Agricultural Noir

Today is Cesar Chavez day, a state holiday in California, where our Golden State bounty still depends on migrant farm workers, willing to do the back-breaking work of gathering lettuce and hand-picking tomatoes for urban and suburban dining tables.

Now, film noir has always tackled serious issues … from antisemitism (Crossfire) to rampant materialism (The Prowler), it’s embraced themes bigger budgets wouldn’t touch (and thereby earned some of the genre’s best writers and directors a spot on the McCarthy-era blacklist).

So if you’ve already seen The Grapes of Wrath–surely one of the most elegiac films ever made–and you’re not close enough to drive to Salinas and the John Steinbeck Center–you might want to consider watching an actual agricultural noir in honor of farm workers.

First choice is 1949’s Thieves’ Highway, which I’ve blogged about before. Richard Conte, Valentina Cortese, Lee J. Cobb … and magnifcently directed by the brilliant Jules Dassin, whom we lost just last year. This film is one of my favorite twenty-five noirs of all time … and written by the equally brilliant A.I. “Buzz” Bezzerides, who also penned Kiss Me Deadly and They Drive By Night, among other classics. Renowned for its realistic depiction of the produce market in San Francisco, this film will never let you look at apples the same way again.

I’d also recommend Border Incident (also 1949) with George Murphy, Howard da Silva and Ricardo Montalban, also previously discussed and readily available on DVD … it will never let you look at threshers the same way again, either.

But for those of you who look for the truly esoteric … which would probably include everyone reading this … try to find Juke Girl (1942), the noir I mentioned last week. It’s the oddest, most bizarre little film I’ve seen in years, and not the least so because it stars Ronald Reagan as a rabble-rousing farm/unionist/cooperative worker fighting a corrupt business monopoly.

Yeah. I know. I remember the ’80s, too. But this was Reagan’s flirtation with leftist politics, pre agro-business. The script, not coincidentally, was also written by Bezzerides (his first film credit), and reads like a poor man’s (make that a very poor man’s) version of Thieves’ Highway.

Ann Sheridan, George Tobias, Gene Lockhart and Howard da Silva round out the noir cred cast … though its cred was never in question with me because it came recommended by Eddie Muller. I finally caught it on TCM when it aired a few weeks ago. Ably directed by Curtis Bernhardt (an under-appreciated stylist of noirs Conflict, Possessed and The High Wall), the relentlessly swing-filled score–which continues to jump, jive and wail even in dramatic moments–will make you scratch your head in wonder, when you’re not wondering at Reagan as a leftist farmer.

So tonight–when you’re digging into some organic greens or slicing a cherry tomato–think about the people who helped get it there, and kick back and watch a noir.

With fresh produce and lines like this: “Look bud, every time a freight train shakes itself fleas like you come hopping out” … you won’t go hungry.