Thieves' Highway (1949):

Ex-doughboy Richard Conte, newly a "man of the world," comes home to Fresno to dispense presents to friends and family; his own gift is the death of innocence, gazing at papa Morris Carnovsky's missing legs. It's a cutthroat business out there on the road, revenge is the fuel in Conte's truck as he teams with grizzled hauler Millard Mitchell for a San Francisco ride, carrying golden apples and vengeance for Lee J. Cobb, the slippery racketeer. The journey is a speedometer-flashing light montage a la Warners, where A.I. Bezzerides' plot first materialized in Raoul Walsh's hands; Jules Dassin's version is a far less boisterous drive by night, the director's previous softness dried up by the tightly roped milieu. A tire blows out along the way, and Conte reaches for the jack only to end face down in the sand with the weight of the truck resting on his neck, until Mitchell comes to the rescue -- flawless framing and no music, just the whoosh of gypsy vehicles on a darkened roadside as the men massage the wound. The big city brings moral shadows, the system as an open market where free enterprise is often conducted with an axe; the most provocative free agent is Italian hooker Valentina Cortese, "chipped glass" to a sleepy Conte in the hotel room yet proud of it, the immigrant clawing for her share in a hustling America. Per Bezzerides' visceral prole sympathies, the nation is defined in terms of angling transactions ("You're not a good businessman" is the ultimate diss), and, fittingly, Dassin references Russian cinema -- the brakeless descent that sends Mitchell's vehicle spilling off the road is Eisensteinian montage, capped by a hill covered with rolling apples and a flaming auto carcass in the foreground, a Dovzhenko punchline. Razzing truckers Jack Oakie and Joseph Pevney must choose between honor and capitalism, while Conte must choose between doleful Cortese and money-grubbing blondie Barbara Lawrence. Studio-imposed happiness comes with the morning, though Dassin isn't leaving to Europe before finding the bleak heart of American nomads learning the harshness of the highway. With Tamara Shayne, Dave Clarke, and Hope Emerson. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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