Friday, May 4, 2018

Highway 301 (1950)

The German Poster
Highway 301 was directed by Andrew L. Stone for Warner Bros. It’s a a fast-paced little crime movie with tight direction, barely any filler shots and a certain polish to it. This is no bottom-of-the-barrel Poverty Row production.

Not too surprisingly, notorious NYTimes film critic Bosley Crowther got himself all lathered up about the picture. He hated it and called it a “cheap gangster melodrama” and a “straight exercise in low sadism”. A Film Noir of the Week reviewer called Bosley Crowther a “high-toned windbag” in his The Big Steal review, an assessment I tend to agree with. Bosley missed the mark on this one, as he so often did.

The plot is simple. The movie is about a gang of bank and payroll robbers led by vicious and trigger-happy George Legenza (Steve Cochran). They’re known by the bland moniker the Tri-State Gang because they pull heists in three states. Legenza just busted his way out of the State Pen - probably the psych ward -  and now returns happily to a life of crime. Cochran is at his nasty and brutal best. Everybody who stands in his way is dispatched immediately and efficiently.

Up till now, Legenza and his gang have rather been small-time. All this is about to change however with the last big heist, THE heist that’s supposed to be the retirement fund. Unfortunately the holdup goes wrong when the spoils turn out to be nothing more than cut money, on its way to Washington for burning. Legenza is angry and just for revenge he shoots the inside man on the job. Somebody has to be held responsible for the mess-up. But this heist has finally given the police some clues to work with.

Highway 301 was made by Warner Bros., whose house special in the 30s had been gangsters with tommy guns. The picture is a throwback to Warner’s roots. It is gangster movie mixed with docu-drama plus the occasional Noirish touch. 
Stylistically 301 is plenty Noir, even if its soul isn’t. Noir here is used mostly for atmospheric effect, with realism and a healthy dose of brutality thrown in.

The 30s gangster movie had always been sold to the public as a morality tale. “Crime does not pay, boys and girls!” Wink, wink. But contrary to its purported message, Warner showed the gangster life in all its glory… while ostensibly wagging a finger at crime. Hoodlums could gleefully wallow in the cesspool of humanity as long as they got theirs in the end. Eddie Bartlett, Rocky Sullivan and Rico were hell raisers who shot their way to the top and lived it up high style just to draw their last in a dirty gutter in the end. The truth however was, the gangsters’ lives looked pretty nice. Fast cars, even faster women and money to blow in swanky nightclubs seemed vastly more alluring than living on $40 a week in a shabby tenement. Gangsters lived it up while the rest of the country was starving. It all sounded too seductive. Crime doesn’t pay. Really, I think there are those who’d disagree with that. Dying in a hail of machine gun fire was a small price to pay for some fun.

As opposed to the traditional gangster movie, Highway 301 shows the lives of the Tri-State Gang members in a very un-romanticized way. There’s hardly any glamour to be found in their cramped digs, cheap motels and second-rate nightclubs. Those guys aren’t on their way to the top, they’re on the road to nowhere. The audience had to know from the start that crime didn't get you anything.

The 50s favored stories that praised the forces of authority in their fearless struggle against enemies of society and the state. There’s usually a clear-cut distinction between good guys and bad guys. Focus is on a broader social canvas. Exposing evil like communism and organized crime was important. The stentorian lecture at the start of so many 50s crime dramas - that Classic Noir had spared us - drove this point home with a vengeance.  

In fact, 301 doesn’t feature any Classic Noir themes, but one. No suckers or troubled souls who go over to the dark side out of desperation or lust and obsession can be found here. Legenza’s motivations are straightforward and prosaic: money. Killing is strictly business, absolutely detached and unemotional, it doesn’t affect him one way or the other. He’d make the perfect hitman.
There’s no complexity in the plot and no depth and ambivalence in the characters either. The movie goes straight for violence and action. I’m OK with that.

Of course we do get the moralistic sermon at the beginning warning us against moral turpitude. Apparently, the audience needed to be scared straight before the hoods could get their sticky paws on them. “Crime is an empty career” is one of the platitudes spouted by a humorless flatfoot who’s preaching from the pulpit here.

301’s public service announcement to keep on the straight and narrow is delivered by no less than three real governors! These blowhards assure us with a completely straight face that this movie could actually stop some juvie from turning to a life of crime. It goes something like this: “Kids, this movie, THIS MOVIE, saved me from a life of crime. It will SAVE YOU TOO!”
It’s a howler. J. Edgar has a lot to answer for.

Mercifully, it’s short. Just pretend the first four minutes are all a bad dream. Because once the cringe stops, we’re finally on track to a mean and sadistic little flick that the censors slept through. Old Bosley was right, the flick is sadistic, but he said it like it’s a bad thing. 301 is plenty entertaining.

The picture is Cochran’s show. An extremely good-looking man, Cochran was also a good actor who never got his due. Cochran had an air of easy violence and sexual menace about him which practically predestined him to play tough guys or scumbag psychos. But he was perfectly believable playing against type in Tomorrow is Another Day as naive man-child who has to learn the ways of the world. 

His real-life escapades could easily outshine his on-screen antics. He certainly lived fast and died fairly young. His amorous exploits are the stuff of legend. He was a heavy drinker and was involved in a number of highly-publicized brawls and fights. Run-ins with the law were a common occurrence. Somehow I get the feeling that he loved his bad boy image more than anything. In the 60s, his lifestyle was catching up with him and led to his premature death at 48. Details about it are bizarre and mysterious. He hired an all-girl crew - who knew nothing about sailing - for a trip from Acapulco to Costa Rica. Three weeks later his body was found. Cochran had been dead for ten days and his body was badly decomposed. The women claimed they had been adrift at sea. The official cause of death was ruled to be a lung infection. Make of that what you will.

Legenza’s personality dominates the gang and Cochran’s performance dominates the movie. He’s in top form as an ice-cold and terrifying psycho without a conscience. Legenza doesn’t believe in taking prisoners. His method of dealing with people who don’t see things his way are rather direct and well, final. He won’t be crossed or disobeyed.

Oddly enough, the gangsters have their women with them when they’re “working”. Not a smart move. The only one who doesn’t mess things up is Mary Simms (Virginia Grey). Grey deserves honorable mention as wife of a gang member. She’s wise to what is going on, but doesn’t care. Her portable radio is all that’s important to her. Grey was an actress who was usually relegated to supporting roles as nice best friend, betrayed girlfriend or faithful wife. Here she gets to be amoral. As long as the money keeps coming in, she’s fine with whatever her man does. 

Women cause a lot of problems in 301 (don't they always), but for Legenza it’s nothing that a 9 millimeter couldn’t take care of. When his latest squeeze Madeleine gets plastered, she starts to shoot her mouth off. But it’s clear to her she’s said too much for once. In a very suspenseful sequence she tries to escape, but there is no escape. “Going someplace, sweetie?” Legenza gloats when he catches up with her.
He guns her down in brightly-lit nighttime in front of an elevator attendant, sending her tumbling down the stairs. Legenza knows the witness won’t talk.

Lee Fontaine (Gaby AndrĂ©), a French-Canadian girl newly-married to one of Legenza’s underlings, is another headache for him. Lee married her husband after a very short courtship and has no idea what he and his friends are up to. She is naive and very much in love, but she’s not stupid. She catches on soon enough, and after her husband is shot, Lee too tries to escape.

In another suspenseful sequence, Legenza stalks Lee through night-time Richmond. We can see real terror here. Lee knows she’s trapped and realizes she is utterly alone and helpless. Finally she manages to catch a cab, just to realize the driver is Legenza…who puts a bullet into her at point-blank range.
This scene is shot beautifully with evocative shadows on empty streets and high heels clicking on rain-slicked pavement. Warner’s backlot stood in for the streets of Richmond, VA. It's a little lesson in Noir. 

Miraculously - too miraculously - Lee survives and will cause some more trouble for Legenza. She just won’t die. In true Noir tradition, it’s a woman who is Cochran’s downfall, just in a different way this time. Legenza goes to the hospital where she’s lying to clean up some unfinished business. He doesn’t smell a rat. Of course the cops are there and it all ends in a shootout. Legenza is dying on the train tracks, riddled with bullets, watching the speeding train come closer. It packs a punch.

A nice little movie, worth seeking out.


  1. This came on TCM during the dinnertime hour a couple of years ago and before we knew what was happening everybody was sucked into the tight little film. That's happened more than once. I think it is their plan.

  2. You're on a Steve Cochran roll, did you ever pick up "Tell Me in the Sunlight" ;-)

    1. I love that guy. I don't think I've even heard of Tell Me in the Sunlight. I haven't seen any of his 60s movies, just his TV appearances. It certainly sounds interesting!

  3. Replies
    1. Yes unfortunately but I guess the way he lived, he wouldn't get old. Did you write something about Tell Me in the Sunlight?