Thieves’ Highway (1949) Jules Dassin

Revenge, money and corruption drive Jules Dassin’s terrific 1949 noirish trucking drama. Written by A.I. Bezzerides (On Dangerous Ground, Kiss Me Deadly), based on his own novel, “Thieves Market,” this was Dassin’s last film made in the United States before he was blacklisted. Richard Conte is Nick Garcos, a returning Navel World War Two vet who sets out to avenge his father’s crippling accident caused by crooked produce dealer Mike Figlia played by a vicious Lee J. Cobb.  Much of the film was made on location in San Francisco’s produce and waterfront areas. Dark and gritty, Dassin is set on exposing the dark corrupt side of the produce business where people, mostly immigrants here represented by Italians, Greeks and Poles, are used for cheap labor and then as now, tossed away when no longer needed.  It’s an exploration of the unpleasant greedy side of capitalism, filled with despair and disillusionment where everyone is interested in making a dollar no matter at what cost. Everyone is out for a buck, even Nick’s “nice” fiancée Polly (Barbara Lawrence) reveals herself to driven by the almighty dollar.

Nick arrives home where he is greeted by his soon to be bride, Polly, who is clearly disappointed by the small china doll gift he brings her, that is until she finds the expensive engagement ring hanging on the doll. He then sees his father in a wheelchair, legless due to an “accident,” a result of carelessness by big shot Mike Figlia. Nick boils with rage and swears revenge. He hooks up with Ed Kinney (Millard Mitchell), a trucker. Using his father’s truck, they become partners. When Ed attempts to cheat some Polish Apple growers, Nick makes him honest paying a fair value. They load their valuable but fragile Apple cargo and head for San Francisco to deliver the freshly picked produce along with a little payback to Big Mike. From here on, the film becomes a dark claustrophobic nightmare filled with speed, treacherous turns, threats and violence.  In the end, Nick, an ex-G.I. happy to be home has turned into battle weary cynic who views life as nothing but an opportunity to make a buck. Money is the driving force.

Visually the film is stunning, thanks to Dassin’s working of the camera and some sharp editing. One highlight is a nicely edited series of shots, close ups inside the truck’s cab when Ed realizes the breaks on the beat up vehicle are gone and he cannot slow down. In between, we cut to two of Ed’s buddies in a second truck driving behind him, who helplessly realize he is in trouble.  A hard turn, suddenly Ed’s truck is going off the road and rolling down a hill exploding into a ball of fire. From the bottom of the hill the camera eyes the turned over truck at the lower part of the frame, apple boxes spread out all over, scattered apples still rolling down the steep hill.

In San Francisco, Nick is beaten up by Figlia’s goons. Rica (Valentina Cortese), a prostitute and Figlia associate helps mend Nick’s wounds. As Nick recuperates in Rica’s small bedroom apartment the two are constantly eyeing each other, verbally and physically sparring between mistrust and sensual desire. At times Rica is playful, other times defiant, then suddenly turning playful again. She becomes openly lustful toward Nick, surprisingly so for a film of this period. 

Unfortunately, the hand of producer Darryl F. Zanuck softened the previous ninety minutes.  Thinking the film to0 downbeat, a quickly manufactured happy ending was filmed including Nick and Rica riding off into the sunset filmed without Dassin’s involvement corrupting the hard realities of what came before. Still, “Thieves’ Highway” remains engrosing, one of Dassin’s darkest and finest films.

Note: this is a revised review that originally appeared in the now defunct Halo-17.

15 comments on “Thieves’ Highway (1949) Jules Dassin

  1. Sam Juliano says:

    THIEVES’ HIGHWAY is absolutely one of the most memorable of Dassin’s films, and one that straddles the line between social drama and film noir- apoint you deftly deleate throughout this superb revised essay. NIGHT AND THE CITY is his masterpiece of course, but this film, RIFIFI, THE NAKED CITY and BRUTE FORCE among others stand tall in his filmography. Conte, Cortese and Cobb are all excellent and Norbort Brodine’s cinematography is superlative. Alfred Newman’s score is memorable too, and while I would also quibble with the relatively upbeat ending, I’d say it’s on balance a terrific work. Tony d’Ambra commented months back at Dave Hicks’ site that he questions its eligibility as noir, though he wouldn’t disquality it either. But no matter where it falls, THIEVES HIGHWAY is a mesmerizing film.


    • John Greco says:


      As for NIGHT AND THE CITY, I am in total agreement with you. At this poing in his career and despite the troubles with the HUAC, Dassin was on a roll with some great films. The film may be borderline noir, it definitely has a nice bleak atmosphere except for the ending which Dassin did not like and I am in agreement with. I would have liked to have seen something darker.


  2. Love this one. Just recently was turned onto Dassin this past year. Great stuff.


    • John Greco says:


      Glad to here this. If you have not seen some of the films Sam mentions in his comment, they are must! Highly recommended all. Thanks!!!


  3. ClassicBecky says:

    I don’t know how I could have missed this, John, especially with the fabulous Lee J. Cobb in it. It sounds like a film noir favorite possibility. Wish me luck finding it! I want to know if I’m right about that…


    • John Greco says:

      Many critics consider it a noir and one of Dassin’s top films. I found it at a local library. It was released on DVD by Criterion. Hope you can find a copy I do think you will like it.


  4. Judy says:

    I haven’t seen this one as yet, John, but another great review – sounds like one I would like to track down in the future. A shame about the ending being a cop-out, which so often seems to happen.


  5. Dawn says:

    I really enjoy reading your blog and I wanted you to know that Dawn from, Noir and Chick Flicks has passed the “Liebster Award!”, to Twenty Four Frames.


    • John Greco says:


      Thank to you very much for the nomination. it is very much appreciated. I tried responding on your blog but I am having trouble posting to anyone on Blogger for the past few days. Not sure why. Anyway, again I appreciate your consideration.


  6. DorianTB says:

    John, as a fan of both Jules Dassin and Richard Conte, I’ve been meaning to catch up with THIEVES’ HIGHWAY for some time. Your review has encouraged me to keep an eye on the Fox Movie Channel (even if it does have a pasted-on happy ending :-)), since it shows up there from time to time. Sounds like those are the deadliest apples since SNOW WHITE! All kidding aside, your terrific review has whet my appetite, so I’ll be making a greater effort to seek out THIEVES’ HIGHWAY.


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