Saturday, November 9, 2019

Stubs - Thieves' Highway

Thieves' Highway (1949) Starring Richard Conte, Valentina Cortese, Lee J. Cobb, Barbara Lawrence Directed by Jules Dassin, Screenplay by A. I. Bezzerides. Based on the novel Thieves' Market by A. I. Bezzerides (New York, 1949). Produced by Robert Bassler. U.S.A. Black and White Drama, Film Noir

Film Noir, as we’ve previously discussed, is one of those genres that can be applied to films that don’t seem on the surface to really be what we would classically consider film noir. Case in point, Thieves' Highway, released by 20th Century Fox in 1949. According to documents in the Twentieth Century-Fox Records of the Legal Department Collection in the Arts--Special Collections Library at UCLA, the studio purchased the rights to A. I. Bezzerides' unpublished novel The Red of My Blood in Jan 1948 for $37,500. Bezzerides was then hired at $1000 a week for 10 weeks to write the screenplay. The novel would eventually be published under the title Thieves’ Market.

While Richard Conte would eventually be cast in the lead role, Dana Andrews and Victor Mature were also considered. The film started production, in the San Francisco produce market, through the cooperation of the Wholesale Fruit and Produce Dealers Association, in early November 1948. And while production lasted until late December, there would be reshoots in early March 1949, but more on that later.

Nick (Richard Conte) comes home from a long sea voyage with gifts for
his parents (Morris Carnovsky and Tamara Shayne).

The film opens with Nick Garcos (Richard Conte) arriving back in Fresno after a long sea voyage working as a mechanic. While there is the sense that he might be returning from World War II, it seems more likely that he has been in the merchant marines, as the ship has apparently visited ports all around the world, as he brings home gifts for his parents (Morris Carnovsky and Tamara Shayne) and his best girl, Polly Faber (Barbara Lawrence).

He also has gifts for Polly Faber (Babara Lawrence), his girlfriend.

Nick has apparently saved most of his money and is ready to go into business with Polly’s father. However, during the gift-giving, Nick discovers that his father, Yanko, has lost both of his legs in a truck accident. Nick learns that Mike Figlia (Lee J. Cobb) is responsible. Figlia is a crooked produce dealer in San Francisco’s Produce Market. Figlia apparently set up the accident in order not to pay Yanko money he was owed for the delivery of fruit.

Nick goes to repossess his father's truck from Ed Kinney (Millard Mitchell).

Unable to work, Yanko had sold his truck to Ed Kinney (Millard Mitchell), who still owes his father money. Nick goes to Kinney’s to repossess the truck but learns that Kinney, who has had to spend a lot of money fixing the damaged truck back up, is about to make a big score with a new crop of apples, which should fetch big money in San Francisco.

Ed cancels his deal with Pete (Joseph Pevney) and Slob (Jack Oakie).

Nick wants to get in on the score, which forces Kinney to cancel a pre-arranged deal he has with two other truckers, Slob (Jack Oakie) and Pete (Joseph Pevney). Nick spends some of his savings buying a second truck that’s needed for the run.

Nick makes Ed honor the original terms of his deal with the farmers.

When the orchard owner wants the $1 a crate they had previously agreed on, Kinney tries to stiff him and pay on 75 cents a box. This outrages the farmer, who starts to pull his apples off the truck, but Nick steps in and insists Kinney honor the original terms.

Pete and Slob follow after Ed's truck.

Neither Slob nor Pete are happy about being left out and actually follow the two to the orchard with a load of their own. Since Ed’s truck is the older of the two, it can’t keep up with Nick’s.

When his truck blows a tire, Nick pulls over to the side of the road. However, he gets trapped, face down in sand when the jack gives way and the truck falls in on him. Ed stops and pulls Nick out and fixes the flat. After Nick recovers, they continue on, with Nick once again getting far ahead of his partner.

The street scene outside Figlia's market when Nick arrives in San Francisco.

Nick arrives in San Francisco and sets out to find Figlia’s market. When he stops his truck, one of Figlia’s men sabotages his truck, causing another flat. Unable to move the truck, Nick meets Rica (Valentina Cortese), a prostitute in Figlia’s employ at a lunch counter in the market. She invites him to rest in her nearby apartment. While he’s there and pre-occupied, Figlia’s men unload the truck and start to sell the apples on consignment.

While Nick relaxes in Rica's (Valentina Cortese) apartment, Figlia's men unload his truck.

However, Nick discovers that Figlia is selling the load at $6.50 a box but intends to pay him substantially less. Figlia meets his demands and pays him a combination of cash and a check for the full amount. Nick calls Polly and asks her to come to San Francisco so they can be married. To celebrate, Nick buys Rica a drink, and she tells him that Polly is probably marrying him for his money.

Nick forces Figlia (Lee J. Cobb) to pay him what he owes him.

As they walk back to the market, Nick is attacked by two of Figlia's thugs, Mitch (David Clarke) and Frenchy (David Opatoshu). He drops his wallet, and Rica picks it up and runs off. Nick, thinking that Rica was in league with the thugs, goes looking for her. However, Mitch and Frenchy find Rica first and take the wallet away from her.

Ed's truck falls apart, killing him.

Meanwhile, still many miles behind, Ed's truck starts to fall apart on a steep downhill slope while Slob and Pete watch helplessly. When the truck crashes and bursts into flames, Ed is trapped inside. Pete and Slob try but fail to rescue him before the truck explodes.

Pete and Slob try to save Ed but don't reach him in time.

When Polly arrives in San Francisco, she is met by Rica not Nick and is unhappy to learn that he is resting in her room. While Nick and Polly talk, Rica takes a shower.

Upon arriving in San Francisco, Polly seems nonplused to have been met by Rica instead of Nick.

Slob and Pete then try to sell their load of apples to Figlia, but Slob angers Pete when he ghoulishly offers to go back to pick up the apples around Ed's crash site, which are still worth money.

After Polly learns that Nick has been robbed of all his money, she walks out on him. Confused by Rica's behavior, Nick accuses her of setting him up. But she warns him that Mitch and Frenchy may try to kill him, as she knows they have arranged truck accidents before.

Early the next morning, Nick goes to the market and meets Slob, who tells him about Ed’s death and that Figlia and his henchmen are scavenging his cargo with Pete. As Nick and Slob head out to the crash scene, Rica phones the police.

In a bar, Figlia and Pete are celebrating their good fortune when Nick and Slob show up. After Pete discovers that Figlia has underpaid him, Figlia tries to leave, but Nick grabs him and beats him up, forcing him to say that he has a check for Nick's father and that he will make up all the other losses.

The police arrive and take Figlia into custody. One of the policemen warns Nick about taking the law into his own hands, "You know you can't take the law into your own hands. Taking care of guys like Figlia is our job."

When Nick comes back for Rica, he finds her in a bar.

Nick returns to San Francisco for Rica and they leave to make plans for their life together.

As with all films made during this time, Thieves’ Highway had to get approval from the Production Code Administration, but they could not "approve this picture in its present form because of the characterization of the girl Rica as a prostitute...Some extensive eliminations must be made as well as the addition of several new scenes." In February 1949, producer Robert Bassler agreed and reshoots were made. There was a scene added introducing Rica and indicating that she had regular, paid employment as a fortune teller. He also agreed that excisions would be made, in dialogue and action, in scenes between Rica and Nick.

However, that was not necessarily the film that got released. The PCA issued a certificate in June "with the understanding that all prints are to be identical with the cut version shown in our projection room on June 13th." But in the film, there is no scene in which Rica is established as anything other than a prostitute until the very end when she is seen reading cards in a bar.

With all those changes, the film suffers not from them but rather from being boring. The middle of the film sort of drags and it’s easy to lose interest. In his review for the New York Times, Bosley Crowther had an obviously different view. He calls Thieves' Highway “a first-class melodrama which just misses—yes, just misses—being great.” Normally, I agree with his assessment, but not this time.

There are other issues I have with the film. I don’t see a woman like Polly, who obviously is interested in money, to be willing to wait for Nick to return from the sea. But while she was willing to wait then, when he falls on hard times, she is not willing to really hear him out and calls off their relationship. Granted, she finds him in a prostitute’s apartment, but he had been true to Polly up until then. She leaves, one is led to believe, not because of Rica but more because Nick doesn’t have any money and he’s with Rica.

Then there is the issue of Ed Kinney’s truck. At one point, he catches up to Nick in time to save his life but after that, he falls so far behind that he is several hours back. Nick has already arrived in San Francisco, and been robbed, before Ed has his fatal accident, in fact, it is the next morning, since it is already light out. Just how slow is his truck going? I know they did this for dramatic effect but it seems to push logic a little too far.

Richard Conte is serviceable as the lead but he’s not all that exciting to watch here. He does look good without his shirt on but that’s not enough to recommend the film. Conte appeared in over 100 films, including 13 Rue Madeleine (1946), Call Northside 777 (1948), The Blue Gardenia (1953), and The Godfather (1972). He has been better in other roles and while I don’t dislike him as an actor, his performance here isn’t strong enough to carry this film.

Valentina Cortese was an Italian actress brought to America after World War II. She was one of a class of Italian imports that includes Sophia Loren and Gina Lollobrigida. She’s good here as the conniving Rica, who turns out to be the stereotypical prostitute with a heart of gold. After several films in Hollywood, including The House on Telegraph Hill (1951) and The Barefoot Contessa (1954), she would return to Europe. She would be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in François Truffaut's Day for Night (1973). She would later appear in such films as Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), and in Franco Zeffirelli’s Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1972).

Lee J. Cobb seems to be in his element as Mike Figlia, the corrupt produce manager who doesn’t think twice about taking advantage of Nick and his father before that. Cobb, who had appeared in such films as Golden Boy (1939) opposite William Holden, is best known for his performances in On the Waterfront (1954), 12 Angry Men (1957), and The Exorcist (1973). He would also originate the role of Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's 1949 play Death of a Salesman under the direction of Elia Kazan.

If you’re interested in films about truckers, I would point you to They Drive By Night (1940) starring George Raft, Ann Sheridan, Ida Lupino, and Humphrey Bogart. Directed by Raoul Walsh, it is not a perfect film either but it is overall a better story with a better cast. Otherwise, Thieves’ Highway is a road better left untraveled.

No comments:

Post a Comment