One of the pleasures but also the limitations of genre cinema is that, given the narrative elements that constitute the genre, you come to expect certain things. Well, leave most of those film noir elements behind you for Jules Dassin’s film of A.I. Bezzerides’ script, Thieves’ Highway. Ditch your femmes fatales and your flashbacks for starters. This one is about truckers. Truckers and apples.
Nick Garcos (Conte – never better) comes back from the war with a bagful of exotic presents. But his family’s immigrant life in Fresno has tailspinned, despite the nice house and the sunny weather. Trucker Dad has lost his legs in a work accident that may have been caused by infamous fruit wholesaler Mike Figlia (Cobb – rather good, his villainous bonhomie staying this side of overacting for once). Dad has sold his truck for dimes to make repayments on the mortgage.
Nick needs to make some money to help the family and also to get married. He wants revenge too. He teams up with a shifty old-timer to transport a cargo of Golden Delicious apples to market in San Francisco, driving for 35 hours straight. He hopes to sell them to Figlia and then get him to fess up to his murky doings. It’s not much of a plan – and what happens to Nick is a very unsentimental education in the ways of the world.
It tempts to say that elements of the Grapes of Wrath and On The Waterfront have just been added to the noir mix here; but there’s a basic realignment of the crime drama – back towards real-world issues of labour and exploitation and economic competition.
There’s a carnivalesque mood to the whole thing: Nick is not a rugged individualist hero; nor is he a fated loser. He’s a greenhorn with revenge in mind, a working stiff. His struggles play out against a credible background of working-class life: rivalries between road haulage contractors, dodgy fruit and veg wholesalers, the life of a teeming San Francisco market.
Formally, the initial noirish revenge situation is set up but then a series of wider story and character issues are introduced, until the loose ties all meet up in the only phoney two minutes of the otherwise exceptionally good film. It’s a model that George Pelecanos for one has made a career from developing. He is interviewed in one of the excellent extras, a documentary about A I Bezzerides.
Bezzerides scripted some classic crime films: They Drive by Night, On Dangerous Ground (an intriguing rural noir) and the magnificently cynical Kiss Me Deadly before embarking on a highly successful tv career.
Jules Dassin directed Brute Force and the wonderful London-based Night and the City (another must see – again, cynical as hell … with Googie Withers stealing the show, despite the presence of both Richard Widmark and Gene Tierney) before falling foul of HUAC and reinventing himself as French for the wonderful heist film Rififi.
- Genre authority Frank Krutnik provides commentaries and an exhaustive look into the genesis, production, reception and politics of Thieves’ Highway
- Documentary portrait The Long Haul of A.I. Bezzerides offers up rare interview material with the late author and screenwriter as well as insights from Dassin and crime writers Barry Gifford, George P. Pelecanos and Mickey Spillane
- Collector’s booklet with writing by Alastair Phillips (the co-author of 100 Film Noirs)
Review by Colin Dibben
Thieves’ Highway is out now.