Thieves’ Highway (1949)
Directed by Jules Dassin
Welcome to the white-knuckle world of trucker noir!
Trucker noir is a sparsely populated subgenre, even though the world of long-haul trucking seems tailor-made for film noir. Truck drivers are blue-collar everymen who push themselves to the limit and exist in a nighttime world where sleep equals death. They battle corrupt syndicates and each other for a little cold hard cash.
And yet, when I was trying to think of great noirs (and not-so-great noirs) specifically about truck drivers, I could only come up with a handful.
The original, and still one of the best, trucker noirs is Raoul Walsh’s They Drive by Night (1940), which is based on the 1938 novel The Long Haul, by A.I. Bezzerides. Produced by Mark Hellinger and released by Warner Bros., They Drive by Night still stands up as superior entertainment, and was the template for most of the trucker noirs that followed. It stars film-noir mainstays George Raft and Humphrey Bogart as brothers who run a small trucking business in California that carries fresh fruit from farms into the markets of Los Angeles. The beautiful and talented Ann Sheridan plays a truck-stop waitress who takes a shine to Raft, and Ida Lupino — one of my favorite actresses from the classic noir cycle — is the femme fatale who wants to get her claws into Raft.
Other noirish tales of brave men fighting rackets and trying to stay awake through the night include Truck Busters (1943) (directed by B. Reeves Eason), Speed to Spare (1948), and Highway 13 (1948) (both directed by William Berke).
Trucker noir reached its apotheosis in 1953 with Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le salaire de la peur (The Wages of Fear), which was remade by William Friedkin in 1977 as Sorcerer. The Wages of Fear is one of the greatest films ever made, and one of the few thrillers that lives up to the term “edge of your seat.”
But before that high-water mark, Jules Dassin directed a very good film called Thieves’ Highway. It’s similar in a lot of ways to They Drive by Night, probably because they’re both based on novels by A.I. Bezzerides. Thieves’ Highway is based on Bezzerides’s novel Thieves’ Market, which was published earlier in 1949.
Richard Conte plays Nick Garcos, a Greek-American who has returned home to Fresno, California, after serving overseas. He discovers that his father, Yanko Garcos (Morris Carnovsky), has been crippled following an altercation with the crooked produce distributor Mike Figlia (Lee J. Cobb).
Nick vows revenge, and teams up with a salty old trucker named Ed Kinney (Millard Mitchell) to deliver a big load of Golden Delicious apples to Figlia’s market in San Francisco. Nick drives a military surplus Studebaker US6 and Ed drives an old Mack AB that’s on its last legs.
My favorite sections of Thieves’ Highway are the ones that take place on the road. Jules Dassin’s direction is at its best in these sequences, which are full of tension and drama. There are another pair of wildcatters, Pete (Joseph Pevney) and Slob (Jack Oakie), who are trying to beat Ed and Nick to the San Francisco markets. I love Pevney and Oakie’s performances in this film. Even though they come off as jerks in most of their early scenes, they’re both able to craft fully realized and relatable characters who are as much a part of the fabric of the film as Ed and Nick are.
I also love the scenes in the market, which were shot on location in San Francisco and are dominated by the menacing bonhomie of Lee J. Cobb as Figlia. I’ve never seen Cobb give a bad performance, and Thieves’ Market is no exception.
Ditto for Richard Conte, who plays Nick as a determined guy who doesn’t have a lot of experience, but is good at thinking on his feet and won’t ever back down from a conflict. I love the scene where he snarls the extremely old-school threat, “Touch my truck and I’ll climb into your hair.”
The scenes in the market are punctuated by Nick’s burgeoning love affair with a prostitute named Rica, played by Valentina Cortese. (She’s listed in the credits as Valentina “Cortesa.”) She invites him up to her rented room, and lets him sleep and bathe after spending hundreds of miles on the road. These scenes are strongly reminiscent of the bits in They Drive by Night where Ann Sheridan cares for the bone-tired George Raft, but they’re much more sexually charged. Not only does Nick remove his shirt and allow her to caress him, but it’s brazenly obvious that she’s a prostitute. Figlia even refers to her as a “trick” when he admits to Nick that he paid her to get Nick up to her room.
Dassin directed a bunch of films for MGM before making his two early masterpieces, Brute Force (1947) and The Naked City (1948) for Universal with producer Mark Hellinger. He was blacklisted around the time he made Thieves’ Highway, and it would be the last film he directed in Hollywood. (He was still under contract with 20th Century-Fox when he directed his final post-blacklist film, Night and the City, but that movie was shot in London.)
Thieves’ Highway was a modestly budgeted film shot on a very tight schedule, and it suffered some narrative tinkering by Darryl F. Zanuck, but it still stands as a typically great film by Dassin. It’s also an important part of the wave of post-war/pre-HUAC film noirs that explicitly critiqued the American capitalist system.
Thieves’ Highway is a tale of capitalism in miniature. The Golden Delicious apples that Ed and Nick struggle to get to market are a hot but perishable commodity. They’re gambling with their livelihoods and their lives to get them to Figlia’s market as fast as they can. Dassin presents capitalism as an economic structure that, at its best, encourages daring, shrewd negotiation, and hard work. At its worst, it encourages deceit, treachery, and the exploitation and death of laborers as long as there’s a buck to be made.