Jules Dassin directed, in my opinion, two great dramas that happened to be crime films, Night and the City (1950) and Rififi (1955). Earlier, he made two near-great crime films, Naked City (1948), a little dated now, and Brute Force (1947). For me, Thieves' Highway (1949) pauses right in the middle, both in terms of the year made and in terms of the success of the story. The movie tells us about Nick Garcos (Richard Conte), who returns home from working at sea with presents for his family and his fiance. He discovers that his father, a long-haul produce trucker, has lost his legs in a trucking accident after delivering tomatoes to produce broker Mike Figlia (Lee J. Cobb) in San Francisco. It looks like Figlia also stole back the money his father had been paid by Figlia. Nick is determined to settle scores. He sets out with an old-time hauler to deliver apples to Figlia, and plans to do whatever it takes to even things out. It doesn't work out so easily for Nick. The happy ending Darryl F. Zanuck shot and added to the film without Dassin's knowledge doesn't help matters. Zanuck's contribution starts with Nick meeting Figlia in a bar by a highway, a fight and ends with Nick and Rica, a woman he met after his fiance dumped him and who earns her money from men, driving off together. I'm not sure that whatever the original ending was Dassin had in mind would have improved the film. As it is, I think this movie of retribution is masterfully directed, filled with realism, contains several first-rate sequences and is photographed with great style and mood. The truck crashing off the highway, with boxes of apples tumbling off and the apples rolling down the hill toward us is startling. So why don't I like it as much as I think I should? The quick and secondary answer is that I learned more than I needed about produce. It's difficult to make a great movie when crucial plot points turn on whether a bunch of Golden Delicious apples are too mealy. The primary answer is the acting.
I have great admiration for Richard Conte, who plays Nick Garcos. He was always watchable and he got even better as he aged. Most of his career in Hollywood was spent playing second leads or shrewd villains in A movies and leads in B movies. He never managed the traction to move up to Hollywood hero parts. I can't explain it well in words, but Conte, who could be tightly coiled and energetic, lacked in my view a certain amount of charisma that could drive a part into your head. He's very good in Thieves' Highway, but he only occasionally involves me emotionally. (As opposed, for instance, to the loser Harry Fabian played by Richard Widmark in Night and the City; it's tough playing nice leads in noirs.) Valentina Cortese has the looks, the style and the sense of vulnerability to do a good job as Rica, but she doesn't have the language skills. She has a hard time breaking past the language barrier from Italian into English. This hurts the character and it hurts the scenes between her and Conte. On the other side of the scale there's Lee J. Cobb as Mike Figlia. Said Jules Dassin on Cobb's view of Figlia, "'I can outsmart any of the guys and I do what I want to do...law is what I make it...and I have fun with it.' And that's what's under [Cobb's] whole performance." We don't like or trust Figlia, but he's sure a piece of work. We enjoy his untrustworthiness and double dealing because he enjoys it all so much himself. In my view, the balance of interest between Nick and Figlia always tips toward Figlia, thanks to Cobb's skill in the part. And there's Millard Mitchell as Nick's "partner." I think this might be the finest performance of Mitchell's long career. When he and Conte share scenes, it's like pairing up a real-life worn-out long haul driver with a good young actor. That's not criticism of Conte, it's praise for Mitchell.
Anyone who admires Jules Dassin would want to have this movie.