Monday, August 5, 2019

Noir Watch: Thieves' Highway (1949)

this quote is exactly what Jamie said to me when we met

Watched:  08/04/2019
Format:  Noir Alley on TCM on DVR
Viewing:  First
Decade:  1940's

There's a surprising number of movies about or including the work of "trucking" in this category we call "noir".  I suppose it makes sense given the world of people operating mostly alone, moving from place to place by day and night.  Add in the shadiness of transportation companies and both the folks sending and receiving goods, and it's fertile soil for drama.  And it's not like people like myself who've never ridden in a truck are oblivious to truckstop shenanigans. 

But who would have thought moving produce would lead to excellent noir drama?  But, at it's core, Thieves' Highway (1949), which is 100% about moving produce, contains a lot of what I think of when I ponder what comprises the "noir movement".  Characters in over their head pursuing goals due to hubris or lust (this one has both), a disaffection with the status quo and everyman status, a woman on the make pulling the wool over some schmuck's eyes...  it's all there.  Plus a heavy played by Lee J. Cobb and a morally gray protagonist played by Richard Conte.

Conte plays a Greek-American - Nick - who returns home from years oversea where he's been an engineer/ mechanic on a freighter.  He's got the girl nextdoor waiting for him (a blonde, WASPy, standard-issue girlfriend), and immigrant parents who've been keeping it together in his absence - or...  He learns that his father lost a load of tomatoes to a sleazy produce distributor, but also lost his truck and his legs as they may have sent him home drunk and to be robbed. 

He goes to reclaim his father's truck only to team up with the guy who bought it on the cheap (Millard Mitchell) who promises they stand to make a quick buck turning around a sale of Golden Delicious apples he's got on the line.*   And they can really bank if Conte can get a second truck, which he does. 

At every turn, someone is trying to chisel someone else on price, on cut of the sale, etc... And when the distributor who wouldn't pay Nick's father his share and directly or indirectly led to his injury can't win, he isn't afraid to do some dirty work.  There's a hooker with a heart of gold played by Valentina Cortese (who, much to my shock, played the role speaking her lines phonetically, not having yet learned English from her native Italian**). 

The spiral Nick falls into, certain he's exposing angle after angle to come out on top, but unable to realize the old pros already know all the in's and out's and possible outcomes when they take a mark is the sort of viewing that can have you grinding your molars at the injustice (and enough cues to suggest this is probably not all that far from reality).  It's also noir, and while the mistakes the character makes aren't illogical or badly written, there's still a frustration with our lead as he swings wildly rather than pulling back and rethinking his approach. 

There's a warning in the struggles and death of Nick's partner, and there's a curious character arc for each of their two rivals as they come to some realization of their part and what game they're playing (and for what?). 


To me, the most surprising heel turn was when Conte's girl-nextdoor flame arrives in San Francisco with wedding bells in her ears and learns he's been rolled for his wallet (and the nest egg for their future), and proves Rica - Valentina Cortese's hooker - right about what his girl wants.  Those dreams of quitting a job and middle-class security evaporate in front of her and she's gone in less than five minutes. 

It's cynically brutal, and I'm surprised they didn't do anything to soften the edge, but also speaks volumes about the times in ways both illuminating and a bit depressing - but they were also able to *have* a character who seemed this harmless at the film's outset show an ugly side that most films would never consider for "sweet, young and blonde", especially versus the world-weary Italian refugee hooker.

The film's conclusion, one clearly tacked on by the studio to satisfy the audience who'd endured the trials alongside Nick is still fairly open ended.  He may have escaped the law himself (which is hard to buy), and seen his foe taken in by the cops, but it's all a big pill to swallow that Figlia (Lee J. Cobb's shady distributor) would ever spend a real night in jail as it's hard to pinpoint what he, himself, did that was illegal.  That Conte drives off with Cortese with plans for marriage is sweet, but...  all of it sort of belies the tone and type of story up to this point.  Not at all uncommon in so many of these films.


I dug the film, warts and all.  And this may be my favorite role by Conte (but check back with me after rewatching The Big Combo sometime).   He's as natural and buyable and in his element here as in anything where I've seen him appear, raging fits,  exasperation and righteoud right-hook-throwing rage.  Lee J. Cobb also turns in a fantastic turn as the scheming tiny tyrant Figlia, and he's becoming one of those actors I went from liking when I recognized him to "oh, good, Lee J. Cobb" when I see he'll be in a film, and this one just increased that sentiment.

Directed by Jules Dassin, this movie just goes further to cement my opinion of him as fine director who knew from characters.  I've now seen all the films he did in this era, including the first films he made after leaving the US after getting black-listed.  And it makes me want to see the movies he made on either side of this stunning block:  Brute Force, The Naked City, Thieves' Highway, Night and the City, Rififi.  That's a hell of a run between '47 and '55. 

The story of Thieves' Highway does have a bit of that throwback to the 1930's Group Theatre feel of "social relevance" and a certain moralizing about the plight of the common man (Barton Fink would have something to say on this), and I'm good with that.  It's one of the undiscussed sides to noir in the larger culture who think of it as dames and detectives.   Dassin wasn't shy about distrust of petty dictators and the underbelly of what capitalism looks like in the darker corners - and it was probably just a matter of time before he and HUAC weren't going to see eye-to-eye.

To this day, those shiny apples waiting for you at the grocery have a curious route getting to the shelves.  Someone picks them, someone transports them from what used to be across the country, and now across the planet.  And somehow we all manage to pay next to nothing to have that fresh fruit and vegetables in places that never saw such an apple grow.  Not that you or I have much of a say in the cost of an apple, but it does make you wonder.

*look, I eat no less than an apple a day - sometimes two.  But I am no Golden Delicious man, and this sounds almost like science fiction to me that anyone would fight this hard over a Golden Delicious.

**I'm speechless if this is true (and apparently it is).  She's fantastic, and when you consider how much better she is than most English-only actors?  It's absolutely mind-boggling.

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