From director, Jules Dassin, whose earlier films included the noirs, Brute Force (1947) and The Naked City (1948), Thieves’ Highway about the struggles of truckers trying to make a buck hauling fruit to the San Francisco produce markets, is great melodrama with a strong social conscience. It tells a story strongly rooted in the southern European migrant experience.
The screenplay was adapted by Albert Isaac Bezzerides from his novel Thieves’ Market (1949). Bezzeridis’ noir credits include Desert Fury (1947), Kiss Me Deadly (1955), On Dangerous Ground (1952), and They Drive by Night (1948). Dassin was blacklisted by the HUAC and left the US before the final cut was made, and word has it the studio axed his original “noir” ending and added a “happy-ending” re-take.
But even with a darker ending, I would not say it is a film noir. The protagonist, a straight-up guy, Nick Garcos, wants to avenge his Greek father’s maiming by a crooked wholesaler and risk his last dime on a freight trip that will give him the stake he needs to settle down with his hometown sweetheart – the perfect role for Richard Conte. The other femme is an Italian good-time girl, played beautifully by Italian actress, Valentina Cortese, who never really wants to hurt him, but is only drawn into the story by the conniving of the wholesaler, Mike Figlia, gleefully played by Lee J. Cobb.
What struck me is how well each of the main characters is drawn, and how the rush to get the load of apples to the market, propels the story, and the character development. The most potent scene is when Nick is pinned under his truck after the changing of a flat tyre goes wrong, just off the busy highway, where a never-ending stream of trucks rip through the night: the world is not going to stop for one poor guy stuck under his truck. Nick does survive after he is rescued by his erstwhile shady partner. This exemplifies a wonderful quality of the film: each character has a chance at redemption – only Figlia and his henchmen are too rotten achieve it.
Filmically it is also a great testimony to all who worked on its production. The atmosphere of the Frisco produce markets is rendered so convincingly, that it has a cinema verite quality.
I feel qualified to say this as this is one of the very rare times, I can directly relate to what is happening on the screen. I grew up in a small corner fruit store run by my immigrant parents in a working-class suburb of Sydney – a big harbour city with a produce market at it’s center. My father is Italian and my late mother was Greek. It was a struggle and we opened 7 days a week. During school vacation my father would wake me at 4am weekdays for the trip to the city markets, where I would haul the long barrow behind him, as he moved from stall to stall haggling to find produce at a price that he could sell and make a buck. This movie connected for me deeply.
Thieves’ Highway: a good story well told, and worth remembering.