Perhaps it is simply a lesser-known sub-genre of film noir, but the American immigrant setting of Jules Dassin’ Thieves’ Highway seemed quite unusual for a film of this type. One wonders if the film knew exactly what it was doing; popular racial stereotypes at the time, prevalent within film, often conflated the difference between an ethnicity and its newborn version once it settled into the Americas. That is to say, there is a difference between “Italian” and “Italian-American”; as if they really eat spaghetti and meatballs on red-and-white checkered tablecloths in Italy, and the like. This author is confident that the San Francisco Bay Area Italian-American attitude captured in Thieves’ Highway accurately corresponds to that which still exists today, or at least to what remains of old-school Italian-Americans. Of course, the protagonists in Thieves’ Highway were Greek-Americans, and that may be another story. But how fitting that the antagonists be Iberian. (No offense is meant here, as this author counts himself fortunate to be among the few, the happy few, reared in a largely Italian-American world and still embracing certain aspects of it.)
Of course, Jules Dassin’s eventual blacklisting would imply that he did know what he was doing with regard to the immigrant plight in the US and the failures of capitalism. Along with colonialism, capitalism is likened to the fateful fruit truck in the film: careening down a hill, gaining speed, holding precious cargo, brakes failing, and bound for destruction. The ride is exhilarating until one realizes the inevitable tragedy at the end. Of course, this is a simplistic analogy. For even if capitalism is bound to fail (and that is still a very live debate, despite our present times), it’s not bound to fail like the truck in Thieves’ Highway. Ups, downs, plateaus, and generally operative brakes have so far kept things in check alright. All this being the case, traveling and movement are obviously themes in the film. Aside from the title, the film begins with its main character, Nick, arriving back home via taxi from a global expedition. In an interesting twist, this son of Greek immigrants has conquered the world through tourism (that great American sport), bringing back artifacts from all the corners of the world for his family. After presenting them all with their gifts, Nick’s piece de resistance is showering his new fiancée in cash. Herein the film sets the stage for Nick’s severe lack of cash at a later point. That the conflict centers around apples is nearly comical, as the film utilizes tropes from crime noir that usually have to do with much more scandalous things. Still, the apples ground the narrative in real life and reflect pressing social concerns in the postwar US.
As for the highway, precious little of the film actually takes place at the titular location, other than a couple of breakdown scenes and the aforementioned truck accident. A variety of spaces are presented, however. The film begins in a suburban domestic household, then shifts to a corresponding work location: a delivery truck yard. We then shift to the rural, into an apple grove where business haggling mirrors the clash of rural migrants (broken English) with suburban second-generation immigrants (relatively articulate English). Then we have the highway in all its darkness and Nick’s fight to stay awake. This dreamy sequence illustrates a disconnect between suburban, organic southern California with the urban artificiality of San Francisco. (Having made this drive numerous times, it can be said that the haze of reality depicted here is quite accurate, especially at night.) Once Nick arrives, there is the urban marketplace, the apartment, and the notorious waterfront where, naturally, he is mugged. Finally, there is the famous scene re-shot by the film’s producer, who insisted that some “law and order” be promulgated in an otherwise anarchic depiction of capitalism. The scene is a diner with a long bar, effectively allowing some deep-focus shots and concluding the film with the highway (i.e., perpetually stretching) motif, even as the producer’s rather happy ending somewhat clashes with the genre and the dark narrative.