Monday, 30 May 2016

Arrow Round up:
Thieves’ Highway
(Jules Dassin, 1949)

Though the precise boundaries of “film noir” within modern movie-chat are nebulous at best (and seem to become more so each year, as the genre’s key era sinks further into history), I’m afraid I’ve got to raise my hand from the outset here and say that I don’t believe Jules Dassin’s ‘Thieves’ Highway’ – trumpeted as being “as tough as noir gets” in Arrow’s marketing materials – fits the category at all. In terms of imagery, worldview and subject matter, we’re looking at something quite different here… unless one were to expand the concept of “noir” to include every black & white Hollywood film that takes a somewhat cynical approach to life.

Not that I blame Arrow (or anyone else who has marketed this film over the years) for hitting the “noir” button. Based on plot synopsis alone, Dassin’s film is admittedly a bit of a hard sell, and this was apparently the case even on the film’s original release, when, despite glowing critical notices, local exhibitors in the US had a devil of a time actually getting people into cinemas to see the damn thing.

In one of the supplements to Arrow’s edition, critic Frank Krutnik makes the case for reclassifying ‘Thieves Highway’ under the banner of what is apparently known as “film gris” – a designation that I was previously unaware of. Coined by film scholar Thom Anderson, this term has been applied chiefly to a set of films released in-between the two Hollywood HUAC hearings in 1947 and 1951, wherein a clique of broadly left-leaning directors, keeping a low profile in the realm of the low budget crime programmers and to some extent shielded from criticism by sympathetic producers, turned away from the existential / individualist concerns of “classic” noir, and instead began to offer up a thinly veiled critique of American capitalism and the corrupt social interactions it encourages. (John Huston’s ‘The Asphalt Jungle’ (1950), itself an obvious precursor to Dassin’s ‘Rififi’ (1955), would seem a key text here.)

Though it is not really a crime film in the conventional sense, ‘Thieves’ Highway’ would indeed seem to hit this alternative category with a perfect bulls-eye.

More than anything however, Dassin’s film reminded me of another movie by a blacklisted American director exiled in Europe (as Dassin would be shortly after finishing this film), Cy Endfield’s ‘Hell Drivers’ (1957). Like that film, ‘Thieves’ Highway’ is in some ways chiefly notable for the way in which it takes incredibly mundane subject matter – in this case, the travails of self-employed truck drivers transporting cargos of fruit from Fresno orchards to the San Francisco produce market – and crafts it into a compelling, tough guy adventure story.

Whereas ‘Hell Drivers’ takes a wildly pulpy, OTT approach to this task though, ‘Thieves Highway’ emerges as a little more… down to earth? Like the film’s hero Nick Garcos (played by Richard Conte), scriptwriter A.I. Bezzerides (‘They Drive By Night’, ‘Kiss Me Deadly’) was himself a second generation Greek immigrant whose father ran trucks of fruit between Fresno and San Francisco, and, like Garcos, Bezzerides also took up the yoke of the family business before Hollywood dough allowed him to make it as a professional writer.

As such, it’s a fair bet that a hefty chunk of autobiography made its way into both Bezzerides’ source novel (‘Thieves’ Market’ - published in ’48) and the script he developed it into. Certainly, ‘Thieves’ Highway’ carries a sense of realism and an attention to the day-to-day realities of working class life that is rare indeed in ‘40s Hollywood product, compressed into a sparse, forward-driving narrative that is gutsy enough to remain surprisingly compelling to this day.

By all accounts, one of Bezzerides’ overriding concerns as a writer lay in using his position to expose the multitude of “rip offs” foisted upon the common man at every level of society (a goal to which the crime/gangster genre is uniquely suited, needless to say), and with ‘Thieves’ Market’ / ‘Thieves’ Highway’ (note the pointed change in emphasis between the novel and movie titles) we can assume he landed the opportunity to do so more directly than at any other point in his writing career.

The film begins with Nick Garcos returning home from a stint in the navy to discover that his good-natured, easily manipulated father has been crippled after being sent home drunk in a sabotaged truck by his duplicitous creditors, and from that point on the movie is a roll-call of hard luck cases, from the immigrant farmers & fruit pickers being scammed on their produce by fast-talking truckers, to Nick’s partner Ed (Millard Mitchell) struggling to get to market in a jalopy “held together with spit”, to his fiancée (Barbara Lawrence), who flies to SF on the promise of marriage the next morning, only to find her would-be groom has been rolled by thugs for his newly acquired fortune and is recuperating in a prostitute’s apartment.

All of these are struggling, hardworking and sympathetically portrayed characters, but all are still clambering over each other to make a fast buck, whilst the apples they’re fighting over fly off the back of the trucks a tight corner, or sit rotting in the sun. Although ‘Thieves’ Highway’ never gets preachy or overtly political for a second, the script’s implications regarding the wasteful and corrupting nature of life in America could scarcely be clearer, whilst the fact that just about everybody on screen is a first or second generation immigrant adds a poignant verisimilitude to the portrayal of a treacherous world in which everyone seems to some extent an outsider.

Particularly pertinent in this regard is the late entry of Rica (celebrated Italian actress Valentina Cortese in her American debut), the aforementioned prostitute who, uh, ‘befriends’ Nick (this was a Code era picture remember) upon his arrival in San Francisco. A strange character whose introduction shifts the emphasis of the movie considerably, Rica doesn’t ring even remotely true as a lonely French (huh?) woman supposedly turning tricks in an apartment above a fruit market. In fact, it’s fair to say that Cortese’s performance seems to belong to an entirely different movie (a more elegant, sexually charged European one, to be precise) from the tough guy trucking stuff that surrounds it.

I can’t quite fathom Dassin's intention in placing such heavy emphasis on Cortese’s character in the second half of the film - the story of her romance with Nick certainly proves very difficult to reconcile with the otherwise sparse and fast-moving revenge narrative – but I’m hesitant to write her inclusion off entirely as a misjudgment, as her scenes with Conte undoubtedly have a certain frisson all of their own, adding a new dimension to the film that seems a deliberate attempt to take things in a potentially interesting direction, even if it is ultimately too tonally jarring and undermined by Production Code censorship to fully succeed.

Thinking further in fact, the notion that the hero of ‘Thieves’ Highway’ chucks his blonde, materialistic wife-to-be in order to take up with an iterant and melancholic woman of foreign extraction and questionable virtue – and for the new couple to furthermore be gifted with a deeply unconvincing “drive into the sunset” happy ending – seems a provocative addition to the edgy political subtext that can be extrapolated from the rest of the film.

Speaking of that revenge narrative meanwhile, for the sake of convenience the film’s assorted evils are all stacked at the door of crooked San Fran produce dealer Mike Figlia (Lee J. Cobb), an archetypal manipulative capitalist bully whose greedy scheming sees him regularly skirting the edges of the law. Whilst Nick’s dogged campaign to take him down comes with a pleasantly raw tang of “revenge of the downtrodden” vengeance about it, I feel that one of the few shortcomings of Bezzerides’ excellent script is his failure to “take things higher” in terms of delineating the chain of “rip-offs” at work in the produce market by bringing in the forces (whether cops, gangsters or local government) who are in turn leaning on Figlia, rather than leaving him as the end-of-the-line vis-à-vis the movie’s villainy.

Of course, it is entirely possible that Bezzerides himself was not to blame for this oversight (I’ve not read his source novel, so can’t compare the two). As appropriate as it may seem to modern viewers, explicitly calling out federal corruption and/or the influence of organized crime on market forces might well have pushed this already politically dicey property way beyond the studio’s comfort zone in this particularly sensitive era of American history.

As a director, Dassin always seemed to at drawing us into the precise mechanics of closed-system, masculine worlds – whether the high security prison of ‘Brute Force’ (1947), or the definitive police procedural of ‘The Naked City’ (’48) – and his depiction of the California trucking / fruit trading world in ‘Thieves’ Highway’ is equally vivid and believable.

Like many classic Hollywood directors, Dassin’s stylistic flourishes are all but invisible, but their contribution to the film’s overall effectiveness is profound. As in many of his films, the extensive (and, at the time, still quite novel) use of location shooting proves extremely beneficial, and, on the level of pure cinema, ‘Thieves Highway’ remains a blast, despite its potentially dispiriting subject matter.

Though the film’s political aspects and the stuff with Rica may provide meat for the theory-hounds, it is the high octane trucking stuff that will live longest in the memory of most viewers, with the gear-churning night-drives across winding mountain roads, the sweaty, fast-talking chaos of the market and the images of spilled apples cascading down placid hillsides all majestically portrayed.

Though anyone who comes to ‘Thieves’ Highway’ anticipating black hats, gats and femme fatales will be soundly disappointed, it nonetheless stands as both a uniquely raw and audacious film to have emerged from this particular time & place, and as a quintessential example of the kind of masculine, working class story that has pretty much entirely disappeared from cinema as demographics have shifted through the decades.

How often, these days, do you see commercial movies in which the precise method of repairing a drive shaft on an army surplus truck, or the per-box wholesale rate on golden delicious apples, are the key narrative issues upon which our heroes fates hang? As one of ‘Thieves Highway’ biggest action set-pieces unfolded, involving Nick being rescued by his driving partner after being nearly suffocated by roadside sand when his jack collapses mid-way through changing a wheel, I couldn’t help but reflect that you just don’t see this stuff on-screen any more. From such obvious companion pieces as Clouzot’s ‘The Wages of Fear’ (1953) to grimly proletarian post-war thrillers like Cliff Owen’s ‘A Prize of Arms’ (1962) and the aforementioned ‘Hell Drivers’, it is a spirit of dour, engine oil-encrusted male enterprise that hasn’t so much disappeared from the world itself as it has simply disappeared from our culture.

It is interesting to reflect that the market conditions dramatised here probably remain largely unchanged to this day – in fact their impact has probably only been magnified by the advent of bigger, better transport networks and the march of economic globalisation – yet to all intents and purposes, they have simply become invisible to us. The fact is, the people involved with this level of industry simply don’t go to the movies anymore, and even if they did, chances are they wouldn’t care to see their own workaday struggles staring back at them.

Meanwhile, those of us who do have the time and money to invest in an increasingly privileged popular culture probably can't much relate to the life represented by some lowly grease-monkey wrestling with a hand-crank at the side of the road (or his nearest 21st century equivalent), just as we prefer not to spend too much time thinking about where our apples come from. Chances are, they’re still spilling down hillsides and rotting in the sun en route to our preferred ethically rebranded supermarkets, but on a scale Dassin and Bezzerides could scarcely have imagined, as the cameras look elsewhere.

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