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Nicky Garcos arrives at his family’s Fresno home with a wallet full of cash, arms full of gifts, and lots of love for his family. In exchange, he gets a shock when he learns about a tragedy within his family while he was away in the service. You’d think this was a movie about trying to make an honest living, but as the movie portends, no one goes to San Francisco to make an honest living.
Thieves’ Highway (1949) is a tightly wound 74-year-old thriller about payback, deception, and apples. 20th Century Fox heartthrob Richard Conte stars as Nick Garcos, the man setting out into the seedy streets of San Francisco to find retribution, American style, through capitalism. He arrives in the first act in a late 40s SF produce wholesale market ready to deal his recently questionably acquired wares. The potential buyers and how they do business would make you think you were watching The Wire. Middlemen bargain, goons slash tires, and paid third parties do their part to sway a deal. Each scene is a tightly clenched fist waiting to let loose.
Jules Dassin directs the film; The once blacklisted (in the American red-scare sense) director famously moved his film crew onto actual locations (rather than studio lots) in city streets for Naked City (1948) and subsequently Thieves’ Highway, which one could argue is a forebear of the French New Wave (mind you, Dassin is from Connecticut; don’t let the French name fool you.) The former film is set in New York and the latter is set in San Francisco, Dassin had a knack for bringing the gritty realism of city streets to the big screen, and contemporary audiences loved it. You can immediately feel the difference from standard Hollywood studio films. Dassin would’ve appreciated Christopher Nolan, given Dassin also relished finding the most sensational way to tell a true story and the truest way to tell a sensational story.
Thieves’ Highway is a film that will make you feel like you’re visiting San Francisco for the first time. It is as if you’re driving in from a lonely place (like Fresno) and approaching some exciting civilization on the edge of existence. This is partly because the San Francisco of Thieves’ Highway is long gone. The city's skyline, a drab silhouette from the view of a truck crossing the Bay Bridge, gives the viewer the impression they’re approaching a dark and mysterious place, a potentially dangerous place that doesn’t want you. In later scenes filmed in the light of day, we’re treated to strikingly open views of the city from the Ferry Building. I could go on describing the “SF-ness” of the film, but I’d instead recommend (for the third or fourth time) that you visit Reel SF and enjoy one of the greatest passion projects on the internet.
Thieves’ Highway is a movie about bastards. Bastards who have been hardened by time, and people sliding into the mode. It’s an imperfect film about an imperfect man who starts on a journey to right wrongs but ultimately loses himself in a world of wrongs. By the end the film almost seems to suggest that one can be victorious after sliding down the slope of moral decay. It celebrates it. We can view it as a meta-text on San Francisco itself. It’s a dark film about losing sight of your goals when you leave home and getting completely caught up in the goals of the nasty world you enter into. Ironically, this is how many young(ish) people might feel about modern San Francisco, a town that lures one in with promises of world-changing techno-utopia but devours you with its ultimately unfeeling capitalistic reality. We set out for the city by the bay with ideological goals but get ground into servants of the collective morass, willing to beat the living shit out of a guy who fucked us over on our apples.
One exchange from the movie between the leading man and the leading lady goes down like a glass of Fernet, while also describing and saluting true SF citizens:
“You like to make tough?”
“I am tough.”
Written by A.I. Bezzerides; Directed by Jules Dassin