While Thieves’ Highway‘s superficially upbeat ending (reshot, against the filmmakers’ wishes, by Fox chief Darryl Zanuck) might prevent it from being categorized as a genuine noir, Jules Dassin’s 1949 melodrama about long-haul truckers—the director’s final (and finest) film made in America before the House Un-American Committee exiled him to Europe—is nonetheless a bleak portrait of post-WWII despair, corrupt capitalism, and idealistic disillusionment. Nick (a sturdy Richard Conte) returns home from a stint overseas as a military mechanic with exotic Asian gifts for his mother, father, and fiancé, yet from the get-go, Dassin (working from They Drive By Night and Kiss Me Deadly scribe A.I. Bezzerides’s script, based on his novel Thieves Market) layers this happy reunion with portentous signs of the nasty reality lurking beneath this cheery suburban facade.
In his family’s sunny kitchen, Nick finds his bride-to-be Polly (Barbara Lawrence) disappointed with his china doll gift (until she spies the even-more expensive ring hanging from its arm) and his father legless due to an accident caused by underhanded San Francisco produce market kingpin Mike Figlia (a devious Lee J. Cobb, exuding small-time shadiness). Bent on exacting revenge, Nick teams up with Ed (Millard Mitchell), a trucker currently tending to his dad’s rig, and the duo hatch a two-killings-for-the-price-of-one plan to travel to Frisco, where they can simultaneously deliver a truckload of sweet, highly coveted apples and dish out some bitter payback to the rotten Figlia.
With the exception of the opening scene and Ed’s fatal hairpin turn on a winding highway, Dassin swathes Thieves’ Highway‘s long-haul boys in claustrophobic compositions and menacing darkness, amplifying the sense of danger that hangs over Nick’s head (whether it be the truck that collapses on his neck during an impromptu roadside pit stop or the axe hanging from the belt of Figlia’s goon) and the air of doom that follows these desperate nomads as they hurtle through the night in their rickety rigs. Breakneck close-ups of speedometers and spinning tires create a propulsive sense of inevitability, while Italian prostitute (and Figlia crony) Rica’s (Valentina Cortese) comment that Nick’s bloody neck wound looks “beautiful” speaks to hers (and, later, Nick’s) reconciliation with life’s pain and disappointment. When Nick tells Rica—whose conniving smile initially says she wants to screw Nick in more than one way, but ultimately radiates authentic affection—that she looks like “chipped glass,” she responds without a hint of surprise, “Do I? It took me a long time to get that way.”
For Nick, however, it only takes the film’s brutal 94 minutes to devolve from an enthusiastically optimistic ex-soldier—the misery of war already a fading memory—to a battle-scarred itinerant hardened by life’s callous depravity. Although Dassin’s film is less an anti-capitalist screed than a cynical portrait of revenge, betrayal, and dubious dealings, money is nonetheless an insidious force throughout Nick’s ordeal, from Figlia’s backhanded market manipulations to Polly’s money-grubbing. Like pride and honor, love is also a commodity with a steep price in Thieves’ Highway, and when Nick drives off into the sunset with Rica, his supposed triumph is colored by the fact that he’s been forever corrupted by his vengeance, his newfound lust for wheeling and dealing, and the realization that the world—rather than full of pretty gifts and prettier girls—is a cheerless, degrading labyrinth of treacherous highways.