Thursday, October 30, 2014

D.O.A. (1950)

Rudolph Maté, 1950
Starring: Edmund O’Brien, Pamela Britton, Luther Adler

Frank Bigelow stumbles into a police station to report a murder – his own. He recounts the events of the past week and explains that he left his job as a notary in a small Californian town to vacation in San Francisco. His girlfriend, Paula, is upset to be left behind and they have a row. He meets up with a group of salesmen at a convention and they go out drinking at a jazz club. Frank wakes up feeling sick and is concerned that someone may have slipped something in his drink. Though the doctor first assures him he is in perfect health, it is soon discovered that Frank has mere days to live; he has been dosed with a “luminous toxin” and there is no antidote. But Frank is determined to go out fighting and traces his steps over the last few days in the hope that he will also uncover his murderer.

D.O.A. was one of director Rudolph Maté’s first films, though he had previously worked as a cinematographer on films like Gilda and Foreign Correspondent. It’s a relatively famous noir effort thanks to the wonderful premise: a man reports his own murder and then solves the crime before his impending death. It’s a shame that the script couldn’t really keep up and the ensuing drama is fairly run of the mill. There are red herrings, a murder disguised as a suicide, a charming villain with a foreign accent, some tough guy thugs, a femme fatale, and a disillusioned protagonist who must act as an amateur detective.

Edmund O’Brien’s Frank Bigelow is actually one of the more disappointing aspects of the film. He’s a run-of-the-mill noir protagonist, an Everyman with a dull, bureaucratic job and though O’Brien is competent, he doesn’t have a charming spark, like Bogart, or sense of melancholia and impending doom, like Burt Lancaster. He lacks any charisma whatsoever with Pamela Britton, who costars as Paula. She spends the entire time nagging him and is loosely connected to the plot by providing occasional clues over the phone when she isn’t too busy whining. Their doomed romance is far from believable and occasionally brings the plot to a grinding halt.

An interesting aspect is the suicide, which is actually a murder and suggests that this is a path open to Frank. He does not choose to take it and reveals a more complicated plot centering on stolen iridium. The science behind the poisoning is very fly-by-night, but the paranoia of nuclear war and radiation poisoning are a common theme in ‘50s cinema – more so science film than film noir – and would appear again in Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly. The sense of dread and paranoia is also palpable from the moment that Frank believes someone has switched his drink. There is a sense of contamination that he just can’t shake off and the concept that he has a week to live – at best – adds a sense of urgency. It is perhaps a little cheesy that he magically waits to drop until just after the case is solved. On the other hand, it’s refreshing that he does actually die and there isn’t a last-minute cure discovered.

Overall, D.O.A. only comes recommended to other film noir fans. It’s available on DVD, though it is also in the public domain. There’s some wonderful cinematography from Ernest Laszlo with lovely shots of 1950s’ San Francisco. It adds a sense of urban menace to the existing feelings of paranoia. There is also an excellent scene at a jazz club, which gives the sense that Frank wants to abandon his boring job and needy girlfriend for a life of vice soaked with music, liquor, and sex. His impending death disappointingly sobers him up.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

JOHNNY GUITAR

Nicholas Ray, 1954
Starring: Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden, Mercedes McCambridge

A headstrong woman named Vienna runs her own saloon, but is at odds with many of the residents of the desert town nearby, because she supports the building of a railroad. She is friendly with a band of relatively harmless gunfighters and its leader, The Dancin’ Kid, is in love with her. Unfortunately, the gang comes under fire when a local is killed and his sister, Emma, demands justice. She wants Vienna and The Dancin’ Kid killed – or at least run out of town – though jealousy seems to figure into her motivations. Vienna hires an old lover, Johnny Guitar, to protect her, but she can’t prevent the town from descending into chaos.

Joan Crawford stars in this strange blend of Western, film noir, romantic melodrama, and epic tragedy. Truffaut called it “hallucinatory” and it certainly has a unique quality that’s made it both a cult favorite and beloved by other filmmakers. For one thing, the film’s two most important roles are for female characters – Joan Crawford’s Vienna and Mercedes McCambridge’s (The Exorcist) Emma – but not your typical 1950s female characters. The two male leads – Sterling Hayden as Johnny Guitar and Scott Brady as The Dancin’ Kid (those names, come on) – do relatively little other than pine over Vienna and respond to her every whim, while the women own businesses, shoot guns, and effectively run the town. Emma whips herself up in a froth of jealousy, where she is determined to kill The Dancin’ Kid (Vienna says this is because the Kid makes her feel like a woman) and Vienna for providing such stiff competition. Both Emma and Vienna are business owners – cattle and gambling respectively – and they represent the two sides of desert life: cowboys and bandits.

The film’s complicated sexual politics, which culminates in a lethal shootout, suggests a touch of lesbianism in the rivalry between Emma and Vienna, namely in Emma’s violent, unhealthy obsession with Vienna. In real life, Crawford and McCambridge hated each other (due to rivalry) and Crawford allegedly got drunk and threw McCambridge’s clothes and costumes out into the street. Their hatred for each other translated beautifully to the screen and director Nicholas Ray was allegedly delighted that they didn’t get along. And I challenge you to find another film from the period that not only ends in a woman rescuing herself, but in a woman involved in a firefight to the death with another female character.

Despite the film’s low budget and limited sets, Crawford herself serves as a main set piece, as she is costumed in bold colors – namely red, white, and black – and is always artfully posed. In one of my favorite scenes, when her saloon is invaded by angry ranchers, she doesn’t confront them with guns blazing, but rather dolls herself up in a flouncy white dress and plays the piano throughout their confrontation. But I can’t say that this all rests on Crawford. Though she is far superior to McCambridge, Hayden, and Brady, keep your eyes out from some supporting performances from Ward Bond (The Searchers, The Maltese Falcon), Ben Cooper (The Rose Tattoo), John Carradine (Stagecoach), and a young Ernest Borgnine!

Johnny Guitar might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it comes highly recommended. The blacklisted Ben Maddow helped write the script (in secret) and this is a barely veiled look at the evils of mob violence and McCarthyism. It magically wavers between operatic levels of tragedy, violence, and unrequited love, and absolute camp that must be seen to be believed. After years of being unavailable, it’s finally out on Blu-ray. If you love Joan Crawford and Nicholas Ray, as I do, you won’t want to sleep on this one. Also give Peggy Lee’s catchy, mournful title song a listen.

Monday, October 27, 2014

ON DANGEROUS GROUND

Nicholas Ray, 1951
Starring: Ida Lupino, Robert Ryan, Ward Bond

Jim Wilson is a hardened city cop who comes under fire for his violent tactics. His partners are concerned as he becomes increasingly unhinged and his boss assigns him to a case far out in the countryside. He joins a small team in the midst of a manhunt for the killer of a young girl. The girl’s father is determined to murder the man as soon as they find him. In the meantime, they encounter Mary, a blind woman living in an isolated cabin. She eventually reveals to Wilson that she cares for her younger, disturbed brother, Danny, who has gone on the run after killing the girl. She makes Wilson promise that Danny will see no harm and be taken into custody peaceably. Unfortunately the girl’s father is armed and has found Danny’s trail…

Directed by Nicholas Ray, who was once again teamed up with producer John Houseman and writer A. I. Bezzerides (Thieves’ Highway), both of whom worked with Ray on his first film, They Live By Night. Based on Gerald Butler’s novel Mad with Much Heart, On Dangerous Ground is an odd twist on the conventional film noir in the sense that it is essentially two separate stories with Robert Ryan’s Jim Wilson as the bridge between two visually different worlds. The first half of the film is essentially a vague police procedural in a harsh, urban setting (probably New York City) where cop killer roam free and underage girls hang out in bars, flirting and beginning for alcohol. The second half moves to a snowy, mountainous village (probably northern New York state), where the desolate, icy countryside is a symbol for Wilson’s internal torment and isolation.

Wilson is haunted by demons and possessed by violence. How he got this way is presented in a flimsy back story indicating that he takes his job as a police officer too seriously, can find no emotional respite in the city, and has developed some sort of post-traumatic stress disorder. This is actually not a far cry from the real lives of servicemen returned from the war. These sorts of characters appear throughout dozens of film noir movies from 1945 through the ‘50s, several of them played by Ryan himself, such as The Woman on the Beach and Crossfire. Ryan is excellent in everything and this is no exception – if the plot doesn’t sound overly compelling, it is worth seeing simply for his performance.

Top-billed actress and noir-staple Ida Lupino supports Ryan with a solid, if unusual turn as the innocent Mary. She’s a troubled, lonely woman who has sacrificed her health and life to raise and care for her mentally disabled/ill younger brother, Danny (Sumner Williams). Like so many of Ray’s films, On Dangerous Ground focuses on characters who are fundamentally outsiders. Mary and Wilson are lonely and damaged, if in different ways, and trapped within prisons of their own creation. It is death of Danny – essentially a sacrificial act – that restores balance to the community and allows for Mary and Wilson to come together, reborn, and begin life anew. The romantic subplot is subtle and utterly convincing, and does not distract from Wilson’s tortured struggles with himself. The rare happy ending feels somehow natural, like Wilson and Mary have both suffered so much that the film cannot possibly strip anything else from them.

This underrated effort is available on DVD or streaming from Amazon, and comes recommended thanks to assured directing from Ray and two excellent performances from Ryan and Lupino. Also keep your eyes peeled for side roles from Charles Kemper (Scarlet Street), Ed Begley (12 Angry Men), Anthony Ross (Kiss of Death) and Ward Bond (It’s a Wonderful Life, The Searchers) as the grief-mad farmer on a quest for blood and violence. The film’s wonderful score, which does so much for the relatively thin plot, is from Hitchcock’s regular collaborator, Bernard Herrmann.

Friday, October 24, 2014

THEY LIVE BY NIGHT

Nicholas Ray, 1948
Starring: Cathy O’Donnell, Farley Granger, Howard Da Silva

Bowie, a young prisoner, escapes with two older men, Chicamaw and T-Dub. Though Bowie was in prison thanks to a wrongful conviction for murder, the other two are hardened criminals. They plan to rob a bank together, which Bowie agrees to because he wants to hire a lawyer and prove his innocence. After the first robbery, they hole up in a gas station, where Bowie meets Keechie, the owner's daughter and Chicamaw's niece. After an accident, he finds his way back there and he and Keechie fall for each other. They run off together and get married, but Chicamaw hunts them down and insists that Bowie participate in another robbery. He and Keechie go on the run, but Keechie is pregnant and falls ill, which spells their doom.

The first film by director Nicholas Ray is less an outright film noir and more a noir-fueled crime film with a heaping dose of romantic melodrama. The tragic story of Bowie and Keechie – doomed young lovers caught up in a crime spree – is the obvious precursor to more famous and violent later entries like Gun Crazy, Bonnie and Clyde, and Badlands. Famed producer and Orson Welles-collaborator John Houseman helped get Ray the film and his first job as a director. Though Houseman had secured the rights the novel Thieves Like Us by Edward Anderson, it sat on the shelf for a few years. The same fate befell Ray's film, which was temporarily shelved by RKO's then new owner Howard Hughes. But it built up quite a reputation among other directors and actors and its release, two years after the film was complete, was a success.

Co-written by Ray and screenwriter Charles Schnee, this focuses on two dreamy, sensitive characters filled with loneliness and cut off from family, friends, or love. Many of Ray's future films would go on to show sympathy for outsiders, isolated characters who often make poor choices, get swept up in willfully bad decisions, and simply have hard luck. The inherent sense of doom and tragedy is probably why They Live By Night is generally grouped with film noir. There is the feeling that no matter what Bowie's intentions are, or what good he tries to do for Keechie, it will all end in pain and violence.

They Live By Night is somewhat similar to Moonrise (1948), oddly from the same year, as both films have a rural setting – rare within film noir – and a focus on the Depression-era South. Both have a documentary quality that makes it feel like the stories of these young, impoverished adults is playing out in small towns and farming communities across America. Like the characters from Moonrise, Bowie and Keechie were raised in poverty by neglectful or abusive parents, with at least one parent missing. There is also the sense that they cannot escape the life they've inherited for their parents and no matter how much they want to be happy, loved, and successful, it's just not in the cards.

This wouldn't have been conveyed so convincingly or heartbreakingly without Cathy O’Donnell (The Best Years of Our Lives) as Keechie or Farley Granger (Rope) as Bowie. The two young actors bring a fairytale-like quality of innocence and discovery to the roles. Both Bowie and Keechie have been downtrodden by life, but not hardened by it. They lack the fundamental cynicism or hopelessness possessed by all the film's other characters, which gives They Live By Night a magical quality that Bonnie and Clyde and Badlands utterly lack. O'Donnell would go on to further success with a relatively short career in classics like Detective Story and Ben-Hur, while Farley Granger brought his somewhat odd appeal to Hitchcock's Rope and Strangers on a Train. Hitchcock allegedly discovered him by watching a then-unreleased print of They Live By Night. There's also a memorable performance from Howard Da Silva as the one-eyed Chicamaw. Houseman discovered Da Silva when he was cast in the play The Cradle Will Rock (which has a fascinating story all its own), which Houseman produced with Orson Welles. Most of the film's other actors were friends of Houseman and Ray.

They Live By Night may not be my favorite Ray film – that honor goes to In a Lonely Place – but it comes recommended and is an absolutely beautiful film. Thanks to some dazzling performances by O'Connell and Granger, and excellent cinematography from George Diskant, this remains one of the best films of the late '40s. It's available on DVD as part of a double feature with Side Street or in Film Noir Classic Collection, Vol. 4. Film buffs will also want to keep an eye out for some of the early shots, as Ray was the first person to use a helicopter to shoot a scene; previously they had only been used to scout locations.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

IN A LONELY PLACE


Nicholas Ray, 1950
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Grahame, Frank Lovejoy, Carol Benton Reid


"I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me."

During my film noir series over the past few months, I've watched a lot of excellent films. I've loved everything from I Wake Up Screaming (1940) to Ace in the Hole (1951), Leave Her to Heaven (1945), Gilda (1946), The Hitch-Hiker (1953), Laura (1944), Ministry of Fear (1944), and many more. But I think that In a Lonely Place (1950), which I first had the pleasure to watch four or five years ago, will always be my favorite film noir. The combination of director Nicholas Ray, Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Grahame, and one of the bleakest scripts in '40s or '50s cinema is irresistible and utterly nihilistic.

Bogart is fabulous as Dixon Steele (what a name), a foul tempered screenwriter with a violent past. When he is suspected of a recent murder, his new neighbor, Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame), provides him with an alibi she may or may not have fabricated. Laurel is on the run from a past love, but she and Steele immediately fall for one another. For the first time in years, they are both happy. She plays housewife and he can concentrate well enough to get some work done. But soon she gets some evidence that Steele might not be all that he seems. As her doubt and paranoia grows, Steele becomes increasingly angry and attempts to rush her down the aisle as soon as possible, with tragic results.

Though In a Lonely Place is adapted from the 1947 novel by Dorothy B. Hughes, the plot is so divergent that it really only borrows elements from the book. In the novel, Steele is unequivocally a serial murder preying on local women. In the film, he's a figure of doomed romance who suffers from alcoholism and bouts of violent rage. It’s also clear that he’s never quite recovered from his experience serving in the war. The ambiguity of whether or not he is the murderer is the axis around which the film rotates. Thanks to Ray and Bogart, Steele is charismatic and just a little bit pathetic, a figure of sympathy who is also the architect of his own frustration and failure.

Whether or not Steele is able to love is the central question of In a Lonely Place. The romance between Steele and Gray is a constant reminder of the difficult and often unfulfilling nature of real love. In particular, the film brings to mind the haunting concept that we never really know other people, even if it is someone we love enough to seriously commit to. I’m currently reading The Anarchy of the Imagination, a collection of interviews with and essays by Rainer Werner Fassbinder. In it, he writes regularly about the films of Douglas Sirk and Sirk’s ability to convey the inherent tragedy in romance: that people most want what they cannot have, need love but cannot sustain it, and are the most destructive towards those who love them. Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows was directed five years after In a Lonely Place and is melodrama, not film noir, the parallels are obvious and painful.

In a Lonely Place suggests that the fluid, often difficult nature of identity is at the root of this failure. Both Steele and Gray are ambiguous characters with shady pasts. Steele suffers from depression, a violent temper, and alcoholism. His celebrity as a screenwriter frustrates him because he craves solitude, but also because he has failed to produce anything of note since the war. Gray is on the run from a wealthy man who loves and wants to marry her. She presumably began a manipulative relationship with him, one to advance her career as an actress, and fled when the situation became emotionally serious. Both Gray and Steele are plagued by a strain of selfishness that becomes obvious when Ray shows the difference between their public and private faces.

Ray uses more humor than the average film noir, despite the dark tone of the film, and black comedy is often a tool of manipulation. For example, there’s a particularly histrionic scene where Steele speculates with a police officer friend and his wife about the murder. Instead of sympathizing with him, this encourages his friend – and the audience – to believe his guilt. There is a constant threat of paranoia, violence, and underlying sexuality that makes the humor hard to chuckle at. The suggestion of a perverse sexuality is ever-present, through the sexual implications of the serial murder at the beginning of the film, to Steele’s manic rage, Gray’s suggested promiscuity, and her controlling, powerhouse of a masseuse, who is implied to be a lesbian.

The lingering sexual menace lasts until the closing credits. The ending is also rich with ambiguity and nihilism. Originally, Steele was supposed to kill Gray in a heated argument. Afterwards, a police inspector would burst on the scene, declaring his innocence from the initial crime. Instead, Ray, Bogart, and Grahame improvised on an ending where Gray discovers Steele's innocence before he explodes into violence. She tells the detective that what would have been important a few hours before no longer matters. Nothing matters anymore.

Grahame, a noir regular, is lovely and gives one of the best performances of her career (which is saying something considering her work in The Big Heat and Odds Against Tomorrow). She goes toe-to-toe with Bogart, which must have been difficult work considering that her marriage to director Ray was crumbling during production. Allegedly for part of filming he moved out and began sleeping on the set. This was apparently due to the fact that Grahame was having an affair with Ray’s teenage son, a relationship that later resulted in marriage.

Ray was an incredibly gifted, influential director, best known for Rebel Without a Cause and a handful of other films noir, including They Live by Night, The Racket, On Dangerous Ground, Johnny Guitar, and others. His work deserves to seen by modern audiences, though I will always recommend In a Lonely Place before Rebel Without a Cause. The black and white visuals are breathtaking and there is a fascinating score by composer George Antheil, usually known for his avant-garde work. This is also, hands down, Bogart’s finest performance. According to actress Louise Brooks, Bogie’s close friend, a lot of Steele's personality traits allegedly reflect Bogart himself: plagued by fame, hot tempered, a love of drinking, a fading career, and a desperate need for isolation.

In a Lonely Place originally received mixed reviews, but has fortunately developed a cult following and been given status as a classic film by the Library of Congress. The single-disc Sony release is pretty sad and I can only hope Criterion will secure the rights one day and release a Blu-ray with an overwhelming amount of special features. This comes with the highest possible recommendation and is a must-see.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

NIGHT AND THE CITY (1950)

Jules Dassin, 1950
Starring: Richard Widmark, Gene Tierney, Googie Withers, Herbert Lom

An egomaniacal, ambitious American hustler living in London, Harry Fabian, is convinced that he will strike it rich with his latest scheme – Greco-Roman wrestling matches. He has the support of Gregorius, a veteran wrestler, but Gregorius’ son Kristo is determined to go into business with it himself. Fabian presses on and gets financial help from Phil, a nightclub owner, and his discontented wife Helen. She promises that she’ll help Fabian if he secretly goes to business with her – opening her own nightclub. But Fabian betrays her and Phil soon withdrawals and promises to ruin Fabian, because Kristo is an old friend. But Fabian pushes Gregorius and another notorious wrestler known as the Strangler into a fight, after which Gregorius dies. Fabian flees, but an enraged Kristo declares a bounty of £1000 for whoever brings back Fabian’s corpse. He’s forced to go on the run, but it seems that London’s entire underworld is against him.

Though this is technically a British film – shot there after director Jules Dassin was forced to flee the U.S. due to his refusal to testify to H.U.A.C. and his subsequent blacklisting – it is one of the finest films noir ever made. Filmed around Soho, this is one of few noir efforts that depict war-torn England or Europe in place of the typical noir setting – New York or San Francisco – and it’s in such excellent company as The Third Man and Burt Lancaster-vehicle Kiss the Blood off My Hands. With its bombed out building and weighty sense of despair, post-war London is anything but a typical noir set, which enhances the nightmarish quality of the plot. The claustrophobic, chiaroscuro cinematography from Max Greene is one of the film’s finest elements, and Night and City is certainly far more stylized than Dassin’s previous The Naked City or Thieves’ Highway.

Night and the City is understandably nasty, due to Dassin’s recent experiences, and the cast of characters are all crooked, predatory, cold-hearted, or so desperate that it’s impossible to pity them. There is not a likable character in the bunch, with the possible exception of Gene Tierney’s Mary, who is a broken woman, deeply in love with Fabian and unable to cast him aside even though he’s no good for her. Tierney was allegedly cast in the film because producer Darryl Zanuck was afraid for her mental health, something she struggled with for years. Including Mary, Night and the City represents a post-war inferno – or at best a purgatory – populated with the damned, the criminal, and the corrupt.

Richard Widmark (Kiss of Death) is perfectly as Fabian, a completely self-centered scoundrel, but one you can’t help rooting for in comparison to the surrounding characters. With a third act that takes Hitchcock’s “wrong man” trope to the next level, Fabian is chased through the bowels of London by some of the most ruthless members of the underworld. He’s betrayed and abandoned by everyone he knows, except Mary, who he bravely tries to save in the end. The conclusion of Night and the City is foreshadowed by both Dassin’s Brute Force and The Naked City. This is where Dassin perfects the terrifying image of a protagonist – not a villain as in the aforementioned films – thrown from a bridge to his death.

There are some good side performances – keep an eye out for a very young Herbert Lom as Kristo, and Francis L. Sullivan as the Hitchcockian Phil and Googie Withers as Helen, his unfaithful wife. His suicide is one of the film’s most chilling, desolate moments. Dassin also evokes a little of sweaty-soaked, grimy filth of Brute Force with a lengthy, brutal fight scene between Gregorius (real-life wrestler Stanislaus Zbyszko) and the aptly named The Strangler (noir-regular and former boxer Mike Mazurki).

Available on DVD from Criterion, it is difficult to say whether Night and the City is Dassin’s masterpiece, or if that honor should go to Brute Force. Either way, it comes with the highest possible recommendation and is certainly one of the best noir works ever made. It’s a true picture of post-war loathing when Europe was war-torn, America was in the grip of communist paranoia, and the Cold War loomed on the horizon. This allegory for Dassin’s blacklisting and subsequent flight from America is certainly his most hopeless film, which leaves behind a veneer of human filth and corruption. If you’re less interested in noir plotting, Max Greene’s cinematography is spellbinding and Franz Waxman’s doom-laden score is perhaps the best of his staggeringly impressive career, which includes Sunset Boulevard, Rebecca, Bride of Frankenstein, Mr. Roberts, Rear Window, The Philadelphia Story, and more.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

THIEVES' HIGHWAY

Jules Dassin, 1949
Starring: Richard Conte, Valentina Cortese, Lee J. Cobb

Nick, a well-traveled a ship mechanic in the war, returns home to find that his father, a truck driver, has been crippled. Though it seems to be an accident, he comes to believe that a crooked produce dealer from San Francisco, Mike Figlia, is responsible. Nick decides to put things right and gets involved in delivering a truckload of apples on a grueling 36-hour drive north, where Figlia tries to con Mike out of his stock and his money. With the help of a brazen streetwalker, Rica, Nick goes head-to-head with Mike and his gang of ruffians.

Written by A.I. Bezzerides and based on his own novel, Thieves' Market, this was director Jules Dassin’s final film in America after being blacklisted by H.U.A.C. and moving to England and then Europe. Just as his previous film noir, The Naked City, shows life in working-class ‘40s New York City, Thieves' Highway presents a surprisingly accurate view of life on the docks in San Francisco inside the busy produce market. Though Dassin used actual workers from the market as extras, this film involves far less of a look at the city as a whole, focusing more on Richard Conte (The Godfather, Ocean’s Eleven) as Nick – and this is where the film stumbles.

Though Conte is a competent actor, Nick is a frustratingly simple character. He’s proud and tough, but also physically vulnerable and unafraid to access his emotions, though he lacks any shred of individuality. He is also from the typically isolated, doomed noir protagonist, yet everything that could go wrong for Nick does. His father is crippled, he is cheated out of money for a truck that his father was forced to sell, he is nearly crushed to death by the truck, undergoes several days’ worth of sleep deprivation, and he is constantly undermined and sabotaged by Figlia and his gang. When he finally gets his money back, he is robbed and beaten. When his fiancée comes to visit, she is disgusted to learn that his money is gone and she leaves him. And so on. An element that sets this apart from the standard noir – where a luckless protagonist meets misfortune through a combination of chance and his own poor decision making – is that everything that goes wrong does so because Figlia orders it, but neither Nick nor any of his compatriots are allowed to get vengeance upon Figlia himself.

It’s difficult to sympathize with Nick because of this, and because he never really gets vengeance upon anyone who wrongs him. Though Ed (Millard Mitchell), his trucking partner for a time, winds up being something of a tragic figure, for much of the film he seems like he’s waiting for an opportunity to screw over Nick. Nick forces him to give a farmer the money Ed owes, but outside of that, Ed is free to walk all over him. The film’s ending is certainly the most disappointing aspect. Dassin had no hand in it, as he was out of the country by the time the final cut was produced, so the studio intervened. In a final scene where Nick is beating Figlia, he is interrupted by the cops in a ham-fisted deus ex machina that is teeth-grindingly frustrating. It seems that Nick might be able to pull some fitting revenge out of his hat at the last minute, but instead two police officers – the same cops who have been there all along, doing nothing to fight the violence and corruption – reprimand him and say that they will handle Figlia and his gang.

Nick and Rica’s happy ending feels horribly saccharine after the constant, crushing defeat experienced throughout the film, but it is slightly less grating thanks to the presence of Valentina Cortese (Juliet of the Spirits, The Barefoot Contessa; Dassin’s girlfriend at the time). Rica is the film’s most complex character with real warmth, eroticism, and a touch of the exotic lacking in the film’s numerous other immigrants. It is implied that Rica is a prostitute, but she is revealed as being less money-hungry than Nick’s blonde, American girlfriend. Joseph Peyney and Jack Oackie put in some solid performance as the comedic relief, two rival truckers following Ed and Nick on their journey north. This is really Lee J. Cobb’s (12 Angry Men) film as Figlia, the charming and greedy produce dealer who has a hand in everything from theft to murder.

Thieves' Highway is available on DVD from Criterion. It comes recommended, though I don’t think it’s one of Dassin’s best films. It feels overly similar to the earlier Humphrey Bogart-vehicle, They Drive By Night, another film about truckers trying to escape a corrupt industry and back-breaking, often fatal work. It turns out that that film was also based on a novel by A.I. Bezzerides, Long Haul. Thieves' Highway has many elements in common, far too many to really hold my interest. In both, the road is symbolic of blue collar life and brotherly camaraderie, but also reflects those dangers and the potential for violence, corruption, and death. If you’re going to watch a bleak, noir-themed film about truck drivers, Thieves' Highway would be my third choice after Wages of Fear and then They Drive By Night, though it is still a solid work of late ‘40s filmmaking.