Richard Conte plays a hot head recently returned from the Navy, who jumps in on a business deal out of personal vengeance when he finds out that a crooked produce dealer (played in a characteristically tiresome performance by Lee J. Cobb) not only cheated his father, but also caused him to lose use of his legs in an auto accident. He teams up with Millard Mitchell (giving a wonderfully gruff performance) to deliver a load of apples to Cobb in San Francisco. But Conte finds out that the dirty dealings surrounding the produce market in the big city are plentiful, and he and Cobb begin a cat and mouse game to see who can swindle who. And just to complicate matters, an enigmatic gamine (played by Valentina Cortese) shows up and takes a hankering to Conte. Is she playing him straight, or is she part of the whole corrupt mess?
Richard Conte ... Nick Garcos
Valentina Cortese ... Rica (as Valentina Cortesa)
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, the Apple Farmer's Wife
Norbert Schiller ... Mr. Polansky, the Apple Farmer
Hope Emerson ... Midge, a buyer
Beginning with his compelling "Brute Force" ('47)followed by the richly atmospheric "Naked City" ('48), Jules Dassin became the hottest dealer in Hollywood of the Film-Noir genre. "Thieves Highway" adds ethnic tensions to the Dassin stew of lost souls always living at the edge of danger. Richard Conte was at his peak here as the tough trucker, quick to throw a punch when he's threatened and equally capable of rolling with them if necessary. In Robert Siodmak's "Cry of the City," he's held in a headlock by a butch Hope Emerson; in this one, a jack gives way and a truck fender lands on his neck....ouch!
Conte, like Burt Lancaster, came from a streetwise background that, second only to a boxing ring, fitted him neatly as a glove when it came to movies like "Thieves Highway." Conte was so good in this, he was selected to repeat the role on TV six years later under the title "Overnight Haul" on the old 20th Century-Fox Hour.
As for Dassin, he had yet a fourth fling at the genre the following year with the claustrophobic thriller, "Night and the City." A film worth commenting on later. As for "Thieves Highway," having seen it, you may want to follow it up with Clouzot"s "Wages of Fear," made three years later and the ultimate truckers' movie. As a boy I was privileged to have seen all four Dassin movies during their original releases.
Jules Dassin directed, in my opinion, two great dramas that happened to be crime films, Night and the City (1950) and Rififi (1955). Earlier, he made two near-great crime films, Naked City (1948), a little dated now, and Brute Force (1947). For me, Thieves' Highway (1949) pauses right in the middle, both in terms of the year made and in terms of the success of the story. The movie tells us about Nick Garcos (Richard Conte), who returns home from working at sea with presents for his family and his fiancé. He discovers that his father, a long-haul produce trucker, has lost his legs in a trucking accident after delivering tomatoes to produce broker Mike Figlia (Lee J. Cobb) in San Francisco. It looks like Figlia also stole back the money his father had been paid by Figlia. Nick is determined to settle scores. He sets out with an old-time hauler to deliver apples to Figlia, and plans to do whatever it takes to even things out. It doesn't work out so easily for Nick. The happy ending Darryl F. Zanuck shot and added to the film without Dassin's knowledge doesn't help matters. Zanuck's contribution starts with Nick meeting Figlia in a bar by a highway, a fight and ends with Nick and Rica, a woman he met after his fiancé dumped him and who earns her money from men, driving off together. I'm not sure that whatever the original ending was Dassin had in mind would have improved the film. As it is, I think this movie of retribution is masterfully directed, filled with realism, contains several first-rate sequences and is photographed with great style and mood. The truck crashing off the highway, with boxes of apples tumbling off and the apples rolling down the hill toward us is startling. So why don't I like it as much as I think I should? The quick and secondary answer is that I learned more than I needed about produce. It's difficult to make a great movie when crucial plot points turn on whether a bunch of Golden Delicious apples are too mealy. The primary answer is the acting.
I have great admiration for Richard Conte, who plays Nick Garcos. He was always watchable and he got even better as he aged. Most of his career in Hollywood was spent playing second leads or shrewd villains in A movies and leads in B movies. He never managed the traction to move up to Hollywood hero parts. I can't explain it well in words, but Conte, who could be tightly coiled and energetic, lacked in my view a certain amount of charisma that could drive a part into your head. He's very good in Thieves' Highway, but he only occasionally involves me emotionally. (As opposed, for instance, to the loser Harry Fabian played by Richard Widmark in Night and the City; it's tough playing nice leads in noirs.) Valentina Cortese has the looks, the style and the sense of vulnerability to do a good job as Rica, but she doesn't have the language skills. She has a hard time breaking past the language barrier from Italian into English. This hurts the character and it hurts the scenes between her and Conte. On the other side of the scale there's Lee J. Cobb as Mike Figlia. Says Dassin roughly quoting Cobb on Cobb's view of Figlia, "I can outsmart any of the guys and I do what I want to do...law is what I make it...and I have fun with it." And that, says Dassin, is what underlies Cobb's whole performance.
We don't like or trust Figlia, but he's sure a piece of work. We enjoy his untrustworthiness. In my view, the balance of interest between Nick and Figlia always tips toward Figlia, thanks to Cobb's skill in the part. And there's Millard Mitchell as Nick's "partner." I think this might be the finest performance of Mitchell's long career. When he and Conte share scenes, it's like pairing up a real-life worn-out long haul driver with a good young actor. That's not criticism of Conte, it's praise for Mitchell.
I understand Jules Dassin was more or less driven to work in Europe by the HUAC investigations. If he was a Commie you'd never be able to tell from this film, which fits right smack into the frame established by the Warner Brothers' working-class films of the 1930s -- "Manpower," "Tiger Shark," "They Drive By Night," and a dozen others. "They Drive By Night," was written actually by the same writer as "Thieves' Highway," Besserides, a Greek-American from California's central valley, a truck driver by training.
Dassin has directed this piece about relatively small-time skulduggery and double crosses efficiently, and he has a good cast. Richard Conte is more animated than usual. Lee J. Cobb is a kind of Johnny Friendly who runs a big but crooked fruit stand. Barbara Lawrence is beautiful, as a model should be, and is as tall as a giraffe. Valentina Cortese has a thoroughly novel role -- a whore with a heart of gold. Her acting isn't exactly subtle. Maybe she had trouble with the language. But she's magnetic, perhaps because she's given some of the best lines in the film and is a more complex character than most of the others. Maybe too it has something to do with her appearance. She's not a beautiful woman. Her face is long, and her nose almost equally long. It's not a Roman nose either. It's Milanese. She has tiny shoulders and very little neck so that she seems hunched over most of the time. But her eyes are exquisite if they are considered individually, as they must be because each is unique and each looks in a different direction. Yes, I think that's her secret. The eyes have it.
The story is out of a B movie. The good guys are good and the bad guys are bad. There are some characters in between -- Millard Mitchell, Cortese, Conte, and two mostly comedic hot-shots -- who may not be entirely dishonorable but are capable of being bent by the drive for money and revenge.
The B-movie budget shows, alas, and there's a tacked-on ending in which a cop shakes his finger in our faces and warns us that just because we've been wronged, that doesn't mean we can go around taking the law into our own hands. The scene was written and directed by Darryl F. Zanuck without Dassin's knowledge. Watching this engaging but no-more-than adequate film, one wonders what could have been done with an A-movie budget. A little more time (shooting took about one month), more money, more thoughtful casting, more polish on the script. It might have been better than good enough.