A.I. Bezzerides wrote the novel (The Long Haul) that is substantially the basis for Raoul Walsh’s They Drive by Night (1940), a strong film that situates the work of truckers in a critical social and political context.* Bezzerides himself adapted another one of his novels about truckers, Thieves’ Market, to the screen. Unfortunately Jules Dassin, not Walsh, directed it. Departing from the semi-documentary procedural of his marvelous The Naked City (1948) from the year before, Dassin pulls back from the intense, almost surreal atmosphere that would distinguish his equally marvelous full-blown noir that arrived the year after: Night and the City (1950). By contrast, Thieves’ Highway—the switch in titles tips the emphasis on sensationalism rather than analysis—displays a mishmash of styles and genres. The narrative is driven by a son’s revenge for his trucker father, who lost his legs in a road “accident” arranged by a mobster produce buyer reeling in his bottom line, and yet it unaccountably loses this drive, with the younger Garcos for an odd spell seemingly forgetting all about it, and without the sort of psychological and existential explanations that Shakespeare provides in Hamlet. Moreover, a femme fatale, an Italian immigrant forced by economic circumstances into prostitution and currently being pimped by the mobster, sheds her place in a noir to become instead, unconvincingly, a redemptive angel, largely for no other reason than the fact that the puritanical director fell in love with the actress who is playing her: Valentina Cortese, whose acting contributes to the film one of two real sparks, albeit in an unbelievable role.
Dassin breezes past Garcos’s being a G.I. who has been part of the occupying U.S. force in Japan. Finally, the imbecilic producer, Darryl F. Zanuck, added his own nonsense at the end, which includes Garcos’s being admonished by the police not to take the law into his own hands after he beats the now cowering mobster to a bloody pulp. “That’s our job,” the cop explains. Well, then where was the law earlier in the film?
Something else than Cortese commends the film, however: a silent-film passage, an expressionistic collage of superimpositions depicting a trucker’s attempt to battle fatigue and stay awake on the road in his rush to get a load of apples to market.
* Please see my essay on Walsh’s They Drive by Night, which you will find under “Hollywood Film Reviews.”