This week in The Best of Film Noir, we’re taking a look at Thieves’ Highway, a 1949 movie starring Richard Conte, Valentina Cortese, and Lee J. Cobb, and directed by Jules Dassin. I picked this movie because, as I write this, we in the United States are close to a critical election, and Thieves’ Highway has political undertones. Trust me, the politics here are more entertaining…
The Best of Film Noir – The Noir Hero
Richard Conte (known for acting in many film noir) plays Nick Garcos, an American GI who has become a truck driver. Upon his return from World War II, Nick finds that his father, a produce trucker, has lost both legs because of a fight with crooked produce market kingpin Mike Figlia (Lee J. Cobb). This thrusts Nick onto his noir journey, where Nick gets involved in his father’s feud with Figlia, and Nick ends up heavily involved in racketeering. Nick has a sweetheart at the beginning of the film (Polly, played by Barbara Lawrence) but he soon leaves her behind as he succumbs to the wiles of the femme fatale. Thieves’ Highway is a great example of the noir hero, an optimistic sort at the beginning of the movie, a worn-down itinerant by the end, hardened by the callousness of life (and of course he is powerless against this life).
The Best of Film Noir – The Femme Fatale
Valentina Cortese plays Rica, a prostitute who works for Figlia. Rica is bad from the start. She manipulates Nick into thinking his love Polly only wants him for his money; she steals his wallet from him; and she seduces Nick. She is at once the representation of warmth and heart, and also the shadowy, distrustful side of society. And she is sexy, no doubt. As reviewer Micahel Sragow states:
No gal in movies has ever looked sexier or more good-humored drying her hair after a shower.
Rica sums up her existence nicely. When Nick says that she has soft hands, she says that they are sharp claws. And she definitely has her claws in Nick. What a femme fatale…
The Best of Film Noir – The Director
Jules Dassin deserves some mention here. Working from a novel and script by A.I. Bezzerides, Dassin directed Thieves’ Highway amidst the communist witch hunts. Dassin also directed other classic film noir, such as Night And The City, The Naked City, and Rififi. Many consider Thieves’ Highway to be his best American film. One thing we writers can learn from Dassin and Thieves’ Highway is his use of cliché. Dassin frequently takes something that borders on cliché, like the crowded pier-side places in San Francisco, and adds all kinds of edginess through the characters. Thus the cliché has meaning beyond its surface. Dassin does a brilliant job of developing the characters as well as the setting (San Francisco), and we are left with a true masterpiece of film noir.
The Best of Film Noir – The Politics
Thieves’ Highway has definite political overtones. At its core, Thieves’ Highway shows the hardships faced by truckers moving produce from the Fresno Valley to San Francisco. The highway is in essence the metaphor for both progress and decline. Corruption rises as prices for apples increase as they pass from orchard growers to truckers to wholesalers to retailers. It is runaway capitalism that, although providing for many superficial benefits for some, eats away at the American character, as represented by its society. The film’s producer, Darryl F. Zanuck, took control over the film and shot much of the film’s ending. In doing so, he tampered with the message of the movie, but the message is still there.
Money also plays a key role in Thieves’ Highway. Money is an integral part of Nick’s journey, from Polly’s money-grubbing to Figlia’s backhanded market manipulations. Love also seems to have a price to it, as we see in the end, when Nick’s character is changed, and he is not with Polly anymore.
The Best of Film Noir – The Research
Thieves’ Highway was shot in San Francisco, and the movie is known for its accurate depiction of the city’s fruit and produce market. For you writers, both the book and the movie are great examples of how one can meticulously research a subject and portray it effectively without overwhelming the reader (or viewer) with so much information it sounds like an encyclopedia. What we see is authentic, but it’s never too much. We should strive for this in our writing.
So grab your leftover Halloween treats, your popcorn and soda, and get ready to enjoy a film noir treat.
If you love film noir, you should read This Doesn’t Happen In The Movies, a Reader’s Favorite Finalist for mystery.
What a reader says:
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