Saturday, May 23, 2015

Tonight's Movie: Thieves' Highway (1949) at the Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival

The last day of the 2015 Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival in Palm Springs closed for me on a high note last Sunday with my first-ever viewing of THIEVES' HIGHWAY (1949).

The movie takes a deceptively simple plot, about getting a couple truckloads of Golden Delicious apples to market and selling them for a fair price, and turns it into a rich viewing experience filled with memorable performances and unforgettable visuals.

Veteran Nick Garcos (Richard Conte) returns home to California ready to open a business and marry Polly (Barbara Lawrence), the girl next door.

Nick learns that his truck driver father (Morris Carnovsky) was swindled by producer buyer Mike Figlia (Lee J. Cobb) and lost his legs in an accident in which Figlia's men may have been involved.

Nick also learns that his father sold his truck to Ed Kinney (Millard Mitchell) but hasn't been paid. Nick goes to collect but ends up striking a deal with the broke Ed -- Nick will buy an army surplus truck for himself and the two men will reap a windfall delivering the season's first crop of Golden Delicious apples to market in San Francisco.

Once in San Francisco, Nick inevitably must deal with the amoral Figlia, who tries to distract Nick with a prostitute, Rica (Valentina Cortesa). Nick must battle Figlia for a fair deal and then try to hang on to the money he's been paid, while perhaps managing some payback against Figlia; meanwhile, Ed struggles to get his barely functional truck to market while his cargo is still fresh.

This was simply a wonderful film, screened in an outstanding print. The entire movie looked great, but what especially sticks in my mind are a pair of tragically beautiful set pieces involving apples; the first occurs when the Polish farmer (Norbert Schiller) battles Ed over their deal and starts to topple boxes of apples off the truck, and the second is a stunning shot of apples rolling down a hill near the end of the movie, which caused me to gasp. You won't forget it.

Richard Conte has become one of my all-time favorite film noir actors. I'm hard-pressed to name a favorite; CRY OF THE CITY (1948) comes to mind first, but then I remember how great he was in HOUSE OF STRANGERS (1949) or THE BIG COMBO (1955), just for starters, and I'm not sure. A complete list of Conte films previously reviewed here is at the end of this post, and I highly recommend exploring his movies.

Similarly, the more I see of Millard Mitchell's work, the more I realize what a loss his too-early passing was to movies. THIEVES' HIGHWAY was just one of a number of outstanding performances Mitchell gave in the late '40s and early '50s, along with THE GUNFIGHTER (1950), THE NAKED SPUR (1953), and especially WINCHESTER '73 (1950). Mitchell was in the prime of his career when he died of lung cancer in 1953, at the age of 50.

A little of Jack Oakie goes a long way for me, but I've never liked him better than in THIEVES' HIGHWAY. He looks completely believable in his role as a grubby rival trucker whose inner decency emerges after tragedy strikes. He's quite touching as he inarticulately attempts to give Nick some bad news. Oakie's work is all the more remarkable given that he was very hard of hearing and had to rely on lip reading to make sure he didn't miss his cues. Oakie's partner in the film is played by future director Joseph Pevney.

The talented Barbara Lawrence (MARGIE) has a rather thankless role as Polly, who's initially thrilled by Nick's return but not so happy to support him when the chips are down. When Nick hits the financial skids, she's off to look for a more reliable breadwinner. On one level I felt some sympathy for Polly, as the dreams she'd built while Nick was away had quickly come crashing down, but she's certainly unpleasant when ejecting Nick from her future.

Polly does serve the purpose of helping to make the audience more sympathetic to Rica, the proverbial hooker with the heart of gold. Valentina Cortesa is good and her interactions with Conte are memorable, although I liked her better in THE HOUSE ON TELEGRAPH HILL (1951); I admit part of my issue was that I found her hairstyle in this, which aged her far beyond her 26 years, distracting.

Rounding out the cast is Hope Emerson in a small but noticeable role as a produce buyer.

The screenplay for this 94-minute film was by A.I. Bezzerides, based on his novel. Bezzerides also wrote the screenplay for ON DANGEROUS GROUND (1951), seen earlier in the weekend; Bezzerides also had an acting role in ON DANGEROUS GROUND, his only onscreen appearance.

THIEVES' HIGHWAY was directed by Jules Dassin; his films which have been previously reviewed here are linked at the end of this post. The black and white photography, much of it on location, was by Norbert Brodine.

THIEVES' HIGHWAY is available on DVD from the Criterion Collection.

Incidentally, THIEVES' HIGHWAY was the last film I needed to see from the first 15 movies on Eddie Muller's list of his Top 25 film noir titles. The film is very much recommended.

Jules Dassin films previously reviewed at Laura's Miscellaneous Musings: THE AFFAIRS OF MARTHA (1942), YOUNG IDEAS (1943), A LETTER FOR EVIE (1946), TWO SMART PEOPLE (1946), and THE NAKED CITY (1948), NIGHT AND THE CITY (1950), and RIFIFI (1955).

Previously reviewed films starring Richard Conte: GUADALCANAL DIARY (1943), SOMEWHERE IN THE NIGHT (1946), CALL NORTHSIDE 777 (1948), CRY OF THE CITY (1948), HOUSE OF STRANGERS (1949), THE SLEEPING CITY (1950), THE BLUE GARDENIA (1953), HIGHWAY DRAGNET (1954), THE BIG COMBO (1955), FULL OF LIFE (1956), and THE BROTHERS RICO (1957).


Blogger Kristina Dijan said...

I like Richard Conte a lot too--HOUSE OF STRANGERS, THE BIG COMBO are so great. He's another reason you have to see THE GODFATHER.

6:42 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Those films are so good -- highly recommended!

I'm definitely going to finally catch THE GODFATHER one of these days, if only for Richard Conte and Sterling Hayden. :)

Best wishes,

11:32 AM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

Richard Conte is fine in THE GODFATHER but it's not a very big part, though plays on his iconography.

Personally, I've always felt that since he was there, he should have been cast in the title role. He would have been infinitely better than Marlon Brando and I don't think I even need to explain that. He was always more believable, if less theatrical, and could have been just wonderful in a role like that, and at a more mature age, he was just right for it.

I recently watched THE BLUE GARDENIA again and reminded me of how good Conte always is. Really, just walking into a room or something like that he's always interesting.

THE GODFATHER and its sequels are good gangster movies though not the very best ones IMO. But anyone interested in the genre should see them sometime. Of later ones, I believe the one that t'd put on a level of SCARFACE 1932 and WHITE HEAT is ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA.

12:28 PM  
Blogger Kristina Dijan said...

re: Blake's fantasy casting of Conte as Don Corleone. That would have been brilliant.

3:42 PM  
Blogger KC said...

I also didn't like Cortesa's hairstyle in this film, but I loved it when she said,"aren't women wooonderful?" I saw this at Noir City in Seattle several years ago. I think Eddie Mueller may have been there to introduce it. You've made me want to see it again!

11:31 PM  

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