The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Friday, August 31, 2012

Thieves' Highway

I hate it when that happens. You know what I mean. A movie comes highly recommended in one way or another -- a friend, a movie review, an IMDB rating, a Netflix recommendation -- and you assume you're really going to enjoy it a lot...only to, well, come away somewhat empty. That was my biggest reaction from 1949's Thieves' Highway, a highly recommended if not hugely well-known film noir.

A war veteran returning home to his family and girlfriend, Polly (Barbara Lawrence) in Fresno, Nico Garcos (Richard Conte) is stunned by what he finds. His father has been crippled in a driving accident, but it's more than that. The circumstances were shady at best as conniving businessman Mike Figlia (Lee J. Cobb) also robbed him of $1,900 that he owed him in the process. Nico is enraged, wanting to exact revenge, and he concocts a plan with a down-on-his-luck truck driver, Kinney (Millard Mitchell), to buy and ship a truck-full of apples that Figlia would be interested in purchasing. Nico has his plan, but even he can't be too sure of what is in store for all involved.

From director Jules Dassin, 'Thieves' has a lot going for it. As a film noir, it is highly effective in its amoral portrayal of that seedy underbelly of the criminal black market. Conte is the anti-hero, revenge on his mind and little else. Cobb is the conniving, slimy Figlia, a villain without anything even remotely close to being a redeeming quality. The look of the movie -- much of it shot on location in Fresno and its markets -- is perfect; that blend of shadowy, smoky doom that film noirs specialized in. You just know nothing good is going to come out of that shadowy alleyway, don't you? It is a particularly nasty world, one of manipulation, greed, bribery, and a me-first and screw the rest sort of attitude.

So as a fan of incredibly dark stories, why then didn't I like this one? I can't quite put my finger on it. Maybe I've seen the darkness of such stories and it doesn't hit me as much as it might have audiences in 1949. Mostly though, I never felt a connection to any of the proceedings, whether it be the characters or the developing story. There was a little part of me that was incredibly amused by the portrayal of the seedy underworld of.....produce???? Yeah, I suppose the apple business is pretty cutthroat. I don't mean to minimize the movie like that, but it never felt quite as sinister as it could have. Yes, everyone is in it for themselves, and Conte's Nico wants to right a wrong and exact revenge on the man who crippled his father, but it's never truly an interesting story, for me at least.

The reviews I've read are almost uniformly positive about the casting, and I agree to a point. Many though tout Conte as delivering a career-best performance. I'm not seeing it. I'm a fan -- if not a huge one -- but I always think of Conte at his best in a key supporting role. When he has to carry a movie on his own, I've never thought too highly of those movies. Mostly, he doesn't look too interested in the revenge angle. His easy-going delivery is broken up by these quick outbursts of rage/anger, but they never felt even close to being realistic. On the other hand, Lee J. Cobb is at his best, a villain you love to hate. He has eyes for making as much of a profit as he can with no regard for anything else. If lives are destroyed in the process, so be it. He doesn't care as long as he's making some money.

The rest of the cast are familiar members from the Film Noir Stock Characters list. Valentina Cortese plays Rica, the subtly played hooker with a heart of gold. She takes some money from Cobb's Figlia to keep Nico busy, but quickly realizes the error of her ways (good timing, huh?). I didn't really see much in the way of chemistry between Cobb and Cortese either. Mitchell is solid if unspectacular as the equally ambitious truck driver, Kinney, while Joseph Pevney and Jack Oakie are underused as Pete and Slob, two rival truck drivers trying to move in on Nico's plan. Their bumbling partner act is played for laughs early, but thankfully, the duo takes a turn for the serious as things escalate.

Who knows? Maybe I'm missing something here. I've been guilty of that before. As a fan of dark, realistic stories, I thought this one sounded like a sure thing. The dog eat dog world portrayed in 'Thieves' is interesting on a small level, but it never amounted to much for me. Making it worse, the happy ending comes completely out of left field. At least stick to your guns. If you're going for dark, stay dark.

Thieves' Highway <---trailer (1949): **/****

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