Thursday, August 20, 2009

Target #65: Thieves' Highway (1949, Jules Dassin)

Directed by: Jules Dassin
Written by: A.I. Bezzerides (novel & screenplay)

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!! [Paragraph 3 only]

Nick Garcos (Richard Conte) returns from a round-the-world engagement to a home that, at first glance, typifies the ideal American household. His father's working-class singing voice booms across the backyard; his mother fussily busies herself with the daily chores; his girlfriend Polly (Barbara Lawrence) bursts jubilantly into the room, embracing him in a passionate, sensuous kiss. But looks can be deceiving: a well-intended gift of Chinese slippers betrays a recent family tragedy; Polly's disappointed response to another gift hints at a fractured romance, a relationship borne not from love but the love of money. The family's facade of happiness is exposed as a sham, and it's the peeling back of this superficial skin with which Jules Dassin's Thieves' Highway (1949) is concerned. A seemingly-innocuous industry, that of fresh fruit cartage and wholesale, is shown to wallow in depravity, thuggery and callous opportunism. In this way, the film might be considered a companion piece to the director's previous effort, The Naked City (1948), which similarly exposed gruelling drama within the confines of the audiences' daily lives.

Richard Conte was one of the most interesting leading men of his era. His big-shot crime boss in The Big Combo (1955) might be the decade's most charismatic villain, but he could also play the resolute hero, as in Preminger's Whirlpool (1949). To Thieves' Highway he brings a cocky self-assurance, the sort of fearless conviction that's bound to blow up in one's face eventually. Lee J. Cobb's conniving fruit wholesaler, Mike Figlia, is a small-time crook, but one who invokes the viewer's contempt through his ruthlessly-capitalist exploitation of the humble working-class American. Only the females aren't as memorably drawn: Barbara Lawrence's Polly is rather abruptly discarded as a self-seeking gold-digger, as though only to allow for a romance with possible prostitute Rica (Valentina Cortesa), who grows a heart of gold. Thieves' Highway no doubt inspired Henri-Georges Clouzot's nail-biting The Wages of Fear (1953), another classic tale of trucking peril, but unfortunately it itself lacks the French director's gritty cynicism, or at least a degree of pessimism as absolute as Clouzot's.

This slackening of tone is seen most tellingly in the film's dramatic climax, a confrontation between Garcos and Figlia. The sequence doesn't work because it's conflicted between two opposing moral viewpoints. In one sense, Dassin appears to advocate Garcos' vigilante action in subjecting Figlia to a physical beating, since he successfully reclaims his stolen payments and achieves some degree of mental closure regarding his father's crippling. However, at this moment, as Garcos collapses onto the bench in exhaustion, policemen enter the diner and arrest Figlia for his crimes – but not before one officer sternly wags his finger at Garcos for taking the law into his own hands. To have an excellent film intruded upon by such an awkward, juvenile moral lesson is bad enough, but the film could have gotten across the same message in a more powerful manner. As the police stormed into the diner, my blood had suddenly run cold with the chilling thought: what if Figlia is dead? Out of pure bloody-minded pride, a good man would have been condemned for life, the ultimate testament that vigilantism is not the answer.

Currently my #6 film of 1949:
1) The Third Man (Carol Reed)
2) White Heat (Raoul Walsh)
3) Kind Hearts and Coronets (Robert Hamer)
4) The Set-up (Robert Wise)
5) A Run for Your Money (Charles Frend)
6) Thieves’ Highway (Jules Dassin)
7) Nora inu {Stray Dog} (Akira Kurosawa)
8) The Big Steal (Don Siegel)
9) She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (John Ford)
10) Under Capricorn (Alfred Hitchcock)

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