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Thieves' Highway (Jules Dassin, 1949)


    To the uninitiated the subject matter of Jules Dassinís Thievesí Highway might seem a bit slight. After all, it only focuses on the transport of a few truckloads of apples from the growerís grove to the greengrocerís storefront. Despite that apparent specificity, however, Dassinís film emerges as a rather searing, wide-reaching indictment of the necessary evils of doing business in the United States. Featuring a group of immigrants tussling over the smallest of scores, it demonstrates fundamental, ugly truths about Americaís capitalist system. None of the characters in the film are above scheming, backstabbing or strong-arming another to get the money they feel they need here. Even though the script eventually arranges the sins of its cast into a hierarchy of acceptable behaviors, it doesnít feel it necessary to endlessly moralize about them. Instead, the film feels more awake to the realities of the world than the average noir, because it doesnít simply recoil from the flaws of people with bitterness: it expects and forgives them. Thievesí Highway, despite its melodramatic trappings, is a film alive to the complexities of economics. When its inevitable Code-mandated finale rolls, its revelations feel less like a happy ending than the end of an idealistís naivetť.


    The dominance of immigrant characters in Thievesí Highway makes it feel like the work of an expatriate director (ironically, Dassin would later leave American soil himself), rather than one who was born in the United States. Though the hero, a war veteran (Richard Conte), who comes home healthy only to find his father crippled by the enemy within, is a second-generation American, he might be the only one in the cast that qualifies as such. More typical of the filmsí characters is Italian Rica (Valentina Cortesa), a prostitute who seems equally likely to betray and deserve trust. Her exotic, distinctly European character lends a strong erotic charge to the filmís Southern California setting. An actor plays the most clearly defined villain of the piece in a turn thatís just as memorable. Lee J. Cobb, prefacing his most famous role as On the Waterfrontís corrupt union leader, is Mike Figlia, whoís too sensible a businessman to seem truly evil. Though Highway has the crisp shadows of Dassinís other noir works and as many exceptional action scenes of any of the directorís films, itís the characters that make the biggest impression this time. Far more potent than the eraís other famed trucker picture, 1940ís They Drive By Night, Thievesí Highway is one of Dassinís very best.



Jeremy Heilman