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.

Winchester ’73 (1950) Anthony Mann

This review contains Spoilers!

Was it his personal war experiences that changed James Stewart? Did he come back a changed manl; most men do.  Many of Stewart’s post World War II roles began to take on a darker side with haunted ambiguous characters motivated by revenge or other desires. Maybe a steady diet of Frank Capra’s Capra-corn did not have enough substance anymore, after all life was not that simple (Stewart’s darker side was touched upon slightly in “It’s a Wonderful Life” but he was soon back to his sweet genteel self).  “Winchester ’73” was the first Mann/Stewart collaboration, a joint effort that would produce some of the most mature westerns ever made.

Fritz Lang was originally on board to make this film, however soon bowed out. After a screening of Devil’s Doorway Mann’s first western starring Robert Taylor, Stewart agreed to work with Mann.   The Winchester of the title was a special, “one of a thousand” type made in 1873. President Grant owned one, so did Buffalo Bill, and now Lin McAdams (Stewart), He wins one in a 4th of July celebration shoot out exhibition in Dodge City. His closest competitor is Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally), his brother who shot their father in the back, though we do not find this out until toward the end of the film. For most of the story we never understand why Lin is so determined in going after Dutch.

The rifle itself gets passed around throughout the film becoming almost a character, or a link, in the film as it moves on from Lin, who won it in the shooting contest, to Dutch who steals it in a fight with Lin, to  an Indian gun runner, to an Indian Chief (Rock Hudson) to the cowardly fiancé (Charles Drake) of Lola (Shelley Winters) the only female in the cast, to gunfighter Waco Johnny Dean (Dan Duryea) then back to Dutch and finally back to Lin.

Just about every male character in the film drools over the perfect piece of equipment, an obvious symbol of virile masculinity. The men who possess it show it off, and the men who want it are envious. Guns in general are seen as phallic symbols. Later after successfully fending an attack by Indians, Lola returns to Lin a pistol he gave her to defend herself during the attack  with the understanding that the last bullet she should use on herself rather than fall into the hands of the Indians. Returning the gun and the bullet Lin suggest she may want to  keep the bullet. Without hesitation she says “I want it!” leaving no  uncertainty in her tone and look that she is talking more about sex and a life with Lin than just an old bullet.

Though the story is fiction, original screenwriter Robert L. Richards, later Mann brought in Borden Chase to do a rewrite in the first of their collaborative efforts, surrounds the story in real western mythology; Dodge City where an elderly though respected Wyatt Earp (Will Geer), Doc Holiday and company run a tight ship allowing no one to carry guns while in town. The Civil War has recently ended and General George Armstrong Custer was most recently overrun at Little Big Horn all of this invoking a strong sense of time and place in history.

This was the only western collaboration of Mann and Stewart filmed in black and white which may account for some of the noirish lighting in a few scenes, particularly in the fight between the two brothers in the hotel room where Dutch and his boys take the Winchester from Lin and beat it out of town.

As with “The Naked Spur” the theme of revenge is significant in this film as it motivates Lin in going after his brother. Family or the sense of family is also important here, the two brothers whose family was destroyed by the actions of one. Also between the prostitute Lola who is thrown out of town by Wyatt Earp, and the cowardly Steve. Both are outcasts who attempt to have a life together. Finally, and most prominently in Dodge City where an older Wyatt Earp is the friendly but strong willed patriarch (no guns allowed in town) who oversees the family friendly 4th of July celebration where the shooting contest is held with the winner getting the Winchester ’73.

This western is far from the type generally made at the time, more psychological, character driven with a conflicted dark hero. An excellent example occurs early in the film in Dodge City, after Lin surrenders his gun to Wyatt Earp, he enters a bar and finds his nemeses and brother at a card table. The reaction of both brothers to seeing each other is to crouch down and draw their guns. Thanks to Earp neither man has a weapon and a shooting is adverted but it is a disturbing scene as we watch the “hero” react in a way no better than the villain. Still, there is plenty of the standard action audiences would expect, Indian attack on the Calvary, cheating at cards, gunfights, Indian gun trader, a planned bank robbery and a woman in distress.

With this film Anthony Mann found his own John Wayne in James Stewart. Stewart collaborated with other directors (Hitchcock and Capra notably) but in Mann he found his alternate mantra that of an ambiguous hero verging on obsessed, unhinged, psychologically driven behavior.  Ford’s heroes were generally more straight forward white hat types though late in his career Wayne’s Ethan Edwards in “The Searchers” and to a lesser extent Tom Doniphon in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” are certainly characters who struggle with life’s complexities and Edwards specifically is a man driven by traits that are both good and bad.

Stephen McNally as Lin’s evil brother is convincingly evil and just about as driven as his sibling. Noir favorite Dan Duryea also is adept at playing a malicious outlaw who hooks up with McNally for a bank robbery.   Look for newcomers Rock Hudson as the Indian chief who for a while is in possession of the Winchester and another unknown actor at the time , one Anthony “Tony” Curtis who has a small role as a Calvary solider prominently seen during the Indian raid scenes. James Best also has a small role.

*****

The Naked Spur (1953) Anthony Mann

Anthony Mann’s “The Naked Spur” is a dark western that ranks up there with Ford’s “The Searchers”, Hawks “Rio Bravo” and Zimmemann’s “High Noon”, an exquisite study of character relationships, cynicism, betrayal and redemption with the added scenic beauty of a master painting.

The plot is simple, Howard Kemp (James Stewart), a bounty hunter running from his past is hell bent on bringing outlaw Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan) in for reward money. Unwillingly he accepts the help of two men he meets along the way, an old out of luck prospector, Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell) and a dishonorably discharged unbalanced soldier, Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker). When they catch Vandergroat, he has with him the pretty Lina Patch (Janet Leigh), the young daughter of a pal who professes her love for him.  On the long road back Vandergroat makes multiple efforts to divide up the loyalty of the three men splitting them apart and turning them against each other, hopefully long enough so he can escape.

It is Robert Ryan’s twisted outlaw Ben Vandergroat who drives the film and Stewart’s Howie that reacts. Vandergroat’s divide and conquer policy is relentless, the men switching loyalties, shifting sides. He entices the old man Tate telling him how splitting the reward money two ways is better than three. Vandergroat continually attempts to pit the men against each other and displays an almost superior arrogance at  times, for example when he smugly instructs the lone female character to “do me Lina.” While it is meant to rub his shoulder, it comes across as a more overtly sexual demand especially considering the salivating Roy Anderson is standing by watching.  Mann’s westerns are dark conflicted works with characters whose seem to be at a crossroad in their life.

Stewart’s Howard Kemp is an unhinged anti-hero determined to get the $,5000 bounty money on Vandergroat’s head so he can buy back the ranch his fiancée sold from behind his back. Still he cannot do it without the help of his two untrustworthy partners. Early in the film his attempt to scale a rocky mountain where Vandergroat is held up fails, burning his hands as he falls. He succeeds in capturing Vandergroat only with the assistance of the unstable but younger Anderson.

There is very little typical western action in the film except for an Indian attack early on in the film, yet Mann and screenwriters Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom (who received an Oscar nomination) continuously keep the tension high through the characters interaction filled with mistrust and the constant threat for violence.  At one point Vandergroat get hold of a gun and Howard almost out of control faces him down telling him to come on and draw, knowing he can outshoot him. Vandergroat knows it too and does not take the bait, telling the enraged Howard he is going to have to shoot him in cold blood if he wants him dead.  Anderson yells out to kill him saying they’ll get the reward dead or alive.  The old prospector stops the mad chaos before a shot is fired.

All the men come to a violent end except for Howard. Greed does in the old prospector when he falls for Vandergroat’s story about sharing in a non-existent goldmine and is shot dead once he unties the outlaw’s hands. Anderson drowns trying to recover Vandergroat’s body in the wild river and the outlaw is deceived by Lina after she has come to grips that he is a murderer and gives Howard an assist in their final confrontation.

In the end Stewart redeems himself coming to grips with his demons after retrieving Vandergroat’s body from the river (dragging it like a beached whale); he breaks down realizing that the bitterness that has engulfed him has made him less of a person. We are left to assume he and Lina go off to California and start a new life together.

Mann magnificently uses the camera to isolate the partners depending on who is on whose side at the time. He also positions his camera in various scenes that guarantee you are certainly seeing the actors in the fight scenes and not stunt doubles. As with the black and white beauty of his film noirs this color production is beautifully scenic (mostly filmed in the Colorado Rockies), one of the most visually stunning westerns this side of John Ford. But the landscape is more than just scenic it becomes another character in the film. Mann’s west is a country of streams, mountains and wide open land. It is the landscape that determines the final destiny of Vandergroat and Anderson.

I love seeing James Stewart portraying such a multi dimensional character. Too often we think of Stewart as the guy next door yet later in his career he took on roles that challenged this perception with films like Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” and especially in the films he made with Mann. Check out this overview of Stewart’s career that was written by R.D. Finch over at The Movie Projector blog, he spells it all out for you a lot better than I can. Also check out at Wonders in the Dark Sam Juliano’s  wrap of the recent Anthony Mann festival at the Film Forum in New York.

*****