Thieves’ Highway (1949): Jules Dassin’s Classic Noir, Starring Richard Conte and Valentina Cortesa

Acknowledged now by many critics and scholars to be a classic film noir, Thieves Highway was directed by Jules Dassin and written by A. I. Bezzerides, based on the latter’s novel Thieves’ Market.

Thieves’ Highway

Theatrical release poster

In one of his best roles, Richard Conte stars as Nico “Nick” Garcos, a war-vet turned-truck driver who comes back home (San Francisco), only to find out that in his absence his foreign-born father-farmer had been crippled.

Nico vows vengeance upon learning that his father was physically abused by Mike Figlia (Lee J. Cobb, excellent in a typical role of a heavy), the corrupt and powerful produce-dealer in town.


Garcos drives a truckload of apples to San Francisco, where he runs into Figlia. With the help of other drivers and a prostitute (Valentina Cortese), he fights and defeats Figlia.


Figlia later pays Nick for his fruit, but that night his goons waylay and rob Nick out of his cash. Meanwhile, Kinney is killed when his own truck mechanically fails, veers off the road, and burns after speeding out of control down a long hill. Polly, Nick’s hometown sweetheart, then arrives in the city ready to marry him, but leaves disillusioned after she finds him recovering from his beating in Rica’s apartment and with no money. Nick and a friend finally confront the cowed bully Figlia at a tavern, and have him arrested,

The confrontation between hero and villain comes at the very end in a one-on-one fight.

As usual, the issue of whether or not (and when) to contact the police, features prominently in the text.

Brilliantly shot on location, in San Francisco, in black and white, the film achieves a level of authenticity that was unprecedented for its time. Especially impressive is the rather accurate depiction of the fruit and produce market in that city.

The outdoor Fruit Market scenes were shot in the Oakland Produce Market area on 3rd street.

For the sake of realism, Dassin insisted on casting as extras real life guys who worked at the market

Many scenes were shot in Oakland’s actual Produce Market, now known as the Warehouse district.

Noir with Happy Ending?

A film noir with a happy ending (not exactly congruent with the genre or this particular story), Thieves Highway concludes with Nick’s successful his family’s honor and the formation of a new couple, Nico and Rica.

This is one of two film noirs that Jules Dassin made at Fox, the other being the superior Night and City, before getting blacklisted and forced inti exile in France (and then Greece).

Richard Conte had appeared in many good film noirs, but he is still underestimated as an actor. Dana Andrews and Victor Mature, both prominent actors at the time, were first considered for the lead.

The female lead is played by Italian actress, Valentina Cortese, who did not speak any English at the time.  Her part is that of a prostitute, but it is never mentioned explicitly in the movie (due to the Production Code).

As Rica, she is first hired by Figlia to educe and preoccupy Nick in her room while his men unload the apples without Nick’s permission. But predictably, there is erotic tension between the two, which leads to an affair.

The film was reasonably commercial at the box-office, earning $1.5 million in rentals.


Richard Conte as Nico “Nick” Garcos

Valentina Cortesa as Rica

Lee J. Cobb as Mike Figlia

Barbara Lawrence as Polly Faber

Jack Oakie as Slob

Millard Mitchell as Ed Kinney

Joseph Pevney as Pete

Morris Carnovsky as Yanko Garcos

Tamara Shayne as Parthena Garcos

Kasia Orzazewski as Mrs. Polansky

Norbert Schiller as Mr. Polansky

Hope Emerson as Midge



Running time: 94 Minutes

Made and distributed by 20th Century Fox

Released date: October 10, 1949

Produced by Robert Bassler

Directed by Jules Dassin

Screenplay: A. I. Besserides, based on his book, Thieves Market

Music: Alfred Newman

Camera: Norbert Brodine

Editing: Dick DeMaggio