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THIEVES’ HIGHWAY(director: Jules Dassin; screenwriter: from the book Thieves’ Market by A.I. Bezzerides/Mr. Bezzerides; cinematographer: Norbert F. Brodin; editor: Nick De Maggio; music: Alfred Newman; cast: Richard Conte (Nick Garcos), Valentina Cortese (Rica), Lee J. Cobb (Mike Figlia), Jack Oakie (Slob), Barbara Lawrence (Polly Faber), Millard Mitchell (Ed Prentiss), Joseph Pevney (Pete Bailey), Tamara Shayne (Parthena Garcos), Morris Carnovsky (Yanko Garcos), George Tyne (Charles), David Clarke (Mitch), David Opatoshu (Frenchy); Runtime: 94; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Robert Bassler; RKO; 1949)
“Takes a sour bite out of the next apple you’ll eat as it tells about the corruption of the California produce business.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A gripping revenge trucking melodrama that burns with passion for the exploited truckers. It’s a honey from director Jules Dassin’s (“Rififi”/”Brute Force”/”Never on Sunday”) preblacklist Hollywood days (this was his final film in the United States before being blacklisted and forced to work in France and then England). It takes a sour bite out of the next apple you’ll eat as it tells about the corruption of the California produce business. It’s adapted by A.I. Bezzerides from his own novel Thieves’ Market.

Nick Garcos (Richard Conte) returns home from the war with a tidy sum of money earned as a mechanic and is a happy camper as he showers his loving parents in central California with gifts. He gives an engagement ring to his Wasp girlfriend Polly (Barbara Lawrence), but his happiness is short-lived as he learns his father (Morris Carnovsky) had his legs amputated after a trucking accident when his brakes suspiciously failed. The hot-headed Nick further learns his impoverished but happy father was cheated out of his payment for his tomato shipment to the San Francisco market of the shady businessman Mike Figlia (Lee J. Cobb), and he plans to get revenge. Nick tracks down Ed Prentiss (Millard Mitchell), a sharpie trucker jockey who bought the rundown surplus troop truck from Nick’s father and has cooking a swell deal from a farmer to buy apples which he will unload for a hefty profit in San Francisco. The two wildcat truckers become partners and in separate trucks, using Nick’s life savings, buy the prime Golden Delicious apples from the farmer and rush to San Francisco to beat their competition. Nick while en route gets a flat and is pinned under the truck when his jack slips in the sand, only to be rescued in the nick of time by Ed. The two are tailed by Ed’s agitated former partners, Slob and Pete, who are also in competition heading for San Francisco with a truckload of apples. Nick drives the over thousand miles without sleeping and reaches San Francisco exhausted. Not able to get a good price from the other more reputable dealers in the market, he tries the crooked Figlia. Nick is forced to leave his truck in front of Figlia’s loading area when his tire is suspiciously slashed. Figlia gives Rica (Valentina Cortese), the foreign-born local prostitute, fifty bucks to take Nick to her place overnight. While there Figlia sells Nick’s apples, but Rica falls for Nick and warns him in time. Confronting Figlia, Nick forces a payment of $4,000 for the truckload– $500 in cash and the rest in a check. Happy with the deal, Nick calls Polly to fly to San Francisco and they’ll marry. But that night Figlia’s hired thugs, Frenchy and Mitch, jump Nick and steal his bankroll. Polly arrives, and when learning of the bad news leaves Nick without a moment’s hesitation. When Nick goes to the warehouse to wait for Ed and confront Figlia, he learns from Slob that Ed’s truck crashed and he was burned to death and that Pete went back with Figlia to the spot of the accident to pick up the stray crates to sell in the market. Slob drives Nick to the spot, and he angrily confronts Figlia for arranging his father’s accident and cheating him out of his money. Rica, afraid that Nick will kill the monster, calls the police and they arrive to arrest Figlia for racketeering after Nick gives him a severe beating. The no longer innocent Nick has pulled off his first business deal after fighting abroad for the American way of life, and is now jaded enough to marry Rica after realizing that he can make it on the thieves’ highway (the capitalist world!) because he has learned how to be a wheeler-dealer to add to his already proven wartime fighting skills.

There are great performances by Conte, Cobb and Cortese (in her first American film). It’s a fast-paced action film that sheds some light on trucker racketeering, and makes its proletarian hero into a mythic figure who is willing to work hard and fight for his rights in a hostile world. The good-guy patriot’s love interest turns out to be a foreign lady with questionable moral values, which gives Dassin’s film noir a little different twist from other noirs and makes it more interesting as a social-conscience narrative.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”