Jules Dassin directed an amazing run of film noir/crime classics between the mid-40's and 50's. These include Brute Force, The Naked City, Night and the City and perhaps most famous of all, Rififi. Nestled right in the middle of these hard boiled thrillers is the unusual, less well known but nevertheless equally as tough thriller Thieves' Highway.
The film sees war veteran Nick (Richard Conte) return home from overseas with money, gifts for his family and a promise of marriage to his sweetheart Polly (Barbara Lawrence). However, he finds his trucker father has lost his legs after being swindled by an infamous dealer called Mike Figlia (Lee J. Cobb). Nick vows to get his father's money back and hurt Figlia financially or otherwise. First he must get his father's truck back though. Ed Kinney (Millard Mitchell) had promised to buy it off him, but took the truck without paying. When Nick confronts him about it, Ed offers him a chance to make some good money and possibly get back at Figlia. Ed knows the whereabouts of a huge crop of golden delicious apples and the two of them agree to drive two trucks worth to San Francisco (where Figlia operates).
Along the way, Nick's inexperience almost costs him his life, but with Ed's help he makes it to San Francisco where his troubles grow exponentially whilst Ed trundles behind in Nick's father's rusty old truck. On Nick's back is Figlia and his goons, whilst a couple of rival truckers tail Ed to get in on the apple action. Things can't end well and adding a twist in the tale is femme fatale Rica (Valentina Cortese), who is initially hired by Figlia to sidetrack Nick, but may or may not get swayed by his charms.
This film takes strange subject matter for a noirish thriller, fruit trading, and uses it to craft a surprisingly tough and gripping film. Every character, even Nick at times, is in it for the money and greed drives everyone to desperate and unsavoury actions. There are some impressively tense action sequences on the road, but it's the tapestry of untrustworthy and hard to second guess characters that keep you watching. They may seem broadly drawn at times compared to today's standards, but even the smaller roles are interesting to watch, largely because none of them seem totally on the level with each other.
The performances back up the quality of the character development too. Conte isn't amazingly charismatic, but he's great at playing the stubborn bastard Nick. Cobb is the most fun to watch though. Although not a huge star, he's admired by modern critics and it's easy to see why. Watching him shake down Nick is a joy to behold as he slips and squirms his way to getting what he wants. Cortese's seductress shares some crackling screen time with Conte too. Their love scenes are barely restrained and it's as sexually explicit as you're likely to get in the post-code Hollywood of the time. Their characters' relationship is constantly on a knife-edge as Nick can't figure out whether he can trust Rica, yet he can't resist her.
There are dated aspects to the film though. As good as the cast are, the performances are a bit over-baked compared to those of today. The writing isn't always as good as it could be either, with a few blunt lines here and there and a cheesy shoehorned moral statement and happy coda spoiling the end a little. Some of the trucking scenes are slightly marred by some obvious under-cranking too.
These are niggles more than anything, but I did find the film didn't grab me as much as I'd have liked, even though I admired much about it. Maybe I was expecting more of a straight up noir rather than an odd trade drama, but the film never quite hit my sweet spot. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the film quite a bit, largely due to its fascinating cast of characters and hard edge. Those with a penchant for classic cinema who crave something a bit different should certainly check it out.
Thieves' Highway is out now on dual format Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK, released by Arrow Academy. I saw the Blu-Ray version and, as is to be expected from the label, the picture and audio quality is fantastic.
There are a healthy amount of features too. There's 'The Long Haul of A.I. Bezzerides', a 55-minute documentary portrait of the Thieves' Highway author and screenwriter, featuring contributions from Bezzerides, director Jules Dassin and writers George P. Pelecanos (The Wire), Mickey Spillane (Kiss Me Deadly) and Barry Gifford (Lost Highway). 'The Fruits of Labour' is a new video essay about the genesis, production, reception and politics of Thieves' Highway by Frank Krutnik, author of 'In a Lonely Street: Film Noir, Genre, Masculinity'. There are also selected scene and character commentaries by Frank Krutnik.
And as with all Arrow releases, you get a booklet in with the package, which is as informative as always.