2018 Film Essays

You Reap What You Sow: Jules Dassin’s ‘Thieves’ Highway’

In an interview with The Splendid Table, author Adam Leith Gollner observed that “whether it’s organized crime, whether it’s mob ties or mafia connections to certain fruit distribution networks, or whether it’s drug smugglers who actually use fruits as a way of bringing in contraband narcotics, there is this incredibly bizarre and sometimes dark relationship between fruits and crime.” This relationship forms the basis of Jules Dassin’s gritty Thieves’ Highway (1949), a noteworthy entry in the film noir canon for its overtly leftist leanings and unconventional romantic lead characters.

The fruit world has inextricable historical links not only with crime, but also with working-class immigrants, and they are the focus of Dassin’s film — characters that reveal the director’s decidedly humanistic, leftist tendencies. These tendencies led critic Thom Andersen to classify the film not as film noir but film gris — a term coined to categorize films noirs that incorporate left-wing narratives. Based on A.I. Bezzerides’ novel Thieves’ Market, the film centres around returning veteran Nico “Nick” Garcos (Richard Conte), who journeys into the sordid underbelly of the fruit trade to take his revenge on scheming produce wholesaler Mike Figlia (Lee J. Cobb), the man who robbed and maimed Nick’s father. The premise itself illustrates the brutality that results from greed — rather than pay Nick’s father what he owed, Figlia got him drunk and put him in his truck, resulting in a crash in which the man lost both of his legs.

Thieves’ Highway opens not in the rainy concrete jungle of a typical noir, but the sun-soaked suburban streets of Fresno, California (the “Golden State”). Numerous critics have drawn parallels between Thieves’ Highway and the work of John Steinbeck — particularly The Grapes of Wrath — in setting and subject matter, with both works exhibiting their creators’ empathy for the plight of the working class through examinations of the agriculture industry. Indeed, Fresno’s rolling hillsides are more pastoral than noir-ish, establishing a running visual motif of deceptively wholesome appearances.

The first voice viewers hear in the film is a Greek one — Nick’s father, singing. The sound is incongruous with the American street on which Nick stands. He receives it proudly, telling the taxi driver, “The loud one’s my old man.” The driver responds gruffly, “You owe me a buck ninety.” As academic Frank Krutnik notes, this opening immediately establishes an “obsess[ion] with exchange, with deal-making, with exploitation, with payments honoured and not honoured” that recurs throughout the film.

Nick greets his parents affectionately; they speak in broken English about cooking dolmades. He showers them with gifts accrued during his travels abroad — India, Africa, China, the Melanese Islands. They are loud, boisterous, enthusiastic. Enter Nick’s girlfriend, Polly — blonde, American, well-spoken. Her response to Nick’s gift, a geisha doll, is notably lukewarm — until she notices an expensive ring on its finger. Immediately, she brightens, gushing, “Why, it must have cost a fortune!” Once again, the film’s cynicism about American greed is seeded.

Nick’s joyous homecoming is short-lived. Conte gives a brilliant performance, balancing sweetness with rage, and when Nick learns of his father’s attack, this anger comes out hot and fast. Still running on the retaliatory momentum of war, he turns on a dime and immediately resolves to go off and avenge his father: “I’m gonna get the truck, go up to San Francisco, and gouge your money out of Mike Figlia’s carcass.” Nick’s plan is to pick up a load of Golden Delicious apples and sell them to Figlia for as much as he can get, teaming up
with another driver, Ed Kinney (Millard Mitchell), for the ride.

Viewers follow the apples throughout the journey, from tree to truck, truck to wholesaler, wholesaler to buyer. The fruits are picked by immigrants — a Polish family in a wagon crawling with children, speaking in thick Eastern-European accents — and carried off in trucks emblazoned with U.S. military stars, symbolizing the dream of post-war American prosperity. The men are shadowed by Pete (Joseph Pevney) and Slob (Jack Oakie), competitors trying to get in on the Golden Delicious deal.

Dassin infuses the truck-driving sequences with a dread reminiscent of The Wages of Fear (1953) and Sorcerer (1977) — even with his comparatively low-risk cargo, Nick’s journey is fraught with danger. He nearly dies trying to fix a flat tire, surviving only thanks to Ed, who stops to help him out from under his collapsed truck. These moments of kindness are rare in Thieves’ Highway, and come at the price of financial success — by stopping to help Nick, Ed is further delayed in reaching the market before his competitors. Ed drives an older truck than Nick, one which frequently breaks down, and Pete and Slob are always close by to mock him when it does. They offer to help Ed out, but only if he agrees to give them a cut of what he makes on the apples. Ed refuses.

The journey’s urgency embodies the refrain “time is money,” commenting on the increasingly burdensome time pressures modern capitalism places on workers. This pressure leads to “cutting corners” and increasingly hazardous working conditions, signified by the gradual breakdown of Ed’s old truck across the course of the film, as he drives at dangerous speeds to make it to the market first.

When Nick arrives at the market, viewers are plunged into a cacophony of bartering and urgency, an environment far more competitive than one might expect when dealing with such innocuous products. Here, too, the place is filled with immigrant labourers — Italians rolling their Rs and spitting; sweaty, unglamorous figures loading boxes. While shooting on location in the market, Dassin achieves a realism consistent with his left-wing politics. Adding to this bustling verisimilitude is the constant activity in the soundscape’s background — trucks moving, conversations buzzing, wagons clattering; a world beyond the film.

It is here, nearly 40 minutes into the film, that the true love interest of Thieves’ Highway appears. She is the sex worker Rica (Valentina Cortese), and her chemistry with Nick is instant, with their flirtation established in a fantastic introductory scene using almost no dialogue whatsoever. When Rica does speak, however, hers is not the voice of a typical Hollywood love interest — she has an Italian accent. Rica stands in contrast to the all-American Polly, but Thieves’ Highway also highlights their similarities, deconstructing the “virgin and whore” paradigm by revealing Polly’s relationship with Nick to be as transactional as any of Rica’s. “Polly and I have one thing in common,” Rica remarks. “She loves money too.”

The film talks around Rica’s status as a sex worker — she tells Nick that she’s “the friendly type,” and that if he’s tired, he can come up to her room to “sleep.” Nick turns her down, but passes no judgement — in fact, he seems amused by the offer. Again, Dassin’s progressive political views are implied through the respectful characterization of Rica and the romance that develops between her and Nick, two working-class immigrants.

The idealized image of the market — a smorgasbord of fresh produce, evoking dreams of American domesticity and housewives baking apple pie — is wiped away by the reality of the brutality that occurs to bring these products to the American people: “Do you know what it takes to get an apple so you can sink your beautiful teeth in it?,” Nick asks Rica. “You gotta stuff rags up tailpipes, farmers gotta get gypped, you jack up trucks with the back of your neck, universals conk out.” The world of Thieves’ Highway, with its callous and unscrupulous denizens, is a microcosm of capitalism as a whole — ugliness and greed lurking behind the most beautiful of products. Its criticism of the fruit market is a criticism of the free market.

Dassin offers a vision of capitalism in which ethics and respect have no part — people doing business don’t even pretend to be honest. When Figlia offers Nick’s Golden Delicious apples to a buyer, she asks knowingly, almost affectionately, “Where’d you steal ‘em?” “Ah,” he says dismissively, “they dropped from heaven.” Both parties know the apples are stolen, but she buys them anyway — crime is a fact of life in the market. A crowd soon forms around the apple truck, with someone yelling, “The crooks got apples!” As a film gris, Thieves’ Highway deals in despair that is not simply existential, but political — made palpable by the market, in its ruthlessness and cruelty, its antipathetic populace. It feels lawless; a world of its own, governed by self-interest. Crowded and bustling, the throng is oppressive — not flourishing, but suffocating.

One of the film’s most memorable scenes is Ed’s death, with his broken-down truck plunging off the road and down a hill, Golden Delicious apples scattering like pearls around the wreckage. Pete and Slob watch helplessly as the truck bursts into flames with Ed trapped inside. Slob picks up an apple, looks at it, then tosses it to the ground — newly aware of the futility of greed. Dassin uses the trucks as visual metaphors for economic concepts — the inflation and burst of a “bubble” in Nick’s tire; the slow uphill climb and sudden, tragic crash of Ed’s truck (alluding to post-war economic rise and fall — the inevitability of the crash; Ed’s refusal to concede that his truck was unstable the whole time).

When Figlia offers to pay Pete and Slob to return to the scene of the crash and plunder the remaining apples — grave-robbing, so to speak — the cruelty of capitalism is writ large. Slob refuses, disgusted, but Pete agrees, readily dissolving his relationship with Slob in the interests of a larger paycheque.

Ruthless businessmen like Figlia turn labourers against each other, fostering a vicious competitiveness designed to destroy solidarity between the working class. This is played out in the perpetual double-crossing — or suspicion of such — that permeates interactions between Rica, Nick, Ed, Pete and Slob. Those who refuse to participate in unethical business behaviours — like the Polish fruit pickers, Rica or Nick and his father — typically end up worse off for it. Nick’s sense of justice keeps his conscience clean and his pockets empty. Figlia gives Nick a bad cheque for the apples; Ed Kinney dies trying to get his load to the market on time. These outcomes reflect the reality of a system that rewards exploitation and penalizes workers, but the film’s critiques of capitalism are undermined by a contradictory ending. Against Dassin’s will, the narrative was given a glaringly “Hollywood” resolution that does not occur in the novel — Nick beats up Figlia, gets his money back and rides off with Rica to get married.

Thieves’ Highway is hard to categorize — it incorporates elements of melodrama, social issues and film gris — but it should not be excluded from discussions of the film noir canon. It is an under-appreciated and distinctly un-American work, due in large part to its simplicity and realism, its unconventional romantic leads, its sympathy for immigrant workers and its anti-capitalist overtones. The startling incongruity of the film’s happy ending, tacked on by Darryl Zanuck, only serves to reinforce the rest of the film’s refusal to adhere to the conservative expectations of a classical Hollywood narrative. Its disavowal of hegemonic American moral values reflects not only a post-war cynicism typical of 1940s films noirs, but also a more specific left-wing, anti-establishment streak in Dassin, one that resulted in his exile from Hollywood a year after Thieves’ Highway was released.

Ivana Brehas (a.k.a. Joaquin Shenix) is not one of your Greenwich Village friends. She lives in Melbourne, makes stuff on Vimeo and tweets at @ivanabrehas. Drop her a line.

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