The film production company now called 20th Century Studios, previously known as 21st Century Fox, and before that as 20th Century Fox, had a fascinating history before Rupert Murdoch, then Disney, took over.
Founded in 1935 in the era of big Hollywood studios, Fox in its glory days was the home of producer Darryl F. Zanuck, Marilyn Monroe, Tyrone Power, Shirley Temple and director John Ford, plus a considerable roster of film noirs. The Criterion Collection understands the significance of those noirs, which is why the Criterion Channel streamed its “Fox Noir” showcase last year, featuring such classic titles as Laura, Nightmare Alley, Pickup on South Street and Night and the City.
And now it’s “Noirvember” once again. Criterion’s 2022 lineup of Fox noirs is even more bitter, hard-hitting and merciless—the perfect home-video accompaniment to our current winter of discontent.
Case in point: Thieves’ Highway (1949). It’s a fortuitous confluence of writing, direction, acting and production values, on the timeless theme of dumb luck, aka fate. The story: a tough, ambitious truck driver named Nick Garcos (Richard Conte) tries, and tries again, to deliver a load of Golden Delicious apples to market, despite heavy odds. As dreamt up by legendary writer A.I. “Buzz” Bezzerides (Kiss Me Deadly, They Drive by Night, On Dangerous Ground), under the direction of the equally feisty Jules Dassin, Nick’s California blacktop odyssey takes on Homeric grandeur despite its determinedly working-class milieu.
The malevolent obstacle in the paths of Nick and his fellow long-haul trucker, Ed (Millard Mitchell), is Mike Figlia (Lee J. Cobb, never more belligerent), a crooked bully-boy wholesale fruit dealer in San Francisco’s long-gone produce district on the Embarcadero.
Director Dassin, soon to be blacklisted by government anti-communist crusaders, lavishes the same sort of realistic detail he brought to The Naked City, Brute Force, Rififi and Topkapi on Nick and Ed’s harrowing 36-hour run from Fresno to San Francisco—driving all night on crowded two-lane pre-interstate roads.
En route, Bezzerides and Dassin cast their eyes on a crazy quilt of Golden State ethnicities. Nick and his family are Greek (as was Bezzerides, here adapting his own novel). The fruit growers speak Polish, while Figlia and local floozy Rica (Valentina Cortesa) are Italian—where are all the braceros? Get set for crashes, gashes and goons in the night. Flummoxed Nick to frosty Rica: “You look like chipped glass.”
Alongside Thieves’ Highway in the “Fox Noir” lineup are blue-chip crime pics by filmmakers Otto Preminger (Fallen Angel), Robert Siodmak (Cry of the City), Elia Kazan (Panic in the Streets), Robert Wise (The House on Telegraph Hill) and studio lifer Henry Hathaway (The Dark Corner, Kiss of Death, Call Northside 777).
The Criterion series “Starring Veronica Lake,” also debuting this month, functions as a companion piece to the noirs. Lake, the diminutive blond siren with the husky voice, matches up perfectly with her vertically challenged longtime co-star, Alan Ladd, in director George Marshall’s The Blue Dahlia, a typically sardonic outing for the screenwriter, ace detective novelist Raymond Chandler.
Returning bomber pilot Johnny Morrison (Ladd) discovers his party-girl wife back home (slinky Doris Dowling) has too many latent fingerprints on her, so he scrams—right into the arms of rebound gal Lake. The supporting cast is solid gold: Johnny’s army buddy (William Bendix), a PTSD case, goes nuts whenever he hears big-band-swing “monkey music.” Howard Da Silva refines his sleaze credentials as a bent nightclub owner.
Dowling, who later decamped to Italy for work on Bitter Rice and Orson Welles’ Othello, has the most lascivious eyes in the business. And Beaver Cleaver’s dad, Hugh Beaumont, appears as another army buddy. When Lake and Ladd lock lips, that’s the sound of money you’re hearing—they made eight movies together.
Other Lake starrers in the series: Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels; This Gun for Hire and The Glass Key, both with Ladd; and I Married a Witch. For more details: criterionchannel.com.
Streaming on the Criterion Channel.