A few times a year I feel like I watch a film in which I have no idea where it’s going. Perhaps it’s the brilliant script, or maybe it’s the actors present in this film, but there is something very fresh and vital about this work. Thieves’ Highway comes in between Dassin’s other brilliant film noir works, Brute Force (1947) and Night and the City (1950). Like the others, it has an incredibly visceral quality. Dassin’s best work always seems to exert a sense of high stakes for those involved. There is also a deep fatalism and an emphasis on grittiness, sweaty palms, and heart pounding set pieces, rather than the brooding chiaroscuro and stylization of other noir directors like Tourneur, or Welles. Over the last couple years I’ve seen several Dassin films for the first time. I am more impressed with each film I view.
Part of the joy for me of watching this film was not quite knowing what was going to happen next. I really don’t want to get into too many details of the plot because in case you haven't seen it I don't want to spoil it. A short synopsis is that Nick Garcos (Richard Conte) is a war veteran who has come home from some world travels of his to see his girlfriend and family. He finds out his father (a truck driver) has been crippled and robbed of cash owed to him by a fruit vendor in San Francisco named Mike Figlia (Lee J. Cobb). Nick postpones his engagement with his sweetheart to avenge his father’s injuries and determines to get even with Figlia. Throughout the film, there are twists and turns that border on the melodramatic, but there is always a streak of violence or sensuality around the corner that keeps the film grounded.
One of the central components in the film is the relationship that Nick starts up with a prostitute named Rica (Valentina Cortese). Her attitude is completely in contrast to the stuffy, proper appearance and attitude of Nick’s sweetheart Polly. When Rica asks Nick up to her room, we understand that she has ulterior motives. What is so striking and shocking is how suddenly their sexual chemistry kicks into gear and we sense that she is more interested in Nick than just for the money. It’s palpable onscreen and comes to full bloom during a moment after Nick takes off his shirt. She and he play a teasing game of tic-tac-toe with their fingers on his chest, she using her finger nails to scratch him and wipe the game away when she loses, only to kiss him passionately in the moments that follow. It's a perfectly acted scene. Another key relationship in the film is between Nick and the manipulative fruit vendor played by Lee J. Cobb. Cobb as Figlia, using his typical bravado and vocal projection, exerts an intimidation that Richard Conte is willing to stand up to, brushing off Figlia’s wheelings and dealings with equal panache.
With a script from A. I. Bezzerides, from his novel 'Thieves’ Market", the film crackles and pops with great dialogue and one-liners and has a sense of epic importance. Even though the problems of fruit vendors seems small on paper, the film has a way of making the stakes seem incredibly high. Dassin chose to shoot many sections of the film on-site in the markets of San Francisco, giving the film a pulsing authenticity. There is a buzz to those scenes in the markets that just cannot be duplicated on a set. Although I’m sure many would not consider this film to be in the same league as Night and the City, nor Rififi (1955), I am of the inclination to believe that this film deserves recognition as one of Dassin's best and also one of the great film noirs of its era. Although it may not completely conjure film noir in all its aspects, there’s enough dark pessimism here to qualify on that basis alone. This is a tough film that doesn’t shy away from violence or sex and remains a thorough, fun surprise throughout its magnificent running time.