Saturday, January 6, 2018

Thieves Highway

Thieves' Highway (Jules Dassin, 1949) A revenge story set in the wild and wooly world of wildcat truckers (also explored in A.I. Bezzerides' similarly themed They Drive By Night). Nick Garcos (Richard Conte) comes home after a big score and showers his family with presents. He's so full of himself that he doesn't notice the obvious: Dad's missing his legs (which makes the slippers he bought him a very poor choice). It seems while Nick was away, Dad got rooked on a vegetable run, taken for a long drunk, and had a bad crash in his dilapidated truck, crippling him. 

Worldly-wise and hardened in combat, Nick decides on an assault on the man who crushed his dad's dreams, one Mike Figlia (Lee J. Cobb), a bad apple who'll spoil the whole bunch right down to the bottom of the barrellHe partners with the wild-catter who bought Pop's truck (the great Millard Mitchell) to deliver two loads of golden delicious to Figlia's produce wholesaler in San Fran'...if they can get through a gauntlet that includes duplicitous rival wild-catters, a truck with a bad universal (and not much good!), 36 hours straight on the road without any sleep, and worn tires (a sequence that Dassin turns into a thrilling montage of overlapping images).  

Except for the loading of apples, all this takes place at night, and no one could dredge the dark as well as Jules Dassin (as he was always proud to announce, that's pronounced "Da-ssin," from the U.S.).  Dassin always had a flair for the street and the twisted culture of film noir, and Thieves Highway is gritty and street-smart: no one in this movie is naive or innocent, everybody has an agenda or an angle, and Nick has to keep his head on straight (tough to do with a neck injury received when a truck collapsed on him while changing a tire), whether negotiating with Figlia or dealing with the street-frail (Valentina Cortese) hired by Figlia to entertain Nick while he works the angles.

It's an education, one that toughens Nick up and makes him see that there's more than what he imagined in his existence before.  Sure, he's earned a living and survived the war, but...  It's one thing to avoid death, it's quite another to embrace life.

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