|Richard Conte, Lee J. Cobb|
Last week, I posted a piece about A. I. Bezzerides’ hard-boiled 1949 novel of independent truckers, Thieves’ Market.
The same year the book was published, 20th Century Fox released a film version of the story re-titled, “Thieves’ Highway.”
Bezzerides, in an interview, said the studio did not want to offend the city of San Francisco by using the original title.
The producers made other changes as well, the biggest of which was making Nick Garcos a hero rather than the nasty anti-hero of Bezzerides’ book.
In the film, he no longer steals from his mother to set himself up in the trucking business, but becomes an independent hauler partly as an act of vengeance to right a wrong done against his father.
With the revisions to the character, the studio cast one of its up and coming players, Richard Conte, in the role. Conte was a good – if underrated – actor. He later slipped into supporting roles, perhaps because his stoic demeanor fell out of style with the influx of emotionally charged Method actors arriving in Hollywood.
Lee J. Cobb, a gruff stage actor (he played Willy Loman in the original Broadway production of “Death of a Salesman”), was cast as the crooked produce buyer who attempts to hijack Nick’s load. Cobb was great in this kind of part. He also played the union boss in “On the Waterfront.”
Millard Mitchell, a character actor who usually played sheriffs and generals, was cast against type as Nick’s unscrupulous and untrustworthy partner, and he does a great job.
Valentina Cortese played a hooker with the heart of gold who is hired to distract Nick while the buyer commandeers his load.
Jules Dassin directed the picture in an almost documentary style. Dassin at that time was known for making tough, hard-boiled films like “The Naked City” and “Brute Force.” Later, after being blacklisted, he directed the heist film “Rififi” in France, and the comedy-heist film “Topkapi” in Greece and Turkey.
Bezzerides may not have minded the changes the studio demanded of his book since he has the solo credit for writing the screenplay. Besides, “Thieves’ Highway” was a lot closer to the book than the Warner Bros. production of his 1938 novel about truckers, Long Haul, re-titled, “They Drive by Night.” But that is a story for another post.