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1950's Highway 301 is an unusually violent gangster film, a picture so counter to the spirit of the Production Code that one would think it had been filmed and released while the industry wasn't looking. Writer-director Andrew L. Stone later became famous for doggedly realistic thrillers about ordinary people in jeopardy: The Night Holds Terror, Julie, The Decks Ran Red. To show an ocean liner sinking for The Last Voyage Stone and his wife Virginia purposely flooded a real ship in the waters off Japan. Critic Andrew Sarris quipped that if the Stones had made On the Beach, nobody would be around to review it.
The highway of the title refers to an interstate linking North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland. The criminals in question are The Tri-State Gang, a band of vicious bank robbers from the early 1930s; they were so active that normally uncooperative state law enforcement agencies were forced to pool their resoures. The movie begins with a lengthy and somewhat pointless "newsreel" in which the governors of the three states deliver law 'n' order speeches directly to the camera. As the thieves we see are operating in the present day, the opening has less than nothing to do with what follows.
Highway 301 is a polished Warners product filmed both on location and on the WB back lot, the familiar studio street sets that establish their own stylized reality. We follow the Tri-State Gang as it robs banks and an armored car. It's all basic stuff, but with the violence quotient turned way up. Although the narration works hard to play up a "crime does not pay" message, juvenile delinquents can observe how to evade police by using fire escapes, pretending to be innocent passersby, etc.. This is clearly the kind of "how to be a criminal" gangland show condemned by pundits looking out for the morals of American youth.
This vintage crime picture has a rather modern script. Imagine White Heat shorn of its rich characterizations and reduced to little more than its basic violent content: no complexity, just action and suspense scenes. Conscienceless hoodlum George Legenza (Steve Cochran, White Heat's hulking "Big Ed") leads the quartet of cold-blooded killers. Legenza doesn't just kill people, he murdalizes 'em. If you're impressed by the cavalier attitude toward killing in White Heat, this movie will make your head spin. Legenza settles most problems with hot lead and his choice of victims is shocking for 1950. No cutaways for this picture: one pursuit of a helpless female ends with a shocking, unexpected blast-down in front of witnesses. No wonder Highway 301 has been more or less forgotten. It probably wasn't considered appropriate for television bookings.
Despite extensive night scenes this is a very non-noir gangster picture, as we learn almost nothing about anybody's motivations. The thieves have girlfriends. The girlfriends cause trouble and then have to be murdered as well. Mary Simms (Virginia Grey) is comfortable with her lot in life, as long as she gets to listen to her favorite soaps on the radio. She's in for comedy relief until the finale, when she takes active part in an attempted rubout. Frightened beauty Madeline Welton (Aline Towne) can't keep her mouth shut and foolishly thinks she can leave the gang by packing a bag and walking out. Believing her new husband to be a 'businessman', innocent Lee Fontaine (Gaby Andre of Cosmic Monsters) is shocked to realize what's going on and also makes a run for her life. Director Stone keeps the tension high as Legenza closes in on the poor girl. The movie is so bloodthirsty, we have no guarantee that anybody will come out alive.
Edmon Ryan plays a humorless federal cop coordinating the police counterattack. Smart-mouthed crook Robert Mais is Wally Cassell, another veteran of White Heat. If you recall, he's the guy who tried to save poor "Zucky, the guy who got scalded". Highway is an early credit for Richard Egan and the first film appearance for Robert Webber, who plays a particularly unlucky gang member. Three of the gang and their women share the same hotel suite but additional members Herbie (Richard Egan) and Noyes (Edward Norris of They Won't Forget and Decoy) are a notably aligned male couple. Writer Stone is so stingy with the character detail that it's difficult to tell if any particular subtext was intended. If it was, Herbie & Noyes are definite precursors to "Fante & Mingo" in Joseph H. Lewis's The Big Combo.
This "crime does not pay" saga spends 83 minutes celebrating the ruthless efficiency of some really brutal crooks. One plot twist reminds us of Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch: after an elaborate robbery and murder the mob finds that worthless shredded currency has been substituted for newly minted bills. When the law catches up with the gang Highway 301 shows them no mercy. Rotten crook Steve Cochran's extravagant demise is the stuff of gruesome legend.
In his December 9, 1950 New York Times review, critic Bosley Crowther expresses the same concerns for Highway 301 that he had for White Heat the year before:
"... the whole thing, concocted and directed by Andrew Stone, is a straight exercise in low sadism. And the reactions at the Strand yesterday among the early audience, made up mainly of muscular youths, might have shocked and considerably embarrassed the governors [in the prologue] mentioned above."
In other words, Highway 301 will delight hardcore gangster fans.
The Warner Archive Collection's DVD-R is a remastered beauty that suggests that Highway 301 hasn't been out of the vault since it was new -- picture and audio are near flawless. William Lava's score apes the style of Max Steiner, while Carl Guthrie's no-nonsense cinematography is the film's strongest asset -- those rainy-wet city streets never looked better. Editor Owen Marks has the most prestigious credits; besides White Heat, he also edited Casablanca, Treasure of the Sierra Madre and East of Eden.
No trailer is provided. Noir fans remark about the sexual subtext in the graphic above, taken from a German poster, but it doesn't represent the movie very accurately. Steve Cochran shows little emotion beyond a flash of eyebrows or a knowing smirk, and Virginia Grey's nervy gun moll has little opportunity to look really glamorous.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Highway 301 rates:
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