Thieves’ Highway (1949) starring Richard Conte, Lee J. Cobb, & Valentina Cortese

Thieves’ Highway opens with a view of sunny Fresno, California… not the setting you’d expect for a film noir. But as this movie shows, the business of transporting and selling fruit and vegetables is as cut-throat and corrosive as any criminal enterprise.

Revenge, hope and desperation drives Dassin’s intelligently constructed noir forward. It’s a film very much interested in its characterisations as it doles out a deconstruction of the American dream.

Richard Conte brings a stunning physicality to his role as a hot-headed yet intelligent man who is easily the world’s most elegant truck driver. Valentina Cortese is a mercurial blend of playfulness, hurt and defiance.

The love story is very sincere, and very simple, and dare I say it- very touching.

-Excerpts from reviews on IMDB

In his introduction to this must-see classic on TCM’s “Noir Alley”, Eddie Muller stated this was the picture that got him hooked on film noir as a teen while playing hooky from school. Film critic Thom Andersen identified this as an example of “film gris,” a suggested sub-category of film noir incorporating a left-wing narrative. Most of the movie is shot on location, in produce warehouses, back alleys, and country roads. The story takes about 15 minutes to get going, but from there it delivers in big ways! Soon after WWII, with people desperate to believe in the American dream, this film suggests that that dream isn’t for everyone. A.I. “Buzz” Buzzerides (who was of Greek Armenian heritage) based this movie on his working-class roots, before he became a novelist and screenwriter in Hollywood. Director Jules Dassin (who came from Ukrainian Jewish parentage) does a terrific job; he was blacklisted in the McCarthy era and moved to France to pursue his career.

Nico “Nick” Garcos (Richard Conte, then in his late 30s) is a first gen Greek-American who returns home from the Navy to his loving parents and blonde/”girl-next-door” fiance, Polly (Barbara Lawrence). After a few moments of domestic happiness, he discovers that his father has lost his legs. He was involved in a truck accident after dealing w/ a San Fran fruit dealer, Mike Figlia (Lee J. Cobb), who refused to pay a fair price for a truckload of tomatoes. Figlia also had his thuggish employees get Mr. Garcos drunk. Nick, who is both ambitious, clever, and hot-headed, is bent on getting revenge.

Nick goes to see Ed Kinney (the local man who bought his father’s old truck) and says that he will buy it back, but Ed proposes a deal with Golden Delicious apples, where they may both make a lot of money. Nick invests most of his savings in another truck and buys apples from a Polish farming family. They plan to drive directly to the market (w/o sleeping) to keep the fruit fresh. The trucks’ journey is brilliantly captured by the filmmakers; there are scenes that are exciting and dangerous (before the time of special effects). Ed’s truck has a problem with its axle, and Nick arrives first in San Fran.

Nick parks his truck directly in Figlia’s loading dock and goes to compare prices for his cargo. After talking to a few smaller sellers, he meets Figlia (who has a reputation for being crooked). Figlia is surprised, and maybe also a bit impressed, by the younger man’s confidence. Nick says that his partner is still on the road, so he’ll return later. As always, Cobb does a great job as a fast-talking villain.

At a small diner nearby, Nick is approached by an alluring Italian refugee- Rica (Valentina Cortese)- who he is almost too sleepy/tired to notice. She asks him for a light, though there are several other men ready w/ matches. Then, she leans across him to get a container of sugar for her coffee. He’s bemused by her actions and walks away. She boldly asks him if he wants to come rest in her room (from where he can observe the market).

Film noir romances usually lead to the hero’s downfall, but it’s the opposite case here. Sparks fly between Conte and Cortese in their scenes, incl. one where she plays tic-tac-toe (on his bare chest)! Censors had rules about women revealing too much skin, so the director went the other way. As for Cortese, her hair is dark, short, and curly and (unlike her Italian peers who moved to Hollywood in this era), her face and body are angular. Most amazing- she hadn’t yet learned English, so spoke her lines phonetically!

Conte grew up in Jersey City and worked as a trucker; he was discovered (at age 25) by director Elia Kazan and actor John Garfield while waiting tables. Like Garfield, Conte is short (for a leading man), w/ deep-set dark eyes and thick brown hair. Kazan helped Conte get a scholarship to study acting in NYC; the young man quickly revealed his potential. All the actors, incl. the colorful sidekicks, do a great job in their roles.

4 thoughts on “Thieves’ Highway (1949) starring Richard Conte, Lee J. Cobb, & Valentina Cortese

    • No, I heard of it just a few mos back, then heard about it on podcast (“Out of the Past” from 2008-2009). I (slowly) got into noir these past few yrs, thnx to Robert Mitchum!

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      • I have caught it a few times — mostly when they’re showing an important film, but a few times when they were showing something fairly obscure. It always surprises me how risqué these wide-release films used to be.

        Like

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