Sunday, June 15, 2008

Jules Dassin's "Thieves' Highway" (1947)

Upon looking at the title of this film one may gather a few thoughts about what the film is about. They may think it's about a group of criminals and their getaway, among other things. What if they were told that the film is really about apple hauling and dealing with the fruit market in San Francisco? They'd probably want to know what makes the film worth watching. The answer to that would be that it's best to watch the film than rather have someone tell them why it's so good, although I'll give that my best shot now.

Jules Dassin is probably one of the few directors who could take a film with such a subject matter and make it this thrilling and this suspenseful. He and screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides begin the film with a sympathetic moment that leaves us caring for our main character, wonderfully portrayed by Richard Conte. He's a man returning home from the war who finds out that his father was cheated out of some money he was owed and at the same time lost both of his legs in a car accident. This opens the films main theme, revenge. Nick Garcos (Conte) sets out on a mission once he finds out that it was Mike Figlia (Lee J. Cobb) behind the mess. He partners up with another man who only wants to score big in the fruit selling business, Ed Prentiss ( Millard Mitchell). From there, they collect the apples and set off on their journey on the highway to San Francisco. If you look at the 1953 film Wages of Fear, you'll notice a similarity. That film was able to create unprecedented suspense that dealt with truck driving. They were carrying a different load, but you get the idea. Perhaps the brilliant minds behind that film looked to Thieves' Highway and Jules Dassin for some inspiration. Dassin creates a sense of dangling suspense as Ed Prentiss is followed by two crooked characters. The viewer is just waiting and wondering when they'll try and eventually be able to cut in on Ed's share. From close call to close call the suspense stays with us all the way through, and you've gotta watch to find out what happens.

Meanwhile in San Francisco, Garcos is putting a plan into action to get the money his father is owed from Figlia, and the money for his apples. Rica (Valentia Cortese) steals his heart, which had previously belonged to a blonde good girl from back home. Rica plays the ultimate opposite of that female character and sucks him in. It exposes what Garcos truly wants. The outcome of this film makes it all worth watching so I won't go any further on the plot points. I'll just let you know that it's a worthwhile conclusion to a hard nosed story.

Dassin and A.I. Bezzerides created a brilliant world at the fruit market in San Francisco. It's hectic and darker than one would ever imagine. Morals come out to play time and time again in this film adding character depth over and over. Decisions must be made about what is right and what is wrong. This unique and different film noir is truly one of the most underrated films of the genre and another remarkable effort from Jules Dassin.


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