Thursday, September 13, 2018

Thieves' Highway: Dark Streets and Rolling Apples

Who would have thought a movie about transporting and selling apples could be so engrossing? Yet, director Jules Dassin has crafted an atmospheric, cynical film noir about just that--and somehow still manages to deliver a message of hope.

In Thieves' Highway, Richard Conte plays Nick Garcos, a World War II Navy veteran who buys two trucks of California golden delicious apples. With his newfound partner Ed (Millard Mitchell), he plans to drive four hours to San Francisco to sell the apples for a quick profit.

Lee J. Cobb and Richard Conte.
Arriving in the city well ahead of Ed, Nick seeks out produce merchant Mike Figlia--whom he blames for the truck accident that crippled his father. The crooked Figlia (Lee J. Cobb) plans to swindle Nick and hires a prostitute to distract the weary trucker. Meanwhile, Ed has his own problems as he struggles with a decrepit truck loaded with the rest of the apple shipment.

Conte and Valentina Cortese.
Taking place over two days and one night, there's a lot going on in Thieves' Highway. I love how screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides peels away the facades that some characters use for protection. The stereotypically tough prostitute Rica (Valentina Cortese) gambles with her male cronies and accepts money from Figlia to help cheat Nick. When she first meets Nick, there's an immediate physical attraction  (the scene where she caresses his bare chest must have raised eyebrows at the time). However, it's Nick's honesty and hardened vulnerability that makes her want to take care of him. When she meets his shallow, ambitious girlfriend Polly, Rica knows immediately that Polly is not the girl for Nick. And that gets her thinking that...just perhaps...she could find love and life beyond the dark, dirty streets of the city.

Nick and Slob.
Likewise, the rival trucker Slob (wonderfully played by Jack Oakie) initially appears to be the kind of hustler who will do anything to make a buck. He and his chum follow Ed, jeering him at every opportunity, in the hope of getting his cargo. It's not until Slob witnesses a tragic accident that he reveals his true colors. He proves that hustlers have ethics, too, and he takes an unlikely stand against Figlia.

One of the most vivid characters in Thieves' Highway is the bustling inner city with its neon lights, shadow-filled streets, and earthy characters. It's almost as if director Dassin had placed his camera in the middle of the San Francisco produce market at night. I can only think of a handful of films--The Set-Up and Sweet Smell of Success are two that spring in mind--which evoke a comparable urban atmosphere.

Ironically, the film's most iconic scene takes place during daylight and away from the city. Near the film's climax, a truck careens off the road and crashes, emptying dozens of golden apples onto a hillside.  As the apples careen down the downhill, going helter skelter in different directions, I was suddenly reminded of the Odessa Steps sequence in Eisenstein's silent classic Battleship Potemkin.

There are critics who think that the end of Thieves' Highway is a bitter joke. Its promise of a happy life for two of its characters is tainted by who they are and what they have done. In that context, perhaps the apples represent happiness slipping away. Personally, I prefer to believe that Dassin's ending is a hopeful one.

Melina Mercouri and Jules Dassin.
Although he was not one of the Hollywood Ten, Jules Dassin was blacklisted in 1950 after he finished his follow-up film Night and the City. He subsequently went to Europe and made a number of memorable films, to include the heist pictures Rififi (1955) and Topkapi (1964). He eventually married his frequent leading lady, Greek actress Melina Mercouri. Because of his name and the location of his later movies, Dassin is often mistakenly labeled a European filmmaker. In reality, he was born in Connecticut and raised in Harlem.


  1. Beautiful article on a most memorable movie. I saw this once on the big screen and it filled my eyes and my heart.

  2. Oh, I want to see this movie. Thanks, Rick, for a great piece on a film I wasn't aware of - which is strange since I'm a big fan of Night and the City and Rififi...and have a special fondness for films set in the city by the bay.

  3. I'd never heard of this film until I read your review earlier today. I just watched it on YouTube - I don't think it had been digitally remastered but it wasn't a bad print. Thanks so much for bringing it to our attention.

  4. Excellent review of a lesser seen film.