Thieves' Highway: The Criterion Collection
Refer to Lee J. Cobb as an acting giant in youthful company nowadays, and prepare for quizzical stares. To several generations of filmgoers, he's a mildly memorable character actor known for mildly memorable turns in The Exorcist, Twelve Angry Men, or Coogan's Bluff. At best, they may recall him as Johnny Friendly, the mobster whose thug longshoremen kick the crap out of Terry Malloy in the closing moments of On the Waterfront a capable talent, to be sure, but no one to wax hyperbolic over. Which is both fair and an absolute tragedy, considering that Cobb, as the first and best Willy Loman, once inspired Arthur Miller to gasp after a rehearsal of Death of a Salesman that, "He stood up there like a giant moving the Rocky Mountains into position!" This Cobb, bestowed with an innate capacity for projecting authority, menace and, most of all, size, was rarely well-utilized on screen, which makes the DVD arrival of Jules Dassin's Thieves' Highway (1949) cause for celebration. Cobb slashes a brutal profile as the broad-shouldered bully Mike Figlia, a San Francisco produce magnate fond of employing particularly savage tactics as a way of maximizing profits through the instilling of mortal fear. Figlia's entrance in the film comes late in the first act, following a substantial build-up that establishes him as a rapacious monster the likes of which no man should trifle. Few men could deliver on such outsized hype, but, then again, few men had the gargantuan, galvanic prowess of Lee J. Cobb.
Up until Cobb's appearance, the film is solidly anchored by the also-underappreciated Richard Conte as Nico Garcos, a globetrotting mechanic whose jubilant return to his parents' home in California is spoiled when he discovers his truck-driver father lost his legs in a suspicious accident up north. The culprit is the crooked Figlia, and Nico is sufficiently enraged to set off on a hazily planned revenge, which initially entails buying back his father's truck from the shady Ed (Millard Mitchell), a fruit hauler who has yet to make a single payment on the rickety auto. Ed promises the money's forthcoming as soon as he reaps the windfall from a delivery of top-dollar golden delicious apples; Nico, whose thoughts are more immediately on vengeance rather than repossession, warily decides to pair up with Ed. They are not an ideal match; Ed is a small-time chiseler favoring the unfair advantage, while Nico's conscience insists that all transactions be on the up and up. Still, despite the man's less-than-honest nature, Ed is a reasonably honorable man, which he proves by saving Nico when he's trapped under his truck while changing a flat. As it turns out, the seemingly worldly Nico could use Ed's no-nonsense help upon his arrival in San Francisco, where the road-weary naïf falls prey to Figlia and his wily stooges. Nico proves especially susceptible to the piece's femme fatale, Rica (Valentina Cortesa), who's constantly luring the engaged fellow into one scrape after another. Ultimately, Figlia has Nico badly over a barrel, which will surely lead to his undoing unless Ed, who's been waylaid with mechanical trouble of his own, can arrive in time to save Nico from his father's fate.
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Thieves' Highway would prove to be Dassin's final Hollywood picture before his HUAC-influenced blacklisting forced the filmmaker overseas, and it's a hell of a valedictory. Continuing with the location shooting that enhanced the gritty verisimilitude of The Naked City (1948), Dassin crafts a smart, nasty little noir out of A.I. Bezzerides' pungently observed screenplay (which is based on his novel of the same name). Once again exploiting the trucking milieu for its rampant venality, Bezzerides ends up with a cleaner narrative than his previous They Drive By Night (1940), which Dassin briskly navigates and only compromises once in the film's final moments (on Daryl Zanuck's orders). Though Nico is a sympathetic protagonist, there is something strangely satisfying in watching the somewhat cocky moralist get his hat handed to him before finally compromising enough to confront Figlia as an equal. Dassin was always unafraid of consigning his characters to such depths (in exile, he'd knock them even lower), but one senses he did it out of disappointment with the human condition rather than gleeful cynicism; if Figlia has it coming, so does Nico for being foolishly macho enough to think he can trade body blows with the big fella. And, oh, what a big fella! Actually, at an even six feet, Cobb would be nobody's idea of a hulking presence nowadays, but here, as in On the Waterfront (1954), he used his girth and big, booming voice to stack on an extra six inches or so. Is there any actor working today capable of such illusion? Not of Cobb's magnitude which explains why Arthur Miller, whenever asked why he has never written another Willy Loman-sized character, is nowadays given to confessing with great resignation that he once wrote for giants, and that there are no giants anymore.
The Criterion Collection presents Thieves' Highway in an outstanding full-screen transfer (1.33:1 OAR) with sharp monaural Dolby Digital audio. Extras include a dry but informative feature-length commentary from film noir historian Alain Silver, a nice interview with the 93-year-old Dassin (11 min.), a trailer for The Long Haul of A.I. Bezzerides (4 min.), which features comments from the 97-year-old author, a new essay from critic Michael Sragow, and the original theatrical trailer. Keep-case.