A minor movie masterpiece celebrating entrepreneurship screens twice on TCM this weekend
One of my favorite movies is going to be shown twice over the weekend on Turner Classic Movies, at midnight EDT and 10 A.M. EDT Sunday. Because the film's director, Jules Dassin, was a leftist accused of being a member of the Communist Party who fled a HUAC subpoena and continued his film directing career in Europe, the Left has claimed the film as an anti-capitalist classic. Noting could be farther from the truth.
I am very curious to see how Eddie Muller, the host of TCM's Noir Alley series, will pitch the film in his introduction. Eddie is a genuine film expert and has done wonderful work preserving the endangered films in that very American genre, but he often decries the anti-communism of the later part of the era in which film noir flourished. He is also a San Franciscan, so being anything but a leftist is difficult for anyone with a public profile. Politics aside, his commentary is always insightful.
The film, Thieves' Highway, was written by A.I. "Buzz" Bezzerides, based on his novel Thieves' Market. It tells the story of a G.I., a character named Nick Garcos, played by Richard Conte, who returns from World War II to his hometown in California's Central Valley with enough money from his service to buy a beat-up old truck and try to score a big payoff by bringing the first fruit of the apple crop to the produce market in San Francisco. Then, as now, the first seasonal produce to get the market commands a premium price.
This is a classic tale of entrepreneurship at the grassroots level. A hero entrepreneur!
But of course, drama ensues, first from the obstacles of a journey along pre-freeway roads in a dodgy vehicle, but even more decisively when Nick brings his load to the produce district and is cheated by a crooked produce-dealer named Mike Figlia, brilliantly played by Lee J. Cobb.
Bezzerides grew up in Fresno, California, where lots of farmers sent produce to the markets in L.A. and S.F., and he no doubt heard real stories containing the elements he used in the novel and movie.
Large parts of the movie were filmed on location, and the film portrays blue-collar life in San Francisco in the late 1940s, before people who work with their hands were pushed out to make way for financiers and techies. It is a lost world today, located on land mostly gentrified into ultra-expensive quarters now. These are places where stevedores unloaded ships, and food processing, coffee roasting, and manufacturing provided a decent living for thousands of people without college educations — people who rode trolleys from homes that now sell for two million dollars and up to jobs in buildings that have been converted into office space for techies, and in the case of the produce district, to the five office towers and two hotels of the Embarcadero Center.
Ultimately, Thieves' Highway is the story of overcoming the evil that lurks in the hearts of some and redemption for those willing to see the light. A major subplot concerns the moral recovery through love of a prostitute hired by Figlia to lure Nick Garcos to his doom.
This is a very human story, based on a realistic view of human nature and the struggle between good and evil. It needs to be rescued from the Left. It may not be Citizen Kane, but it is an excellent film that reveals a time and a place long forgotten, but that once thrived by offering opportunities to generations of non-elite Americans.