Saturday, September 17, 2011

Thieves' Highway. A-

Jules Dassin's final American movie, Thieves' Highway, is everything that Raoul Walsh's They Drive by Night should have been. While Walsh's misguided disaster took the social drama and the film noir genres and let each occupy half of the film, Dassin melds them together, creating a movie both riveting and believable. There aren't any major names in the cast, which works in the film's favor because of how real it tries to be. Richard Conte is the American who returns from the war to find his truck-driving father disabled as a result of a produce dealer's iniquitous foul play. Conte then takes up his father's old profession with money and revenge on his mind. The movie unfolds like a first-rate thriller. The dishonest dealer, played by a great Lee J. Cobb, is sort of like the mobster, and Conte is the rugged anti-hero boiling with repressed anger. Like They Drive by Night, the movie also captures lower class American truck drivers who will do anything to get a load. Dassin could compose a good shot like few could, which leads to the film's most devastating scene. A good man has just crashed his truck down a hill and died in the ensuing explosion. Dassin shoots from a distance as we see the burning truck and hundreds of apples rolling down the hill. It's a haunting image, symbolic of the film's theme of the downward spiral caused by man's fury. The tension is enormous in this film, building up constantly and climaxing in a scene at a restaurant booth that calls to mind a similar set-up from Mystic River. The movie seems destined for a tragic close (in deep contrast from the highly enthusiastic, idyllic opening scene), but either at Dassin's or the studio's wish, it never reaches it. And this, unfortunately, is the film's big flaw. It's not that I wanted a dark and pessemsitic finish, but just a believable one. Still, after the letdown of They Drive by Night, I was pretty thrilled at how much Theives' Highway gets right.

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