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The Criterion Collection presents
Thieves' Highway (1949)

Rica: You wanna come up to my room and rest?
Nico "Nick" Garcos: What?
Rica: I'm the friendly type.

- Valentina Cortesa, Richard Conte

Review By: Nate Meyers  
Published: January 31, 2005

Stars: Richard Conte, Valentina Cortese, Lee J. Cobb
Other Stars: Millard Mitchell, Jack Oakie, Joseph Pevney, Barbara Lawrence, Morris Carnovsky, Tamara Shayne, Kasia Orzazewski, Norbert Schiller, Hope Emerson
Director: Jules Dassin

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (some violence, suggestive dialogue)
Run Time: 01h:34m:10s
Release Date: February 01, 2005
UPC: 715515015325
Genre: film noir


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A AAB B

DVD Review

The post-World War II years in America are often thought of in happy terms. Men returned home from fighting overseas, families were reunited, and those who died were laid to a proper rest. The country got itself up and running again, leading into a decade of seemingly endless prosperity. All of this is true, but there's never only one side to a story. Looking carefully at many of the films that came out of Hollywood in the late 1940s, you can see clearly that there was a darker undercurrent at work in the United States.

It is this undercurrent that helped to propel film noir into a mainstay of cinematic art. The post-war disillusionment of young men has made for several great films, though none may be better than Jules Dassin's Thieves' Highway. G.I. Nico "Nick" Garcos (Richard Conte) returns home after fighting in Europe and having spent the last few years travelling the world as a ship's mechanic. The lovely suburb that he returns to is too picturesque to be true, which Nick soon discovers while showering gifts on his parents and fiancée, Polly (Barbara Lawrence). Nick's father has lost both legs in a trucking accident, and, worse yet, believes that a grocer has hustled him out of money. Almost as an instinctual reaction, Nick decides to postpone his business plans with Polly's father, opting instead to retrieve his father's truck and confront the crooked grocer, Mike Figlia (Lee J. Cobb).

Dassin's film, from the A.I. Bezzerides' novel, Thieves' Market, is not the quintessential noir film. It's nearly a third of the way through before there's a single night scene, but the themes and tone are unmistakable. As Nick goes into business with grizzled truck driver Ed Kinney (Millard Mitchell), it's clear that this is a revenge mission for Nick. Although noir commonly features crime stories, it's really about the underpinnings of Americana; it's about people finding themselves doing things they ordinarily wouldn't do. This is the kind of film that is true to reality because none of its characters operate according to a fixed plan. There's something unpredictable in Nick's behavior, since he initially is a warmhearted person but later reveals his violent temper. When he's approached by his femme fatale, Rica (Valentina Cortesa—for some reason her name ends with an "a" here instead of its usual "e"), there's no telling if he'll attack her or fall victim to her prowess. In fact, it's actually tough to know if Rica is truly a femme fatale, for as the story progresses so do her feelings toward Nick.

In many ways Thieves' Highway foreshadows Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront. This is partly because it deals with the working-class struggle against a corrupted system, but mostly it's because the great Lee J. Cobb is the central villain in both films. I use the term villain loosely here, however, for Mike Figlia is not purely a villain. Though he is a con artist of sorts and not afraid to use violence against Nick, Figlia manages to have as much humanity as Nick has inhumanity. Perhaps that is what it most attractive about this film: there's nobody to root for. The script, adapted by Bezzerides himself, pits all of its characters against an unbeatable enemy—their own demons. Neither the writing nor the direction confuses this relatively insignificant grocer or would-be trucker as iconic embodiments of good and evil. Like Kazan's masterpiece, the story is about an individual desperately trying to succeed despite the odds.

Realizing this powerful drama is the stunning cinematography by Norbert Brodine. Mixing the noir lighting and framing with location exteriors, Brodine makes Thieves' Highway decidedly realistic and fresh. I felt exhilarated by the detail every frame provides, which creates a vivid portrait of these people. Aiding the cinematography is the music by Alfred Newman, who provides his usual elegant and suspenseful rhythms. However, every bit as important is the editing by Nick DeMaggio. The driving sequences use cross-dissolves and double exposure to great effect. It's been a long time since a movie has made me hold my breath due to the tension—DeMaggio's editing does just that.

The performances are just as impressive. Richard Conte lends a strong presence to the film's center, believably portraying Nick as both a nice guy and vengeful manipulator. Not enough can be said for Cobb's performance, which makes Figlia wickedly alluring and repulsive, simultaneously. Even Cortesa, whose inclusion in the film met objections from Bezzerides, gives a marvelous performance, being sensuous, dangerous, and all other things fatal. However, for me, the highlight of the bunch is Millard Mitchell as Ed Kinney. The way he moves and postures himself around a truck adds to every scene he is in, making this a truly special performance.

Thieves' Highway is an atypical noir film, but it is also one of the best. It brilliantly captures the horrors of post-war America and delivers some fantastic personal drama at the same time. They don't make them like this anymore.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicno


Image Transfer Review: The original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 is preserved in this RSDL transfer with tremendous results. Detail and contrast are unbelievable, aiding the noir photography and neorealist elements of the film. Depth is strong and helps to create a film-like look in the image. There are a few instances of print defects and an occasional scratch, but nothing distracting and they're few and far between. Bravo!

Image Transfer Grade: A

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglishyes


Audio Transfer Review: The monaural sound mix preserves the original audio of the film with pristine sound. The sound defaults to the center speaker, but the stereo playback will spread the mix across the front soundstage. There's no hiss or crackle at all, with dialogue being audible and easily understood throughout. Sound effects and music are balanced nicely, helping to re-create the original theatrical experience. An excellent bit of film preservation, even if it doesn't make for an enthralling home theater experience.

Audio Transfer Grade: B

 

Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 22 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Other Trailer(s) featuring The Long Haul of A.I. Bezzerides
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Alain Silver
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. Insert—contains an essay by film critic Michael Sragow and information on the DVD.
  2. Dassin Interview—video interview with director Jules Dassin.
Extras Review: Starting off the extras is the insert featuring an essay by film critic Michael Sragow, Dangerous Fruit. In it he dissects the film's place in cinema history and his personal fondness for the changes made to Cortesa's character in the film. He also provides some interesting insight into movie's thematic content. There's also information provided, as usual, about the DVD transfer of the film.

On the disc itself, things start off with an audio commentary by author Alain Silver, who has written and edited extensively on film noir. Although he uses the term "proletarian" a few too many times for my liking, this is an excellent commentary. He reads excerpts from Bezzerides' book in comparison to the events on the screen and also delves into some of the censorship pressures that 20th Century Fox faced with the release of the picture. In addition, Silver gives a nice amount of background information on the key players in the film's production. A very fine commentary indeed.

Following that is the Dassin Interview (10m:39s), a video interview recorded for this DVD. It contains clips of the film and still photographs from the shoot alongside footage of director Dassin. He speaks elegantly about his thoughts and gives some interesting anecdotes (particularly the one about directing Jack Oakie, who plays another trucker in the story). A commentary might have been better, but this is awfully good too.

Rounding out the features are a couple of trailers. First is the original theatrical pne for Thieves' Highway, with the good old-fashioned screen wipes and large typeface. More interesting, however, is an extended trailer for the work-in-progress documentary, The Long Haul of A.I. Bezzerides (04m:21s). The documentary, by Fay Lellios, is still unfinished but looks quite good on the basis of what is shown here. Let's hope that it finds its way to DVD sometime soon.

Extras Grade: B

 

Final Comments

Jules Dassin's telling of A.I. Bezzerides' trucker tale is a tour de force in filmmaking. However, more importantly, it's a vivid portrait of a period in America that may have past in time, but remains in tone. The Criterion Collection once again excels with this DVD, giving Thieves' Highway a glorious home on DVD.

 


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