Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Thieves' Highway (1949)

It takes a lot of work to be a workingman in this film.

Kenny, reviewed on this site three weeks ago, was an incredibly funny, but also touching look at a content employee for an Australian portable toilet company.

Thieves' Highway, from director Jules Dassin (The Naked City, Riffi), paints a much bleaker picture of life as an average Joe just trying to make a buck.

In this 1949 release from Twentieth Century Fox, blue collar workers are ripped off, work long hours in dangerous conditions, get beat up and die. Happy Labour Day to you, too.

Nick Garcos (Richard Conte) returns home after a lengthy spell working on the sea. He's done well for himself, literally showering his parents and sweetheart Polly Faber (Barbara Lawrence) with money. The homecoming celebration doesn't last long once Nick learns his father lost his legs in a trucking collision.

Yanko Garcos (Morris Carnovsky) blames crooked fruit buyer Mike Figlia (Lee J. Cobb) for causing the collision that cost him his legs and a nice payout for services rendered.

Nick vows payback and swings into action. He wants to repossess his father's truck from Ed Prentiss (Millard Mitchell), but ends up going into business with him. Prentiss knows where they can score Golden Delicious apples and get them to market before anyone else. It's when these two men meet that audiences see another challenge for the workingman - getting stiffed. Slob (Jack Oakie) and Pete (Joseph Pevney) want their own deal with Prentiss, but he blows them off. They figure something is up and decide to tail him.

Garcos and Prentiss get their apples, but problems soon follow with their trucks and fatigue. Nick gets to market in San Francisco first where he encounters Figlia for himself. His reputation as a shyster is well-known, even the police know about his crooked dealings. Garcos wants a good price for his apples. Figlia is looking for an angle to take a bite out of Garcos' approach. Enter Rica (Valentina Cortese), a streetwalker who Garcos can't figure out. Is she trying to help him or get him killed?

Kenny was an easy character to love. He was a hard-worker and had a lot of funny things to say. It's not as easy to cheer for Garcos. This chap is not above using violence to settle scores. He's supposed to be marrying Polly, but is definitely attracted to Rica. Garcos is kind of dumb too. He makes a long-distance call in a restaurant telling Polly of his big cash score from Figlia. You think some of those diners might want to get their hands on his billfold, let alone Figlia?

Thieves' Highway offers several strong performances, especially from Conte (The Godfather, Ocean's Eleven) and Cobb (Call Northside 777, 12 Angry Men). Mitchell (Twelve O'Clock High) is solid as a veteran driver who is also a player when it comes to dealing with other truckers.

The Criterion Collection release of Thieves' Highway does a fine job of making cinematographer Norbert Brodine's work look top notch.

RATING: 8/10

FUN FACTS: Brodine was director of photography of Libeled Lady, one of this site's favorite films.

A.I. Bezzerides wrote the screenplay for Thieves' Highway. It's based on his book.

Two principal members of the cast are still alive at this writing: Valentina Cortese (b. 1923) and Barbara Lawrence (b. 1928). Lawrence also appeared in A Letter to Three Wives, reviewed earlier on this site.

Jack Oakie received an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor for The Great Dictator.

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