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Edward G. Robinson,
Thieves' Highway opens with a view of sunny Fresno, California, a hay cart passing in the foregroundnot the setting you'd expect for a film noir. But as this movie shows, the business of transporting and selling fruit and vegetables is as cut-throat and corrosive as any criminal enterprise. Directed by the soon-to-be-blacklisted Jules Dassin and starring left-wing Group Theater veterans Lee J. Cobb and Richard Conte, Thieves' Highway is really an expose of the rotten heart of capitalism; everyone in the movie is obsessed with making a buck. The central symbol is apples: nourishing and wholesome, corrupted when they are equated with money. A Polish farmer, enraged at being paid less than he was promised for his apples, flings boxes of them off a truck, screaming, "Seventy-five cents! Seventy-five cents!" When the truck later runs off the road, careens down a hillside and explodes, there is a haunting, silent image of the scattered apples rolling down the slope. When the hero finds out that money-grubbers have gone out to collect the dead trucker's load and sell it, he begins kicking over crates of apples, fuming, "Four bits a box!"
The hero is Nick Garcos, a navy veteran who returns home to find that his Greek immigrant father has lost both legs in a trucking accident caused by a crooked produce dealer named Mike Figlia. Bent on revenge, Nick teams up with a trucker named Ed to haul the season's first Golden Delicious apples to San Francisco, where he'll be able to track down Figlia. There's an evocative montage sequence of the grueling overnight drive, at the end of which Nick arrives at the produce market, already bustling before daybreak. Figlia spots him and immediately plans to cheat him as he did his father. He hires a local prostitute, Rica, to distract Nick while he steals his load. Meanwhile Ed, having trouble with his truck, is still hours away. Figlia's plans go awry when Rica falls for Nick, and Nick turns out to be tougher and quicker on the uptake than his father. Prone to issuing threats such as, "Gyp me and I'll cut your heart out," he squeezes fair payment out of Figlia and excitedly calls his girl-next-door fiancée to meet him so they can get married, despite his obvious attraction to Rica. Nice girl Polly turns out to be even more interested in money than the prostitute. Figlia's methods turn increasingly violent, leading to a showdown with Nick in a roadhouse.
Most of Thieves' Highway was filmed on location in Frisco's produce market and nearby waterfront, gritty and vibrant settings bustling with trucks and pushcarts and shouting men, dripping produce, ashcan fires, crowded diners and seedy bars. The film's acting has the same visceral naturalism, from Lee J. Cobb's crass, blustery, hypocritical thug to Millard Mitchell's tough-as-nails trucker. Richard Conte brings a stunning physicality to his role as a hot-headed yet intelligent man who is easily the world's most elegant truck driver. He uses his intense gaze and graceful movements to charismatic effect and reacts to his surroundings with vivid sensuality. The high point and heart of the movie are the sexy scenes between Nick and Rica. Often confined in her small bedroom, they circle each other warily, alternating between barbed hostility and explosive passion. During their first kiss, they look a few seconds away from getting into serious trouble with the Hays Office. When Nick initially resists her advances, Rica taunts him, "What's the matter, don't you like girls?" "Sure I like girls," he replies, "I always wished I had a kid sister, wearing pigtails down to here You were somebody's kid sister once." Escaping from the cliché of the whore with a heart of gold, Valentina Cortese is a mercurial blend of playfulness, hurt and defiance. She displays open lust for Contedigging her nails into his bare chest, rubbing her dark curls in his facethat is rare for the forties. Contrary to the pattern in many noirs, in Thieves' Highway lust does not corrupt, as greed does. It belongs with the life-affirming, humane side of the movie: with Nick's warm and loving immigrant parents, with Ed's unexpected decency when he saves Nick's life after a roadside accident, with the beautiful vision of the Polish farmer's orchard and its bounty of fresh golden apples.
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