Jules Dassin’s Thieve’s Highway (1949) focuses on the produce market of San Francisco like a little slice out of Zola’s Belly of Paris. Lee J. Cobb plays a thoroughly hateful crook, Mike Figlia, who likes to take greenhorn truckers, and anybody else, for all they’re worth, and he has no compunctions about applying some physical force to make a deal go his way. Richard Conte, of unshowable ecstasy renown from The Big Combo is a war vet, Nick Garcos, out to make a killing and revenge his father, crippled by Figlia, at the same time. Although it has a happy ending, it is quite noir-ish in the way that you sense things are only going to get worse and worse for Nick practically from the start. There are a few surprises when ethically marginal characters choose to turn towards the good, but plenty of them just keep on a bee-line straight to corruption and thievery.
After Nick clinches his deal, he calls his girl back home to tell her to come to San Francisco. They’re going to be married! The proposal is made over the phone, with appropriate choruses commenting on the action at both ends of the line. She’s a bit of a middle-class gold digger, that is, he’s nice, but only nice enough if he’s got the bucks.
Polly comes to Frisco, only to find Nick in a floozy’s room, and all beaten up. Here he licks her handkerchief so she can dab his wounds. She’s so snobby and aloof, getting his tongue on her hanky is probably as close as Nick has gotten to Polly’s attractive charms. It’s a weird shot, and it hints at a lot of unsaid things about their relationship.
Nick lost all his money to thugs hired by Figlia, but he’ll get it back. Eventually, he corners Mike in a bar and uses some direct negotiation to recoup his stolen funds. Mike is big, and he’s always got a crooked angle to distract the marks, but when it comes to direct confrontation, he’s a pushover. As Nick moves in on him, he pulls wads of bills out of his pockets – money always seems soiled, crushed, and scattered in this film; never neatly folded – and puts them on the bar to get Nick to stop. “Why don’t you take your money?” he screams, but Nick is taking a break from the cash economy, and is more interested in ethical retribution, a higher, or lower?, ambition.
The cops arrive and stop Nick from pulverizing Figlia. They are there to take him away for what he did to Nick’s father, but it’s not clear why they suddenly have evidence to put him away. Anyway, the forces of order are back in charge, and they admonish Nick: Figlia’s a crook, but that doesn’t mean people like you can just go beating him up. Leave Figlia to us! I guess society is basically okay if Figlia is going to get his just desserts.
Nick has grown up a bit, learned the facts of life. The tart who was taking care of him – partly because Figlia paid her to get him out of the way while he stole his produce – helped save him by notifying the police. Another public courtship ensues, but with a happy ending. Not only has society reasserted its control of economic life, but Nick has rejected bourgeois striving conventionality as the rule for his personal life. He goes off with the shady lady, Rica, the tart with the heart of gold. A strange duality of messages.