The Criterion Collection releases a select number of films every year on DVD; new and old films ("The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou", "Wages of Fear"), American and Foreign Films ("Riffiffi", "The Third Man", "The Seven Samurai", "Fanny and Alexander"), Documentaries ("Grey Gardens", "The Complete Monterey Pop Festival") and so much more. That one company would release such a wide, influential and interesting series of films is enough to raise that company above the rest; many of the films released by Criterion are unavailable elsewhere, and don't even make it to the repertory circuit. However, Criterion rises above even this. Each of their DVDs are created from the best negatives available, or they restore the negative. But that still isn't enough. They frequently include interviews with the director (if the director is dead, they include interviews made before they died for other reasons and outlets), documentaries, trailers, television shows about the films, radio plays of the films, and more. DVDs from the Criterion Collection are a film lovers dream.
You won't like every film released by Criterion; some of the films are just plain weird, even for me, and I think "The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover" is one of the best films ever made. Memo to Criterion: Consider the film suggested. But the collection of films, as a whole, is invaluable. They are more expensive than other DVDs, but consider the work that went into them and they are worth it.
One of their newest releases is "Thieves' Highway" directed by Jules Dassin ("Brute Force", Burt Lancaster's second film), one of the many people affected by the Hollywood Blacklist of the 50s.
Nick Gracos (Richard Conte) returns home to Fresno, from a long journey at sea. An engineer on a ship, he traveled around the world. Returning home with an armful of exotic gifts and enough money to start his own business and marry his girlfriend, he finds that his father, Yanko (Morris Carnovsky) had an accident in his truck, rendering him unable to work. The circumstances surrounding the accident are fishy, but lead to Mike Figlia (Lee J. Cobb, fresh off his Broadway success, "Death of A Salesman"), a San Francisco produce merchant. Determined to extract revenge, Nick buys a truck load of Golden Delicious apples, the first of the season, and starts driving north to meet Figlia.
I know, I know. A truckload of apples? How exciting. But this is a film noir made in 1949. That is important for two reasons. First of all, in the late 40s, a large portion of our commerce was still delivered by truck, by men who drove for two days straight to be the first to make the delivery. Being first meant that you were paid more. It doesn't sound extremely thrilling, but as depicted in the film, you get a real sense of the cut throat aspect of this life, the hardness of it. The other important factor to remember is that this is Film Noir. The characters are going to be dark, dark, dark. Even Nick, who is the hero, will have occasional moments of weakness and trouble. Because it is Noir, the villain will be crooked as heck. Figlia is unabashedly crooked and always working an angle. All other characters will have shades of gray making them interesting.
"Thieves' Highway" is not the best Film Noir I have ever seen, but it is a little seen film that should have a larger audience. My main problem with the film is that the acting is very, shall we say, stylized. During this period, many Italian and French actors and actresses began appearing in American films, to make them more international, more exotic. Unfortunately, they frequently played prostitutes and Valentina Cortese is no exception. She plays Rica, a woman who lives in a hotel on the San Francisco Wharf, near the produce markets. She wanders around looking for marks. When she spots Nick, she invites him to her room, to rest, and to watch his truck. How seductive. She is never truly believable. Why would she be in a hotel in this area? The story would also have us believe that she and Nick develop a relationship. Again, didn't believe it.
The best performance is from Richard Conte. He is very convincing and subdued as Nick Gracos. Upon his return home, his exuberance shows. But unlike the two actors, playing his parents, he doesn't have a fake, thick accent or throw his hands up repeatedly. Nick is someone we might actually meet on the street, walking by, head down. That is the best thing about Film Noir. The main characters, in the best examples of the genre, are people we might meet in our everyday life. They are normal people trapped in a hellish nightmare. As Nick learns about his father's dilemma and decides what he has to do, he formulates these plans quietly, and convincingly. Other characters are burying their heads into shoulders to hide their tears and facial expressions, as though someone flicked a switch and said "Emote!" Conte moves quietly, forcefully through the story.
The majority of the film takes place at night, during the drive from Fresno to San Francisco and after the arrival at the docks, before the sun rises, when all of the buyers are swarming through the merchants, looking for produce. The streets of the dock are dark and forbidding and the perfect setting for a bunch of crooks trying to pull one over on small truck drivers.
Everything is depicted in a very gritty, realistic way. When Nick and his partner Ed (Millard Mitchell), show up at the farmer's grove, to load up the apples, Ed tries to cheat the farmers, without Nick's knowledge. The farmer begins pulling the boxes off of the truck, throwing them to the ground. Soon, Nick arrives and puts a stop to it, telling Ed to pay the right price. The farmers are very convincing. As Nick is driving north, throughout the night, Dassin creates a real sense of what it was like driving these trucks, on small highways, throughout the night. As the action centers on the Produce Market, it appears as though the film was shot on location. Everything appears very authentic, very real, adding to the feel of the film as a whole.
One of the great things about the film is how we hate Mike Figlia long before we ever set eyes on him. After listening to Yanko's story, it is clear to everyone that Figlia is crooked, even if Yanko doesn't want to believe it. Then, when Nick decides to put his life on hold, to get his father's money back, we feel even more hatred towards him. Nick is a nice guy, back from a hard journey, who just wants to settle down with his girl, Polly (Barbara Lawrence). Instead, he has to find a truck, find something to buy, drive it up to San Francisco, sell it for a profit, hopefully get some sort of confession or the money out of Figlia and return home. By the time we meet Figlia (Cobb), we already hate him, but we want him to be different. When he isn't, we are introduced to one of the more interesting Noir villains. He is almost determined to con every truck driver who tries to sell him something. When Nick first arrives at the dock, he asks people how to find him. Everyone warns him against doing business with Figlia, but he is determined. There is good reason to stay away from the crooked produce salesman. He tells the truck drivers one thing and then immediately tells others something else. Nick parks his truck in front of Figlia's stand and soon learns that he has a suspicious flat tire. Figlia tells him he can leave it there. As soon as Nick walks away, he reports the truck to the police. This is a minor example of the machinations, but a good one.
This is the last film Dassin would work on in Hollywood, before moving to Europe, to escape the Blacklist. "Thieves" is definitely worth watching, but it lacks some crucial elements to make it a truly memorable film. For all of the realism of the action and the surroundings, I find it difficult to believe the acting of some of the actors, especially Cortese. More subtle, believable acting from all of the actors would have helped make "Thieves' Highway" a great film, instead of just an interesting film.