Thieves’ Highway (1949): Apple Crates and Femme Fatales

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Nick Garcos (Richard Conte) makes a joyous homecoming to his parents after literally traveling the seven seas, armed with boxes of gifts to lavish upon them. In a matter of minutes, we already have a warm feeling and an affection, however cursory, for these characters we have just met.

With money to spare and a pretty girl (Barbara Lawrence) just waiting to marry him, it really does seem he doesn’t have a care in the world. However, he’s rudely awakened when he entreats his father to put on a pair of moccasins. The old man becomes dour for the first time and confesses he no longer has use of his legs.

It seems like a major reveal for the boy not to know, but it nevertheless gives traction to the forthcoming story. Mr. Garcos used to be a truck driver and yet one fateful evening, he took a load of tomatoes to San Francisco. Far from getting paid, he found himself receiving a vocal I.O.U. and getting into an accident late at night under dubious circumstances. One has to admit he’s a kindly man but a bit of a pushover.

While it doesn’t begin as a revenge story, Thieves Highway’ certainly becomes one as Nick looks to not only get his father’s money and clean up the mess left behind but also get even because its pretty obvious foul play was involved.

First things first, he looks to buy his father’s truck back, from a shifty old pro named Ed Kenny (Millard Mitchell). Instead, they wind up going into business together ready to carry the season’s first load of Golden Delicious apples to try and make a killing. With the other man’s know-how and Garcos youth and tenacity, they just might make out. Soon they’re caravanning up to San Francisco to cash out on their load. It seems simple enough, but such a journey never is.

Richard Conte fits seamlessly into this role that capitalizes on his versatility in playing both heroes and villains. Because while we can label Nick our protagonists, he exhibits violent tendencies only visible in noir films where the dividing line between good and bad is often inconsequential.

Valentina Cortese plays Rica, the hooker with a heart of gold who is initially paid $100 to lure Garcos away from his truck. If it’s totally a stereotype — she is an apple crate femme fatale if you will — then Cortese still manages to play the mixture of sensuality and genial warmth in a manner that makes us care for her as an individual. Because she gives us a couple hints, suggesting a character with more good than bad — someone who is in a tough bind, yet still out looking for goodness and love to welcome into her life.

If Rica is the embodiment of an opportunist getting their chance at redemption, Mike Figglia is pure deceitfulness. Lee J. Cobb played sour apples before but Figglia is just about as ruthless as any of his boisterous antagonists. He is a trenchant embodiment of crooked free-market industry. There is no integrity to him and even less humanity as he strives to swindle his way to one dishonest buck after another. It’s not simply survival of the fittest but the roost is literally ruled by those who have no sense of rectitude whatsoever. They absolutely relish sinking other people for their own gain.

Thieves’ Highway had its predecessors in the likes of They Drive by Night (1940), coincidentally taken from a story written by this film’s screenwriter. However, though it has its own gritty Warner Bros. elements, it’s nevertheless a studio lot entry. John Ford’s Grapes of Wrath (1940) as well, while more of a migrant story, shows us the merciless side of cutthroat capitalism.

Just to get to the marketplace takes a lot of winding roads. There are bribes stuck up tailpipes, Garcos jacks up his truck with the back of his neck, and the worst for Kinney involves his ride continuously conking out. All for the sake of a truckful of apples.

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Simultaneously, two vultures (Jack Oakie and Joseph Peveney) in a truck of their own, are ravenously following Kinney as his own vehicle moans and wheezes its way toward its final destination. If time is money, he’s losing cash value fast and everyone knows it.

Still, the young newcomer has done pretty well for himself. He’s not taking any flack from Figlia, and he comes out of the shrewd operator’s office with $500 and a $34000 check. It sounds good, but it’s already a red flag. Because we know something’s going to happen to that valuable piece of paper. We just know it.

Sure enough, the story takes a devastatingly fatalistic nose dive on both Nick and Kinney’s end of the story. It’s a film literally chewing up and spitting out its protagonist.

A truck decimated. A hillside covered with busted apple crates. Then, back in the market a big fat nothing. There’s a sense of helplessness even as despondency sets in. Surely, this cannot be worth it? And yet Garcos somehow pulls himself together instead of rolling into a ball. Because he has an injustice to rail against and the perfect target is Mike Figlia.

One can quibble over whether or not it is neutralized by a slightly gushy ending — noir is certainly at its most mordant in the pits of despair — but there is still much to recommend in Thieves’ Highway.

Director Jules Dassin is one of the prominent names in post-war noir, because he made the genre not simply stylistic but imbued it with real-world grit, palpable for different reasons. Because we feel it and could see roadways and back alleys that get closer to reality than the studios ever could on their backlots.

For those familiar with the real San Francisco, Thieves’ Highway authentically embodied the robust produce industry set up within the city, detailing the area formerly adjacent to the Embarcadero, not mention more images of Oakland Produce Market.

It’s the kind of immersive imagery you can’t begin to fake in a convincing manner, and it adds another fascinating accent to this picture. Because not only is it a story with heady themes of revenge, but it’s planted in cold hard historical reality. Films at their best provide such documentation.

4/5 Stars

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