Movie Night: Thieves’ Highway

“Thieves’ Highway is a classic Noir tale of truckers and apples and greed and sex and San Francisco and California and highways and death.”

["Let me smoke your butt, Nick!" Valentina Cortese and Richard Conte in Thieves' Highway. Take that Bogie and Bacall!]
Four.75.Stars
4 3/4 Stars!

From 1949: «Thieves’ Highway». We weren’t really planning to watch, but were drawn in immediately. I think we had seen it before, but it’s been a long while. Glad we watched. Ironically, Valentina Cortese just passed away on 10-Jul of this year. Watching her performance here was fitting, and showed just how big of a loss was her passing.

Thieves’ Highway is a classic Noir tale of truckers and apples and greed and sex and San Francisco and California and highways and death. Besides the fabulous Valentina Cortese and Richard Conte, it features Lee J. Cobb in a dress rehearsal for his role in On the Waterfront, Jack Oakie and Millard Mitchell, who would be seen six years later in the classic Singin’ in the Rain, as the movie producer R.F. Simpson.

The synopsis:

“Nick Garcos comes back from his tour of duty in World War II planning to settle down with his girlfriend, Polly Faber. He learns, however, that his father was recently beaten and burglarized by mob-connected trucker Mike Figlia, and Nick resolves to get even. He partners with prostitute Rica, and together they go after Mike, all the while getting pulled further into the local crime underworld.”

TMDb

Michael Sragow, writing in an essay for the Criterion Collection «Thieves’ Highway: Dangerous Fruit» has some nice observations:

“Like the movie’s rattletrap trucks lurching down the highway as they carry way-too-heavy loads, the characters in Jules Dassin’s brilliantly volatile Thieves’ Highway struggle under psychological and moral baggage until they can lay their burdens down. Working from a novel and script by A.I. Bezzerides, Dassin made this swift, fluid melodrama in 1949, after Brute Force and The Naked City. … it has a rich sensuality all its own.


“All the symbols in this movie are rock-hard and understated. The white military star on Nick’s truck makes a mute, omnipresent comment on postwar disillusion. And each time you hear “Golden Delicious,” the image it conjures of Olympian delight contrasts sardonically with the perils of the road and the savage competition of the San Francisco marketplace.”

Michael Sragow, The Criterion Collection

(I love how Sragow introduces Nico: “Garcos … has sailed around the world without ever getting worldly.” HA!)

He then notes the inner workings of the film and places it in context:

“Dassin … is just as deft as Kazan in Boomerang! (1947) or Panic in the Streets (1950) at using real locations for knifelike verisimilitude, then catching their most far-out and surprising emotional repercussions.”

“Dassin begins scenes with compositions that border on cliché–whether of a cheerful Fresno suburb or the bustling streets and crowded pier-side haunts of San Francisco’s marketplace. But each time, he punctures the cliché with cascades of complex details emerging spontaneously from the conflicted drives of the characters and the life-or-death stakes of their situations.”

IBID

Sragow, writing 1-Feb-05, then notes something that is culturally a hot button right now: toxic masculinity:

“Under Dassin’s direction, Conte here minted a fresh leading-man archetype-a rough-edged, virile naïf, containing equal amounts of violent distrust and gallantry. And Mitchell brings deep-grained orneriness to Ed, a summa cum laude from the school of hard knocks, willing to rook others to satisfy his sense of justice. What gives this movie its charge isn’t just the physical danger of the road and the injustice perpetrated when fixers like Figlia use dirty tricks on truckers and buyers—it’s the psychological drama of men tossed off balance by want and need as they strive to achieve equilibrium.”

“Ed pulls Nick out from under his truck after Nick botches a tire change and gets his face buried in sand. When the older man bandages his neck, and these two finally forge a bond, Nick mutters that passersby might get the wrong idea.”

IBID

Pretty advanced for 1949, but like the ending, it gets set right: Nothin’ but manly man hetero stuff … 1949’s equivalent of “No Homo.”

And just so we’re clear that Conte/Mitchell and Oakie/Pevney are just no homo bros, in comes Rico to keep the men manly. Curiously, she’s rather butch, both in her toughness and her physical, trenchcoat-wearing appearance. In fact she’s sporting a short Italian haircut (which would be the focus of an I Love Lucy episode in a few years), which accentuates her Italian “earthiness,” (also the focus of an I Love Lucy episode in a few years). AND her character was originally named “Tex.” (See the paragraph about Hope Emerson below for more on this stuff.) Sragow sums it up:

“Played by Valentina Cortese with dazzling emotional clarity and erotic warmth, she’s at once this film’s beating heart and the center of its existential concerns–she dares Nick to trust his instincts and trust her, despite her shady deal-making and background.”

IBID

The review is also interesting because it delves into the writing:

“Bezzerides’ writing at its peak boasts a dynamic blend of iconoclasm and bitterness–an ideal combination for the intersection of kinetics and moodiness that is film noir.

“Bezzerides objected to several alterations to his book and deplored the casting of Dassin’s then-girlfriend Cortese in a role originally called “Tex.” But in movie terms, he was incorrect on every count–to use his phrase, the only truly “chickenshit change” was a studio-inserted scene in which cops berate Nick for taking the law into his own hands. Cortese’s sometimes comical, sometimes poignant, always live-wire oomph makes this proletariat adventure unique and gives it the ravaged soul and earthy glamour of a demimonde romance. No gal in movies has ever looked sexier or more good-humored drying her hair after a shower. When Nick says Rica has “soft hands,” she says she has “sharp claws.” She uses them only to play tic-tac-toe on his chest–a fitting game for a film in which one false move can turn ethical and commercial triumph into disaster.”

IBID

In a shorter review, «John Chard» agrees with Sragow, and adds that the chicken shit ending, tacked on to appease the Production Code’s moralists, is ridiculous:

“Revenge, hope and desperation drives Dassin’s intelligently constructed noir forward. It’s a film very much interested in its characterisations as it doles out a deconstruction of the American dream. … Dassin and Bezzerides push a revenge theme to the forefront whilst deftly inserting from the sides the devils of greed and corruption of the California produce business.
“The trucks’ journey is brilliantly captured by the makers, both exciting and exuding the menace of the hard slog for truckers. … [once in San Francisco] underhand tactics come seeping out and the appearance of prostitute Rica (Cortese) into Nico’s life adds a morally grey area that pings with sharp dialogue exchanges. Real location photography adds to the authentic feel of the story, and cast performances are quite simply excellent across the board.
“The code appeasing ending hurts the film a touch, inserted against Dassin’s wishes, and there’s a feeling that it should have been more damning with the economic tropes; while the fact that Nico’s father is more concerned about being robbed of money than losing the use of his legs – is a bit strange to say the least. However, from a graveyard of tumbling apples to the fact that more than money is stolen here, Thieves’ Highway is sharp, smart and engrossing stuff.”

John Chard, TMDb

Sharp, smart, engrossing … and for us LGBTQ+ viewers, chock full of forbidden fruit.

We loved this one. Having spent many years in the Bay Area, we could relate to much of the scenery and sensibilities and subtext.

And speaking of subtext again, worth noting is the appearance of the wonderful Hope Emerson, a career character actor with a long list of credits, including Adam’s Rib in the same year as Thieves’ Highway. In Adam’s Rib, she played a very talented gymnast in a courtroom, in a role that noted both how big and butch she was, in an era when that kind of thing was invisible. She is somewhat the same in Thieves’ Highway, minus the gymnastics, as a very tough female fruit buyer. Dassin pretty much broke the Code in multiple ways throughout the movie; although the Code had the last say with its smarmy cop platitudinal lecturing about not taking the law in your own hands, the weight of his film said, “Nuts to you!” to the Code.

A good pairing for this would be The Grapes of Wrath, which starts with starving Okies hitting Route 66 in search of fruit picking work. Follow that with Thieves’ Highway and you get a clear picture of what it takes to get an apple off a tree into the teeth of someone wanting to cheat a doctor a day.

Sadly, much is unchanged in this process, except the grower, the picker, the trucker and the distributor-to-grocery-stores are all corporate behemoths and conditions may, if anything, be worse than 1940’s Grapes of Wrath and 1949’s Thieves’ Highway. We’ve let much slide since Reagan, who married anti-New Deal propaganda with our generation’s laziness and produced massive rollbacks of workers’ rights (and the current occupant of the White House), and our grandchildren will have to fight three times as hard as their ancestors between 1870 and 1950 did for decency, living wages, respect, clean air, clean water, and safe working conditions. Whether they will do it remains to be seen.


Best quotes:

Nico ‘Nick’ Garcos: [to Rica] “You look like chipped glass.”

Thieves’ Highway

Nick: “Hey, do you like apples?”
Rica: “Everybody likes apples, except doctors.”
Nick: “Do you know what it takes to get an apple so you can sink your beautiful teeth in it? You gotta stuff rags up tailpipes, farmers gotta get gypped, you jack up trucks with the back of your neck, universals conk out.”
Rica: “I don’t know what are you talking about, but I have a new respect for apples.”

Thieves’ Highway

Four.75.Stars
My rating: Four 3/4 stars; Not a full five because of the Code-appeasing ending, tacked on against the director’s protests.

Thieves Highway. 1949. TCM. English. Jules Dassin (d); A.I. Bezzerides (w); Richard Conte, Valentina Cortese, Lee J. Cobb, Barbara Lawrence, Jack Oakie, Millard Mitchell, Joseph Pevney, Morris Carnovsky, Tamara Shayne, Kasia Orzazewski, Norbert Schiller, Hope Emerson (p). Alfred Newman (m). Norbert Brodine (c).


Movie Night: Desk Set

“Not only is it hilarious, it has fabulous midcentury (ugh, that word) interiors, jokes only librarian/book/research nerds understand, an awesome supporting cast including EMERAC and Kate gets to get blotto and talk about the “Mexican Avenue Bus” (the Lexington Avenue Bus, that is).”

["Curfew shall not ring tonight!" Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in Desk Set. A RomCom about 30somethings played by 50somethings falling in love under the benevolent gaze of EMERAC.]

Four.75.Stars
4 ¾ Stars!

From 1957: «Desk Set», my personal favorite among the nine Katharine Hepburn-Spencer Tracy films. Not only is it hilarious, it has fabulous midcentury (ugh, that word) interiors, jokes only librarian/book/research nerds understand, an awesome supporting cast including EMERAC and Kate gets to get blotto and talk about the “Mexican Avenue Bus” (the Lexington Avenue Bus, that is).

The synopsis:

“A computer expert tries to prove his electronic brain can replace a television network’s research staff.” TMDb

TMDb

I’m beginning to think The MovieDb folks need better synopsis writers.

Movie Metropolis‘ James Plath «wrote this review» in 2013:

“Desk Set catches them 15 years into their affair and 10 years before Tracy’s death. You can sense their level of comfort with each other—something that actually works against them in a romantic comedy in which opposites and antagonists are supposed to eventually attract. Tracy plays Mr. Sumner, an efficiency expert hired by the Federal Broadcasting Company to find departments in which his new-fangled computers (the size of a room, by the way) might save work-hours. Hepburn is Bunny Watson, who runs the research department rather than the always-absent boss (Gig Young) with whom she’s been having a seven-year relationship … waiting for a ring and running out of patience. … “The formula is pretty basic, but it’s the characters (and the actors) that make “Desk Set” fun to watch. It might also be one of the best films to document those legendary wild office parties from the ‘50s and ‘60s, with everyone imbibing so much Christmas cheer that they all start to get a bit of a Rudolph nose. “Desk Set” weaves machines vs. humans and gender-role themes into a pleasant battle-of-the-sexes film that feels more leisurely than most gender bender scripts that come out of Hollywood. This adapted screenplay, interestingly enough, comes from the pens of Henry and Phoebe Ephron, whose daughter, Nora, would receive Oscar nominations for her own work (“Silkwood,” When Harry Met Sally…,” “Sleepless in Seattle”). The script gives Tracy and Hepburn just enough to work with, and whatever charm that “Desk Set” has comes from the two stars and their interaction with each other and a decent supporting cast. Joan Blondell is particularly funny as Bunny’s sometimes abrasive co-worker, with Dina Merrill and Sue Randall also cutting up in the research department.”

James Plath, Movie Metropolis

Joan Blondell is fabulous as always and the film marks an appearance by Sue Randall, who would later play Beaver’s teacher on Leave It to Beaver. Neva Patterson is awesomely uptight and Dina Merrill is far too glamorous to be a research assistant, but it works. The would-be pairing of Gig Young and Katharine Hepburn is a bit far-fetched, and both Kate and Spencer seemed just a little long in the tooth for a RomCom, but those are quibbles. It works and works raucously well.

A short bit about a rainstorm and a guy from legal and his wife, kids and mother-in-law is hilarious and reminds you of I Love Lucy. But the best bit is a silent one by Ida Moore, an unnamed “Old Lady” who wanders in from time-to-time, checking out a book or enjoying the spiked punch at the office Christmas party. Supposedly, she was, way back in the day, the original model for the giant sculpture which is Federal’s logo, and she has had the run of the place ever since. Ida Moore does this with such aplomb and excellence that even Kate seems to be in her shade.


Best quotes:

Besides the “Mexican Avenue Bus,” there are many great lines/bits:

Bunny Watson: “Have some tequila, Peg.”

Peg Costello: “I don’t think I should. There are 85 calories in a glass of champagne.”

Bunny Watson: “I have a little place in my neighborhood where I can get it for 65.”

Desk Set

Richard Sumner: “Hello? Santa Claus’s reindeer? Uh, why yes I can… let’s see, there’s Dopey, Sneezy, Grouchy, Happy, Sleepy, uh Rudolph, and Blitzen! You’re welcome!”

Ibid

Bunny Watson: “Just for kicks. You don’t have to answer it if you don’t want to. I mean, don’t dwell on the question, but I warn you there’s a trick in it: If six Chinamen get off a train at Las Vegas, and two of them are found floating face down in a goldfish bowl, and the only thing they can find to identify them are two telephone numbers – one, Plaza Oh-Oh-Oh-Oh-Oh, and the other, Columbus Oh-1492 – what time did the train get to Palm Springs?”

Richard Sumner: “Nine o’clock.”

Bunny Watson: “Now, would you mind telling me how you happened to get that?”

Richard Sumner: “Well, there are eleven letters in Palm Springs. You take away two Chinamen, that leaves nine.”

Bunny Watson: “You’re a sketch, Mr. Sumner.”

Richard Sumner: “You’re not so bad yourself.”

Ibid

Bunny Watson: “I don’t smoke, I only drink champagne when I’m lucky enough to get it, my hair is naturally natural, I live alone… and so do you.”

Richard Sumner: “How do you know that?”

Bunny Watson: “Because you’re wearing one brown sock and one black sock.”

Ibid

And of course my personal favorite, Curfew Shall Not a-Ring Tonight!:

Richard Sumner: [Watching the computer result on “Corfu”, which is mistaken as “curfew”] What the devil is this?

Bunny Watson: [Also having a look] It’s the poem, “Curfew Shall Not Ring Tonight.” Isn’t that nice? [reciting] “Cromwell will not come till sunset, and her lips grew strangely white… as she breathed the husky whisper, curfew must not a-ring tonight.”

Miss Warriner: [while Bunny goes on] Mr. Sumner, what can I do?

Richard Sumner: Nothing. You know you can’t interrupt her [the computer] in the middle of a sequence.

Miss Warriner: Yes, but, Mr. Sumner…

Richard Sumner: Quiet! Just listen.

Bunny Watson: “She had listened while the judges read, without a tear or sigh, at the ringing of the curfew, Basil Underwood must die.”

Richard Sumner: Uh, how long does this go on?

Bunny Watson: That old poem has about 80 stanzas to it.

Richard Sumner: Where are we now?

Bunny Watson: “She has reached the topmost ladder. O’er her hangs the great dark bell, awful is the gloom beneath her like the pathway down to hell. Lo, the ponderous tongue is swinging. ‘Tis the hour of curfew now, and the sight has chilled her bosom, stopped her breath and paled her brow.”

[telephone rings]

Bunny Watson: “Shall she let it ring? No, never! Flash her eyes with sudden light, as she springs and grasps it firmly…

[answers the phone]

Bunny Watson: …curfew shall not ring tonight!”

[audible click]

Bunny Watson: They hung up. And I know another one! “Out she swung, far out, the city seemed a speck of light…”

Ibid

Four.75.Stars
My rating: 4 3/4 stars for, ironically, casting.

Desk Set. 1957. TCM. English. Walter Lang (d); Phoebe Ephron, Henry Ephron, William Marchant (w) Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Gig Young, Joan Blondell, Dina Merrill, Sue Randall, Neva Patterson, Henry Ellerbe, Nicholas Joy, Diane Jergens, Merry Anders, Ida Moore, Rachel Stephens, Don Porter, Sammy Ogg (p). Cyril J. Mockridge (m). Leon Shamroy (c).


Movie Night: Hot Millions

“There’s a lot more than just smiles to recommend this one–ts droll English humor, its glimpse at fashions and designs and trends of 1968, the fantastic acting of everyone, including the performance of Bob Newhart, whose movie outings are often forgotten, the sarcastic wit and the satire–it’s a long list and will need a second viewing to get it all.”


[How veddy British! Peter Ustinov and Maggie Smith in Hot Millions. Also, how veddy Sixties!]

Four.5.Stars
4 1/2 Stars!

From 1968: «Hot Millions». Some fun British fun from Peter Ustinov and Maggie Smith.

True story. The very first time I ever went to a theater and saw a movie was in February 1968 at the Plains Theater in Roswell, NM. Which is sadly now the “International UFO Museum and Research Center” 1947 alien landing tourist trap and that’s upsetting and rather terrifying. But upsetting and terrifying is what my first movie experience was; my four-year-old self bawled all the way through it and I think my sister had to take me to the lobby.

The list of things that scared me was long in those days; well into my teens, I was pretty much scared of everything. No reason; I had a good childhood, wasn’t abused or anything. But movie theaters, especially high ceilings and balconies, terrified me. So did fire engines, police cars, motorcycles, Walt Disney, sirens, fireworks, Carlsbad Caverns, roller coasters, teachers and teenagers.

But what was the most terrifying of all was the first movie in a theater: Blackbeard’s Ghost, starring Peter Ustinov. It was a funny kid’s Disney movie, typical of the time, with Dean Jones, Suzanne Pleshette, Elsa Lanchester, Elliot Reid, Richard Deacon and Michael Conrad, in his pre-Hill Street Blues days.

And the worst scene was Ustinov as Blackbeard, riding a police motorcycle with siren blaring, invisible to everyone except Dean Jones. I really bawled at that. Even if it was about the funniest one in the movie. Sirens, invisible pirates, a huge theater, yeesh.

At any rate, Hot Millions is what we’re actually talking about here.

The synopsis:

“A con-artist (Peter Ustinov) gains employment at an insurance company in order to embezzle money by re-programming their “new” wonder computer.”

TMDb

It’s a lot more fun than it sounds, although «Roger Ebert’s impression» is probably spot on as usual:

“Today I would like to bow to another critic for my opening thought. Writing about Hot Millions in the New Republic, Stanley Kauffmann observed that it didn’t make him laugh out loud, but at the end of the film he realized he’d been smiling for nearly two hours. That says it very well: Hot Millions, which is not a hilarious comedy, is a pleasant, warm one.

“The warmth comes because the characters are developed rather more than is usually the case in movies about (a) embezzlers or (b) eccentrics. The British comedy tradition accounts for these two genres quite completely; eccentrics are usually Terry-Thomas whistling through the gap in his teeth, and embezzlers usually try for a sort of efficient anonymity.

“This is not, I suppose, a great comedy. But Ustinov and Miss Smith act with a sort of natural appeal, and there are moments you will enjoy very much. Especially recommended for computer programmers, their accomplices and their molls.”

Roger Ebert

I personally don’t need my sides to split when I watch a “comedy,” but that’s just me. There’s a lot more than just smiles to recommend this one–ts droll English humor, its glimpse at fashions and designs and trends of 1968, the fantastic acting of everyone, including the performance of Bob Newhart, whose movie outings are often forgotten, the sarcastic wit and the satire–it’s a long list and will need a second viewing to get it all.


Best quotes:

Carlton J. Klemper [talking about his corporation taking over the whole world]: “Yes sir! When the time comes, I may even put in a bid for all of England.”

Marcus Pendleton: }Hadn’t you better wait till it’s solvent?”

Hot Millions

Prison Governor: “You should be in politics, not in prison.”

Marcus Pendleton: “Well, in a way, I was, wasn’t I? When they caught me embezzling at the Conservative Central Office.”

Prison Governor: “Yes, I could never understand why you chose that of all places.”

Marcus Pendleton: [after a pause, says sternly] “I’m a Liberal.”

Prison Governor: “Oh.”

Elderly Gentleman card player: [Irritated by all the talk] “If this keeps up, I shall violate a lifetime principle and play bridge with women.”

Patty: “What does he want?”

Marcus: “Assets.”

Patty: “What are they?”

Marcus: “Young female donkeys.”


Four.5.Stars
4 1/2 Stars!

Hot Millions. 1968. TCM. English. Eric Till (d). Peter Ustinov, Ira Wallach (w). Peter Ustinov, Maggie Smith, Karl Malden, Bob Newhart, Robert Morley, Cesar Romero, Peter Jones, Ann Lancaster, Patsy Crowther. (p). Laurie Johnson (m). Kenneth Higgins (c).


Remembering the Past

Remembering Bill Schock on his 100th birthday … and the 52nd anniversary of Braniff 250 in Falls City. Also … feeling old from … time flying and stuff.

Since the AM2431 crash in Durango a few days ago appears to be from weather-related causes, never forgetting the lessons of BN250, as well as CO426, OZ809, EA66, PA759, DL191, and US1016 is as important as ever. Hope today’s flight crews are paying attention.

I Am The Roux!

I Am The Roux.

I am a loud basset.

A proud basset.

A messy basset.

A hungry basset.

A loving basset.

A force of nature.

As a puppy, I got lost and couldn’t find my way home.

I was very, very hungry. And scared.

I ended up in a sad place. The concrete was very hard.

But then someone saw my long sad face behind the chain link fence.

I was rescued!

Bad Beginnings

I’m sitting in a chair in an airport. Waiting on yet another flight. Taking a drag on a cigarette, trying to read the States-Item. Hard to concentrate since it’s been such a long day.

The best routing at the best price the travel agency could give me home to Minneapolis is a Braniff hop via a torturous route: Shreveport, Fort Smith, Tulsa, Kansas City, and Omaha. At least it’s a pretty comfortable jet, not one of the old prop jobs, which is why I went for it. If you have to hop around the midwest, might as well do it in style. It’s a brand new British type, a BAC 1-11. The one sitting on the tarmac, my ride home, is painted a kind of weird tan that the airline refers to as “ochre,” but it glows like an orange fireball in the early evening steamy Louisiana sun.

The intercom in the boarding area crackles to life. ‘Mr. Donnelly, Mr. Sean Donnelly, please see the Braniff ticket agent at gate 12,’ a disembodied voice pronounces.

Deadly Turbulence

Deadly Turbulence Book Cover Deadly Turbulence
Steve Pollock
Transportation
McFarland
13-Mar-14
236

Jet airliner operations in the United States began in 1958, bringing, it was thought, a new era of fast, high, safe, smooth, sophisticated travel. But almost immediately, the new aircraft were involved in incidents and accidents that showed jets created new problems even as they solved old ones. This book discusses five disasters or near-disasters of the early Jet Age, experiences which shook the industry, regulators and public out of early complacency and helped build a more realistic foundation for safer air transportation. Special attention is paid to the 1966 destruction of Braniff International Airways Flight 250 in Nebraska. Nearly two years of inquiry helped advance the understanding of jet operations in severe weather and saw the first use of cockpit voice recorder technology in an aviation accident investigation. In addition, a University of Chicago professor, Dr. Tetsuya "Ted" Fujita, conducted a more intensive investigation of the weather system which downed Flight 250. Dr. Fujita's already extensive knowledge of thunderstorms and tornadoes led to his creation of the Fujita Scale of Tornado Intensity, the F-scale that we hear about so frequently during storm season.

It’s release day!