Thieves’ Highway: Want an Apple?

The next time you’re feeling up the produce at your favorite mart, considering which juicy apple to sink your teeth into, you might be surprised to find yourself thinking instead of Richard Conte.

I know I’ve never been able to eat an apple with the same air of nonchalance since my first viewing of Thieves’ Highway(1949).

This week we’re looking at that paragon of noir cinema as the start of a new/old theme for Writing in the Dark. Though other news will inevitably preempt our schedule, I thought it was time to discuss some of the films on my personal “top ten noir” list. These are films I love unabashedly, films that have influenced me, haunted me, pursued me down dark rainy pavements, and made me question my produce purchases.

We’re starting with Thieves’ Highway because it currently lodges at #10 and because Jules Dassin, its brilliant and blacklisted director (and the genius behind Night and the City, The Naked City, Brute Force and Rififi) passed away a few weeks ago at the age of 96. With the loss of Dassin and Widmark, the world is much darker, and not in a good noir way.

Thieves’ Highway is a gut-wrench of a political movie, a social-commentary on the efforts of the working man to earn an honest living in a world that doesn’t reward it — not even in the seemingly pure and innocuous produce trade.

Conte (and he was never better) brings a capacity for violence that few leading actors shared: Cagney, Bogart, Lancaster, and few others. Conte played both good guys and bad guys so effectively, because he seems like an in-between guy … in other words, like one of us.

In Dassin’s cinematic tone poem set in San Francisco’s once thriving produce mart, Nick Garcos (Conte) is a war veteran who returns from a world war to a personal one: his father has been financially and physically crippled by a racketeering produce kingpin, Mike Figlia (a world-class performance by Lee J. Cobb). Determined to redeem his family’s honor and salvage its fortune, he teams with Ed, another trucker, to bring an early shipment of Golden Delicious into San Francisco.

Naturally, Figlia tries to dupe him, as he did Nick’s father. He employs a prostitute (a riveting and ravishing Valentina Cortese — whom I had the privilege of seeing in person at a play in Rome many years ago) to distract Nick so he can steal the cargo of apples. Meanwhile, Ed (played by Millard Mitchell, an actor better known as the studio mogul in Singin’ in the Rain) still hasn’t brought his truck through. A dangerous contest of pride and revenge between Nick and Figlia erupts, leading to increasingly violent consequences.

Dassin’s shots and ace writer Buzz Bezzerides (whom we just lost last January) populate their canvas with lyrical chiaroscuro and lines sharper than an unripe Granny Smith. The social commentary is pithy and pointed: it’s obvious that Nick’s waspy fiancee is interested only in his prospects for wealth; she’s the real femme fatale, not Cortese’s passionate yet moral hooker. In a brilliant casting stroke, Jack Okie, a hot theater ticket in the early ’30s and known for his comedy, is cast as “Slob,” one of Figlia’s henchmen, and the rest of the supporting cast is superb, including later director Joseph Pevney as Slob’s partner, Pete.

Moments in this film will haunt you, but particularly a shot of golden delicious apples rolling down a highway embankment. I experienced Thieves’ Highway at a Noir City a couple of years ago, and this shot is literally one of the most memorable of any film I’ve seen.

At one point in Thieves’ Highway, Nick asks Rica (Cortese) about fruit:

Rick: Hey, do you like apples?
Rica: Everybody likes apples … except doctors.
Nick: Do you know what it takes to get an apple so you can sink your beautiful teeth in it? You gotta stuff rags up tailpipes, farmers gotta get gypped, you jack up trucks with the back of your neck, universals conk out …
Rica: I don’t know what are you talking about, but I have a new respect for apples.

Rent Thieves’ Highway, and you’ll appreciate your produce like never before.