The recent earthly departure of Jules Dassin at the ripe age of ninety-six made many think about the filmmaker's "position" in the history of cinema. According to Rob Edelman in his International History of Film and Filmmakers (1991), Dassin's career trajectory is a resoundingly tragic one. "...[W]hile [Dassin] made some very impressive films, his career as a whole is lacking in artistic cohesion... The villain in his career is the blacklist, which tragically clipped his wings just as he was starting to fly."
Dassin's story is indeed a sad one. However, he was one of the few American directors, along with Joseph Losey, Cy Endfield and John Barry, to make a significant number of films in Europe after his blacklisting back in the United States. It was in Europe where Dassin made what many argue is his greatest accomplishment, Du Rififi chez les Hommes (1955), better known as simply Rififi. Unlike most directors, who tend to become nastier and darker when they get older, Dassin actually softened as he aged. He made the sweet but frequently misjudged Never on Sunday (1960) and the charmingly lightweight Topkapi (1964) about jewel thieves, a kind of tasty if not wholly well-blended milkshake from a man who used to serve only hard drinks. Aside from those two films, however, his post-Rififi period is considered rather unimportant.
If the two films considered masterful by Dassin--Night and the City (1950) and Rififi (1955)--are indeed respective titans of film noir, then those two films have a couple of siblings, namely Brute Force (1947), a harsh, mostly unsentimental look at life behind bars starring Burt Lancaster and Hume Cronyn that is a little didactic in its scathing attack on the sadistic and fascistic "authorities" of society, the prison serving as a microcosm of such, and Thieves' Highway (1949), another brutal crime picture that also essays the injustices of postwar American capitalism. One need only glance at Dassin's films to understand their political leanings. The Naked City (1948) is probably more famous than Brute Force and Thieves' Highway but it's Dassin's most dated film of the era, despite its clear influence on countless docudrama police procedurals. (Often the films that inspire the most mimicry become the most dated.)
Night and the City is an exhibition of the excrescence of avarice in the hearts of men who run roughshod, and in that way it's kind of a sequel to Thieves' Highway, despite the fact that Highway takes place in California and Night and the City's home is London. The setting doesn't matter for a number of reasons. For one thing, the sleazy scam artist Richard Widmark plays in Night and the City is an American, endowed with that kind of archetypal sui generis American economic hunger. It's difficult to draw the conclusion that Dassin was particularly hateful of American greed, just greed per se and since he was an American who made American films, knowing other Americans, and, after trying to find his voice, began to specialize in noir with Brute Force, the vast subject of greed is bound to present itself in his films. (It should be noted that a couple of his films pre-Brute Force were modestly meritorious, if quite flawed, like Reunion in France , starring Joan Crawford and John Wayne fighting Nazis and The Canterville Ghost , a decent Charles Laughton comedy.) Noir's nimbus is a dark and wickedly foreboding one, and its characters are routinely motivated by one kind of covetousness or another, and the genre provided a natural entry point for left-leaning screenwriters and directors to artistically reconnoiter the mostly forgotten bowels of society.
What ought to be written about Dassin, though, is that beyond the politics of his films, he was a gifted humanist with an honest empathy for all of his characters. Night and the City and Rififi excel because of this wonderful attribute, and so does Thieves' Highway.
Thieves' Highway begins like many postwar noirs. A young man named Nick Garcos, played with a certain unadorned naturalism by Richard Conte, returns to home after serving his time in the military. The first five minutes of the film are as cheery as can be, as he is reunited with his mother, father and the woman he loves. Then things take a dark turn immediately as Garcos innocently learns about his father losing his legs while he was away. The father, Yanko Garcos, is played by Morris Carnovsky, who himself was later blacklisted as well. The woman Garcos loves is Polly Faber, played by Barbara Lawrence. Yanko tells his son that the man in San Francisco who was supposed to pay him for shipping produce by truck has yet to pay what they agreed on. The man is Mike Figlia, a ruthless "produce scofflaw" as the promotional writing for the film states, and he's played to morally challenged perfection by the deliciously scene-stealing Lee J. Cobb.
Garcos decides to join up with the man who partly owns the Garcos family truck, Ed Prentiss (Millard Mitchell, who's quite strong in his grizzled role), and deliver the first season's shipment of apples from southern California to San Francisco. Garcos and Prentiss drive up to the city by the bay in separate trucks with fine apples.
Complications arise both on the road to San Francisco and in the urban, dog-eat-dog world of San Francisco's produce market, where an endless series of trucks arrive and customers and sellers twist one another's arms to achieve the optimal bargain for themselves. After nearly being killed after trying to replace a flat tire on the roadside, Garcos finally does wearily make it to San Francisco, exhausted from the long, arduous drive. There he quickly meets Rica, played by the earthy Italian beauty, Valentina Cortese, whose English isn't by any means perfect, but between the way she says things and the way she behaves, she nevertheless communicates fluently. She's a lowly prostitute working on behalf of the scamming Figlia to lure Garcos away from his truck, up to her apartment, so Figlia can rip Garcos off and sell the newly arrived delicious apples to customers who have been begging Figlia for apples so long Figlia's ears are ringing with the word "apples."
The mechanics of the plot continue onward, and there is a mightily impressive sequence in which Prentiss loses control of his truck just as Garcos seems to be losing control of his situation in San Francisco. Cobb's portrayal of Figlia--a calculating, businesslike but positively unforgiving gangster (when he hands Garcos the money the avenging son demands after nearly being cut out of the loop, any viewer who expects Garcos to not be later attacked and robbed must be watching their first "adult" film) is what keeps the film's gears moving with an electric power.
The political aspect of the film is unsurprising. The previous year's Key Largo, directed by John Huston and written by Richard Brooks, argued on behalf of the righteousness of the New Deal in juxtaposition to the recrudescent gangsterism of the immediate postwar years. Likewise seemingly countless noirs of this time period were sometimes stealthily, sometimes vociferously, contending that runaway and unfettered capitalism was, while providing for many superficial benefits for some, helping to eat away at the American character, as represented by its society. This was a period of time in which Hollywood, that ever so two-faced of cultural creatures, made films of the "Negro cycle" and "Jewish cycle," and films that specifically targeted more and more social issues than at any time after the Hayes Code was instituted in the 1930s. Ironically, Hollywood's greatest incentive wasn't social obligation; no noblesse oblige here! No, in the late '40s studio bosses could see that they needed to branch out to other areas of American society, "untapped markets," such as blacks and ethnic immigrants.
There had always been filmmakers intent on bringing about new and fresh stories based around important messages, but after the silent and pre-code era ended, the reign of Oscar Micheaux, the first black man to produce feature-length films, beginning 1919 with The Homesteader, almost always dealing with racial antagonisms and complexities, and Frank Capra, who, before he became known as the prince of Hollywood optimism, actually made at least a couple of rough, unglamorous gangster movies such as The Way of the Strong (1928) displaying the vexing position of the criminal in society, ended. After the Hayes Code was imposed, Hollywood went increasingly escapist with some notable exceptions (like, say, John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath) until it enlisted in World War II. After the war, it returned to the sticky and thorny world of commenting on the sociological quandaries and troubles filmmakers saw behind the glossy patina of the great exuberance birthed by the victorious year of 1945.
Hollywood's patience for and interest in politics can be incredibly tepid and fickle, however. Money is, it would appear, more gratifying. Dassin complains in a much later interview on the Thieves' Highway DVD that the film's producer, Darryl F. Zanuck, took over the production of the film behind Dassin's back and shot the film's entire ending, by which I mean the entire last ten to fifteen minutes or so. Almost needless to say, Zanuck's vision compromised Dassin's to the point of breaking it, turning this piece of art into something wholly different from what Dassin surely wished to engender. Rather than following through with the film's promise, which is that guys like Garcos and his crippled father are being eaten alive by sharks like Figlia, Zanuck resorts to trickery. Zanuck wanted Garcos to fall for the lustful Rica and the only way he reasoned this could be done was to have Polly, the object of Garcos' naive affections, betray him when he's already at his lowest. Rica then gets to deliver a speech on how Polly is like virtually all women; at least Rica is not hampered by hypocrisy. This plot wrinkle feels both abrupt and unnatural, as well as very convenient. (And indeed it is, which is why it was thought up.) Zanuck then makes the film deliver a message that seems to openly contradict everything that came before, and it's not that he gives the film a happy ending--it's that, at a critical moment, he has a law enforcement officer tell Garcos, after a violent fight with Figlia late in the film, that there's no need to fight, and thugs like Figlia have to be reserved for the cops to take care of. Obviously, placing a line of dialogue in a film does not by itself negate any point of a film, but the way Zanuck choreographs the scene and allows it to seem entirely earnest, without the slightest hint of buried cynicism beneath the cop's statement, makes the film seem to put on different, less suitable clothing in its concluding stretch.
Dassin, now deceased, almost personifies the Hollywood of the postwar years, and though the blacklisting forever cut his career down to a size that can never be considered reasonable for an artist with his enormous potential, the films he made still stand from the era in which they were made, asking everyone to take a look. They certainly deserve that as well as the willingness to try to understand, to see beyond whatever possible flaws they may have. Thieves' Highway is not Night and the City or Rififi but it's from the same cloth, forged by similar concerns and, despite Zanuck's marring, touched by Dassin's singularly encompassing transcendence.