DVD Review HTF REVIEW: Thieves' Highway - The Criterion Collection

Discussion in 'DVD' started by Herb Kane, Jan 31, 2005.

  1. Herb Kane

    Herb Kane Screenwriter

    May 7, 2001
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    Thieves' Highway
    The Criterion Collection

    Studio: Criterion Collection
    Year: 1949
    Rated: Not Rated
    Film Length: 94 Minutes
    Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1 Standard
    Audio: DD Monaural
    Color/B&W: B&W
    Languages: English
    Subtitles: English
    MSRP: $39.95
    Package: Single disc/Keepcase

    The Feature:
    February 1st is a good day to be a fan of film noir. Criterion is set to release three titles including the Italian film La Commare Secca (1962) directed by Bernardo Bertolucci (Il Conformista - 1970) as well as two 20th Century Fox titles from the French director, Jules Dassin (Rififi (1955), Brute Force (1947) and The Naked City - 1948); Night And The City (1950) and the featured film, Thieves’ Highway (1949) starring Richard Conte, Lee J. Cobb, Valentina Cortese and Jack Oakie.

    Nick Garcos (played by Richard Conte) is an ex G.I. who has just returned home from a far east journey. With plans of showering his family members with gifts, he shows up at the family home in Fresno, California, when he learns that his beloved father is a recent amputee - a victim of a truck accident. His father, Papa Garcos (played by Morris Carnovsky) was a long haul produce driver delivering fruit and vegetables to local markets. On a recent run to San Francisco, he entered into an agreement with Mike Figlia (played by Lee J. Cobb), an unscrupulous produce vendor to purchase a load of tomatoes but Figlia got the old man drunk, sending him on his way without paying him. His departure led to an accident resulting in the loss of his legs and ultimately the loss of his livelihood - his job. Nick becomes enraged and vows to seek revenge on the man responsible.

    Due to the accident, Papa Garcos no longer needs his truck and sells it to another local driver, Ed Prentiss (played by Millard Mitchell), a hardened and road weary trucker who has also fallen on hard times and hasn't been able to pay for the vehicle. Nick starts off by meeting up with him in attempt to retrieve his father's money but instead, Ed pitches a sweet deal to Nick who is able finance a load of Golden Delicious apples guaranteeing them a significant return on his money. Nick figures it’s a good excuse to get to him San Francisco where he can then meet up with Figlia.

    Upon his arrival at the San Francisco Market, he scopes out Figlia's stall and parks his truck out front. Figlia realizes the value of Nick's load and flattens one of the tires on his truck giving him the perfect opportunity to steal his load. Exhausted from the long journey, Nick desperately needs to rest and is lured by a young woman, Rica (played by Valentina Cortese), back to her apartment with the promise of rest. Nick doesn't realize that Figlia paid her to lure Nick away from his truck giving him the opportunity to steal his load and sell the apples. Rica however, falls for Nick and feeling guilty, tells him of Figlia's plan.

    He returns just in time to catch Figlia in the act and demands the money he's owed for the produce. Although he eventually pays Nick, Figlia arranges for him to be robbed by two thugs, who wind up stealing his wallet and his money. The trip however, turns disastrous when Nick's partner, Ed, crashes his truck while enroute to the market and dies in the fiery crash. After reaching his limit, Nick finally confronts Figlia once and for all which results in a final showdown.


    While I typed the narrative, I couldn't help but think "this really doesn't sound that interesting"... Either that, or I haven't done a very good job at making it sound interesting. Okay, I'll assume some of the responsibility - perhaps even a combination of both, but really, this is a tough sell. I'm pretty tolerant of most films (particularly old noirs) regardless of how they plod along but even I had difficulty staying focused with this one. The film is not terrible but it's only moderately appealing.

    The film hinged on the over-confident Nick who seeks retribution on the man responsible for his father's accident but at every turn in the film Nick was hurt, or sleeping or beaten up - incapacitated in one form or another. A simple tire change almost lands Nick in hospital. This guy wasn't able to care for himself, much less take care of family business. His tough-guy persona wasn't even remotely believable. Mitchum, Ryan and Bogie would've eaten this guy alive. I like Conte a lot and he's successfully pulled off his fair share of tough-guy roles in a host of noirs throughout the 40's and 50's, but I had a difficult time buying into his role of Nick as the dutiful and vengeful son.

    The film does an admirable job at capturing the grittiness of the seedy (no pun intended), produce hauling industry and what the workers had to endure with no guarantee of ever recouping their money, much less turning a profit. Rica's character is a perfect femme fatale who plots and schemes with Figlia for a mere $50 bucks but then realizes the goodness that exists within Nick and eventually falls for him, letting him in on the scam. In as much as I enjoyed the performances of Oakie and Pevney, their attempt at humor in this film seemed out of place and it's not until the crash scene when they literally stare death in the face, that we start to take these guys seriously. The large white five point star on the door of Nick's truck serves as a constant reminder of the time setting of the film, which takes place just after the end of the war - a useful tool in painting the time period marking post-war disillusionment, a common characteristic of prototypical films noir.

    The Feature: 3/5

    Presented in its OAR of 1.33:1, this transfer exhibits very good black levels, while whites were usually stark and crisp. The level of grayscale was vast and quite nice. Shadow detail was nice, and similar to the recently reviewed, Night And The City, contrast seemed to be somewhat of a mixed bag. Many of the indoor shots appear dark (darkly shot), however a few of the outdoor scenes are a tad on the bright side – even contrasty looking.

    The print appeared to be mostly clean and free of any marks or blemishes and the overall picture was solid and free of any shimmer or jitter. The authoring appears to have been handled correctly as the image is free of any sort of artifacts nor are there any signs of edge enhancement present.

    Image detail was satisfactory. Again, similar to Night And The City, the picture plays slightly on the soft side but generally is quite pleasing. There are instances of occasional sharpness, however. There was a fair amount of medium film grain present and the level of depth and dimension was certainly pleasing - I would describe the overall look as somewhat gritty and coarse.

    For the most part, this is a pleasing transfer, however, there are a few scenes and sequences that appear to be “spottier” than others.

    Video: 4/5

    The track is DD Mono encoded and for the most part is more than adequate. The track has only the slightest amount of hiss and is free of any popping of crackling.

    The fidelity of the track is basically natural. Dialogue was always intelligible and bold, never becoming harsh or edgy. Longtime 20th Century Fox composer Alfred Newman's terrific score shows up in good form here. The overall dynamics of the track are rather limited but are on par with what we would expect from a 56 year-old film considering its limitations.

    Not much to say in the audio department - but little to complain about either as this track accomplishes what it needs to do quite satisfactorily.

    Audio: 3.5/5

    Special Features:
    Similar to the other recent Criterion Dassin, Night And The City, the disc comes with a nice assortment of special features starting with:
    [*] A Commentary with Alain Silver who is as qualified as anyone to talk about film noir. He co-authored one of the noir bibles, Film Noir Reader and Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles as well as a number of other books covering the movement. Mr. Silver starts the commentary by offering a history of Nick's character and his return after his long (and obvious prosperous) absence. A number of brief bios are offered up as well as the shooting location of Sebastopol, California. He also spends a fair amount of time discussing various camera techniques throughout the course of the film when he feels certain sequences should be highlighted. His comments stay very scene specific and only veers off course occasionally when he needs to cover critical points. It's clear Mr. Silver knows his stuff and he unleashes a wealth of knowledge throughout the course of this feature. Its a little on the stiff side, but deserves your time.
    [*] Video Interview with Jules Dassin is a recent interview (obviously part of the same interview which is included on the Night And The City disc) and includes another group of interesting reflections. He starts with discussing the truck crash and how much he enjoyed the "rolling apples" scene, describing it as one of his all-time favorites. He spends the brunt of his time giving praise to those he worked with in the film and expresses his appreciation in working with Jack Oakie describing how he wasn't aware of Oakie's deafness. Duration: 10:39 minutes.
    [*] A Trailer for The Long Haul of A.I. Bezzerides. Albert Isaac Bezzerides wrote the novel Thieves' Market and then adapted it into the screenplay for Thieves' Highway. He also wrote The Long Haul, which became They Drive By Night (1940) and the screenplay for Kiss Me Deadly (1955). Filmmaker Fay Lellios has spent three years creating a documentary about the legendary writer which is still a work in progress. In this case Criterion presents a brief trailer for the documentary. Duration: 4:19 minutes.
    [*] The Theatrical Trailer is also included and is in very good condition. Duration: 2:04 minutes
    [*] And finally, an Insert in included. An eight page folded booklet which lists the chapter stops, a complete cast & crew list, technical credits and finally a four page essay on the film by Michael Sragow, a movie critic for The Baltimore Sun.

    Special Features: 4/5

    **Special Features rated for the quality of supplements, not the quantity**

    Final Thoughts:
    Considering Bezzerides' involvement with They Drive By Night, it should come as no surprise that Thieves' Highway is a film that is very similar to the earlier Warner Brothers picture. However, it never reaches the same level as the Raft & Bogart offering. Thieves' Highway is a good film but (and regardless of the "A" cast) rarely seems to rise above a "B" noir status. My biggest problem with the film was buying into the believability of Nick's tough-guy persona. As usual, Lee J. Cobb offers up a terrific performance as the despicable produce vendor and Valentina Cortese is also worth a look as the unsuspecting femme fatale.

    Criterion has done an admirable job with this transfer and they have complemented the film with a number of worthwhile and informative special features. I suspect the noir junkies will be happy to have this (as I am) however, those not familiar with the film might not be quite as enthusiastic.

    Overall Rating: 3.5/5 (not an average)

    Release Date: February 1st, 2005
  2. Derek Estes

    Derek Estes Stunt Coordinator

    May 28, 2004
    Likes Received:
    I Love this film, and was very surprised to see it released. I have watched a Horrendous bootleg video now for a couple of years (the B/W faded to a mauve), so it will be quite an improvement watching this DVD! I can't wait for it to arrive!

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