Run time: 94 mins
In Theaters: Monday 10th October 1949
Distributed by: Criterion Collection
Production compaines: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Contactmusic.com: 4 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 100%
IMDB: 7.8 / 10
Director: Jules Dassin
Producer: Robert Bassler
Screenwriter: A.I. Bezzerides
Starring: Richard Conte as Nick Garcos, Valentina Cortese as Rica, Lee J. Cobb as Mike Figlia, Barbara Lawrence as Polly Faber, Jack Oakie as Slob, Millard Mitchell as Ed Kinney, Joseph Pevney as Pete, Morris Carnovsky as Yanko Garcos, Tamara Shayne as Parthena Garcos, Kasia Orzazewski as Mrs. Polansky, the Apple Farmer's Wife, Norbert Schiller as Mr. Polansky, the Apple Farmer, Hope Emerson as Midge, a buyer
Also starring: Robert Bassler
Army vet Nick Garcos (Richard Conte) has just come back to his hometown of Fresno, bringing with him presents that he acquired working as a mechanic on a ship in the Far East. Everyone's happy to see him and receive his shower of gifts and cash from his beaming-with-pride parents to his extremely blonde girlfriend Polly (Barbara Lawrence), who's upset initially to only receive a doll and then beams with joy when Nick points out the ring the doll is holding. Then Nick mentions the Mandarin slippers that he brought for his dad and everyone goes quiet. Turns out there's a reason that his dad hasn't stood up since Nick got home, he delivered a truckload of produce to a produce dealer in San Francisco, Mike Figlia, who refused to pay, got Papa Garcos roaring drunk, and sent him on the road, where he crashed and had to have his legs amputated. Nick vows to get even if he has to "gouge the money out of Mike Figlia's corpse."
But as this is far from a straight-arrow kind of film, Nick doesn't just hightail it to the Bay Area to exact revenge, he has to find a way to gouge Figlia financially as well. So he hooks up with Ed (Millard Mitchell), a Fresno guy with a connection to a harvest of golden delicious apples - which will go for a high price in San Francisco - and the two of them concoct a scheme whereby they'll drive a pair of trucks up there, 36 hours straight, and make a killing. Then Nick will get what Figlia owes his dad. To say things don't go according to plan would be an understatement. Nick gets a flat tire and is almost crushed trying to fix it, while Ed's truck is a wheezing heap of junk that barely makes each hill, and he's got a pair of drivers on his tail, looking to get a piece of the apple action. Once in San Francisco, Nick finds Figlia (a cigar-chomping, corkscrew crooked Lee J. Cobb) all right, but being somewhat wet behind the ears, it's not long before he's getting scammed by the same guy that scammed his dad.
This is not just a drama about the lengths a man will go to in order to get revenge, it's about capitalism as blood sport. Practically everyone in Thieves' Highway is a chiseller or operator to some degree, from Ed trying to cheat a poor farmer on his apples, to Polly's nakedly mercenary attachment to Nick, to Figlia's relentless scheming and haggling. There's little room for love, though plenty for badinage, as with the introduction of Rica (Valentina Cortese), the Italian hooker who entices Nick back to her flophouse room (being paid to do so by Figlia) and whom Nick tells, "You look like chipped glass." Even in a cast as effortlessly talented (and little-known today) as this, Cortese stands out. Jaggedly beautiful and yet possessed of a warm wit, she fluctuates from animal seduction to cozy repartee in the blink of an eye. "Soft hands," Nick tells her. "Sharp nails," she replies.
A film that could literally never be made today (truckers? apples?), Thieves' Highway is a tight, taut, no-nonsense piece of work that functions equally well as revenge drama, moral fable, and no-holds-barred condemnation of dog-eat-dog capitalism.
The Criterion Collection DVD of Thieves' Highway contains a restored, high-definition digital transfer of the film, audio commentary by film noir historian Alain Silver, and an interview with Dassin. It's not quite the full monty, as Criterion discs go, but given the exceptional quality of the film itself (fullscreen only), that's hardly a complaint.
Now how about that shot?