in large part, an expression of the disillusionment and anxiety of left-wing artists during the Cold War and the McCarthy era. They painted dark portraits of a society deranged by money and materialism but suggested no possible cure. What sets Thieves’ Highway apart from other postwar American noir is not its political slant but the earthy sensuality it exhibits and champions. This quality marks the settings—the San Francisco produce market bustling with trucks and pushcarts, shouting porters and haggling vendors, dripping vegetables and ashcan fires—and the full-blooded performances. Conte, one of Hollywood’s first Italian-American leading men, brings elegant panache and vibrant physicality to his role. He makes us feel viscerally Nick’s exhaustion after a grueling all-night drive, his pleasure in splashing cold water on his face, the electric charge of his confrontations with Figlia and his sexy encounters with Rica (Valentina Cortese), a waterfront prostitute who is paid to distract him while Figlia steals his load.
Rica is a quicksilver blend of playfulness, hurt, defiance, and melancholy lyricism. Cortese, who died in July 2019 in her native Milan, is better known for roles in films by Truffaut, Fellini, and Antonioni, but her performance in Thieves’ Highway is one of her best. Rica is unlike any other female presence in American noir—or, indeed, in 1949 Hollywood. Instead of the femme fatale’s hard-sell seductiveness and manipulative sexuality, she spontaneously expresses her lust for Nick, rubbing her dark curls against his face and playing tic-tac-toe on his bare chest with her sharp fingernails. Confined within her cramped one-room apartment, they circle each other warily, veering from barbed distrust to combustible passion. During their first kiss, they seem to be seconds away from getting the movie in deep trouble with the Hays Office.
In film noir, sex usually leads people astray, but here it leads Nick to his authentic self. Sensuality always marks the humane, life-affirming elements in the movie, which are also pointedly flavored by non-Anglo ethnicity: Nick’s Greek father singing loudly as he chops vegetables, the Polish farmer’s children playing in the orchard, the way Nick and Rica both wallow in the simple pleasure of a hot shower. Contrasted with this is the sterile, destructive love of money. Everyone in the movie is “just trying to make a buck,” and even the characters we like are incessantly thinking and talking about cash. Rica says that all she wants is “lots and lots of money,” but the hooker turns out to be less mercenary than Nick’s blonde, girl-next-door fiancée. In a movie that is filled with dirty, crumpled bills changing hands in coercive transactions, she knows exactly what money is worth, what it can buy and what it can’t.
California is the most fertile ground for the subgenre of agri-noir. Anthony Mann’s Border Incident opens with bird’s-eye shots of the Imperial Valley, showing the vast geometry of irrigation canals, fields combed into straight rows, orchards like gigantic chessboards: the industrialized Garden of Eden that turns the fruits of the earth into a different kind of green. In an introductory voice-over, a narrator acknowledges that the United States is dependent on Mexican labor for our food—a simple fact that, sadly, may sound like a bolder statement in 2019 than it did seventy years ago. The film exhibits the kind of partial courage that is typical of Hollywood’s treatment of social problems, blaming a few criminals on both sides of the border for the abuse of migrants entering the country illegally, but taking a compassionate view of the undocumented braceros themselves.
Like Mann’s earlier film T-Men (1947), Border Incident idealizes law enforcement but comes to life only when it gets down among the criminals. Two immigration agents go undercover, the American Jack Bearnes (George Murphy) as a thief peddling stolen work permits, and the Mexican Pablo Rodriguez (Ricardo Montalban) as a laborer looking to cross the border without papers. They thus uncover the system by which desperate braceros—treated as a commodity to be traded and sold, like the “Mexican curios” that are the smugglers’ code word—are exploited by traffickers, be they dumb, rapacious Mexican bandits or racist, gun-toting Americans who scornfully call their workers “monkeys” or “paisanos.” The migrants are loaded into trucks with false bottoms, lying side by side like the cargo of slave ships, covered in a net of light and shadow—one of many images here that are simultaneously beautiful and horrifying.
The real star of the film is John Alton’s cinematography, especially scenes of the desert at night. In jagged canyons and flat expanses of baked earth, every rock and shrub, dust storm and barbed-wire fence is picked out clearly in the half-light, which gives a brooding, desolate cast to the emptiness under huge skies raked with thin clouds. The landscape, as harsh and indifferent as the men who inhabit it, suits Mann’s vision of human extremity and isolation, just as it would in the westerns he started to make the following year. The gruesome methods of murder in Border Incident (another Mann signature) are singularly fitting. An immigration agent is killed with a mechanical harrow, which impersonally crushes him as he lies in the dirt of the field; the scene is sadistically drawn out and filmed from a worm’s-eye view against a flat black sky. The braceros are marched into the Canyon de Muerte, stabbed or shot and dumped into quicksand. The earth literally swallows them, an ironic death for men who work the land, bringing food out of the soil, only to be destroyed by the machinery of profit-driven agriculture. That the ending of the film always earns a hearty laugh from audiences today, as the narrator cheerfully informs us that the problem of illegal immigration is a thing of the past, is a depressing sign of how little progress has been made in seventy years.
Bitter Rice deals with a very different kind of migrant labor, the female “mondine” who converge on the Po Valley in Northern Italy each year to plant and harvest in the rice paddies. Giuseppe de Santis’s film satisfyingly integrates neorealist documentation of this unique enclosed world with a noir plot about an homme fatal, Walter (Vittorio Gassman), who entangles two very different women in his criminal schemes. Francesca (Doris Dowling) hides out among the rice workers after helping Walter steal a priceless necklace; while she comes to value the women’s honest labor and loyalty, and to recognize her lover for the selfish sleazebag that he is, her on-and-off friend Silvana (Silvana Mangano) falls under his spell and ultimately helps him commit a much more despicable crime. The final side of this love quadrangle is supplied by Marco (Raf Vallone), a philosophical soldier who is smitten with Silvana but winds up allied with Francesca. Four spectacularly good-looking leads flesh out a rich melodrama, in which the women’s characters are by far the most complex. Walter, who when chased by the police hides behind Francesca, using her as a shield, is purely vile; Marco, with his shirt always unbuttoned to the sternum, is a virile spokesman for decency. Francesca lives with regret and shame—including the memory of a pregnancy she ended at Walter’s insistence—and struggles to regain her self-respect. Silvana is the most mysterious character. An earthy bombshell who loves to jitterbug, she is the acknowledged queen of the mondine, but proves to be fickle, confused, and morally malleable. Most disturbingly, she falls slavishly in love with Walter after he beats and rapes her.
This scene is intercut with the agony of another young woman who has a miscarriage while laboring in the fields, and is tended and mourned over by her sisters. The community of women is always at the heart of the film: we see them toiling bare-legged in the paddies, lounging in their dormitory, and flirting with men in the yard of the barracks. Two recurring stylistic motifs shape the film’s view of them: lateral tracking shots that glide past many women, dignifying each one fleetingly, and crane shots that rise upward to dignify the group. Forbidden to talk in the fields, the women sing in full-throated unison, improvising lyrics when they want to communicate. Francesca and Silvana are on opposite sides of a conflict between the regular workers and the “clandestine,” women who lack work contracts and, like the braceros in Border Incident, are taken advantage of by middle-men who extract a cut of their pay. In the end, all the women make common cause, rejecting efforts to pit them against each other.
Like the apples in Thieves’ Highway, rice is currency: the only payment the mondine receive for their labor is a sack of the valuable grains. When Walter shows up at the camp, Francesca hides him in a warehouse filled with dunes of rice, and he conceives the idea of stealing it. He compounds this crime by talking Silvana into creating a distraction by opening the sluice gates to flood the fields, which would destroy the next crop as well as robbing the workers of their pay, the ultimate sin against their solidarity and their labor. In the end, rice regains its value when the women offer it as a tribute, sprinkling it on the body of a fallen comrade. Irrigated by their sweat, blood, and tears, it is more precious than jewels.