After an extended trip away from home, Nick Gracos (Richard Conte) returns home full of optimism for the future. He’s eager to marry his girlfriend Polly (Barbara Lawrence) and looking forward to starting a business with her father. The last thing he expects is to find that his truck driver father has lost his legs after getting on the wrong side of Mike Figlia (Lee J. Cobb), the corrupt owner of a produce market in San Francisco. Now Nick’s father can’t work, has no money, and had to sell his truck to Ed (Millard Mitchell), who is behind on his payments on it.
After meeting with Ed, Nick decides to put his plans on hold and goes into business with Ed. For their first gig, they transport trucks full of apples to the market in San Francisco that’s owned by Figlia. Despite having truck problems along the way, they make it to the market on time. As soon as Nick gets to the market, he has to deal with Figlia trying to scam him and sabotage his truck. He even hires Rica (Valentina Cortese) to distract Nick while Figlia tries to sabotage him. Since Nick is exhausted, she lets him rest in her apartment, but even though she’s working for Figlia, she begins to have feelings for Nick.
When Figlia tries to shortchange Nick on his apples, Nick successfully gets more money and it seems his first shipment went very well. So well, he asks Polly to come down so they can be married right away, much to Rica’s dismay. She insists that Polly is only after his money. But then some of Figlia’s thugs attack him and steal his money, Nick is left empty handed when Polly does arrive — and she doesn’t stick around long once she finds out he’s broke. But now, Nick is in great danger of losing his life in addition to his money.
Aside from the really forced ending, Thieves’ Highway was a highly enjoyable noir. Exactly the caliber of movie I’ve come to expect from Jules Dassin. It’s not often I use the words “gritty,” “sincere,” “heartfelt” together, but they both apply to Thieves’ Highway. The performances by Lee J. Cobb and Richard Conte absolutely make the movie one worth seeing. Lee J. Cobb was absolutely brilliant as the corrupted to the soul Figlia and Conte was perfectly determined to do right by his father without laying it on too thick. The ending was the only thing I didn’t like about it; it just felt really forced and tacked on.