A hay cart trundles through a sunny field above Fresno, California, in the opening shot of Thieves’ Highway. This is not an image you expect to see in film noir, which most often breeds in cities, alienated from the natural world and traditional ways. But postwar noir, traveling through back roads, deserts, border towns, and rural fields, proved that corruption spreads far beyond the urban jungle. Thieves’ Highway—the last movie Jules Dassin made in Hollywood before fleeing the country to escape the blacklist—is one of at least three crime dramas from 1949 that plough up the dark underbelly of agriculture to find toxic greed poisoning the system that puts food on our tables.
Based on the novel Thieves’ Market by proletarian writer and one-time truck-driver A. I. “Buzz” Bezzerides, Thieves’ Highway begins with Nick Garcos (Richard Conte) returning to Fresno after a stint as a Navy mechanic. His ebullient reunion with his Greek immigrant parents is shattered when he learns that his father has lost his legs in a trucking accident caused by a crooked produce dealer named Mike Figlia (Lee J. Cobb). Seeking revenge, he teams up with an experienced driver, Ed Kinney (Millard Mitchell), to haul the season’s first Golden Delicious apples to San Francisco so he can find Figlia. The hard-bitten Ed is a different kind of tough guy: a working stiff ready to cheat, chisel, or drive thirty-six hours in a truck “held together with spit,” whatever it takes to make a living.
The apples themselves, already loaded with symbolism (the fruit of knowledge, the apple of discord), illustrate a radical point: that putting a cash price on things destroys their inherent value. In a sun-dappled orchard, a Polish farmer, enraged at being paid less than he was promised for his apples, hurls boxes of them off a truck, screaming, “Seventy-five cents! Seventy-five cents!” The fruit rolls wastefully on the ground, an image foreshadowing the film’s most famous shot, when after the same truck has careened off the road and exploded, apples tumble silently down the hillside toward the flaming wreck. When the dead trucker’s partner finds out that money-grubbers have gone out to collect the scattered load to sell, he echoes the farmer, kicking over crates of apples in the street and fuming, “Four bits a box! Four bits a box!” Bite into the produce business, this film says, and you will find the rotten core of capitalism.