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HIGHWAY 301 is a tautly directed and very well-acted B-level gangster
picture from the days when double features were the mainstay of local movie
houses. It might be interesting to know which bigger-budget movie it once
accompanied, but as it stands, HIGHWAY 301 is one gripping
After stentorian drones from no less than three state governors, Edmon Ryan, who plays Sgt. Truscott, continues to narrate the film. It's a superfluous feature of the film, mostly telling us what we are seeing, but at least Ryan has an actor's flair for reading. And none of that matters once the film's first scene kicks into gear: a brazen bank robbery involving a lot of extras and plenty of action. The film then goes on to introduce the main players. Unlike lesser B-pictures, these introductions are done mainly through showing the characters in action, nearly always a surefire method. We see Steve Cochran as George Legenza, leader of the criminal gang, barking orders to his subordinates. Never has Cochran been so callous, so hard-boiled in his projection of character. The look he gives those who transgress against him is downright chilling. Also impressive is the very young Robert Webber, who would go on to play opposite the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, as the ill-fated driver for the thugs. Females in this 1950 film are mainly subservient, with the occasional exception of the never-disappointing and still beautiful Virginia Grey. Her radio soap opera-obsessed gun moll gets to spout a few good cracks in retort to Cochran's jibes. And look for John McGuire (the hero, in 1940, of STRANGER ON THE THIRD FLOOR) as a police lieutenant.
This film has several extremely tense, enthralling sequences. It's shot in moody black and white, and the underrated William Lava's score punches up the action at every opportunity. After languishing in obscurity for decades, HIGHWAY 301 richly deserves restoration and video distribution.
The heart sinks when Highway 301 opens as the governors of three states bore us blind with pompous crime-does-not-pay speeches, one after the other. (It was 1950, and before we had a good time we had to be morally reassured.) Luckily, things pick up quickly in this modest but very well done look at life on the lam. A gang of bank-and-payroll robbers is terrorizing North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland; its leader (Steve Cochran) is especially vicious, and seems to take particular delight in bumping off women who cross him. One of them (Virginia Grey) gets bumped off much too early, as her sassy mouth is one of the best things in the movie. Another is the French-Canadian girlfriend (Gaby Andre) of another gangster, who only slowly comes to realize that she's fallen in with a den a theives ("duh?"). The tensest sequence in the movie occurs when Cochran is stalking her, by night, in the streets of Richmond, Virginia. The concluding scene, in a hospital, is almost as good. Again, by no means a vital installment in the noir canon, but quite professional and engaging.
HIGHWAY 301 is a rip-roaring Warner Brothers return to their
hard-hitting early 1930s gangster cycle complete with a "Crime Does Not
Pay" prologue delivered by the governors of the three states the events
take place in. Filmed in a semi-documentary style with sporadic
voice-over narration, the tale is based on "cold, hard fact" and is
surprisingly sadistic -which could be the reason why I never saw it on
TV growing up. Like many good crime melodramas, H301 opens with a bank
robbery and follows the gang and their molls as they live life on the
run and I was reminded of 1967's BONNIE & CLYDE in its depiction of a
"family" of outlaws contending with pressures from within as they're
relentlessly pursued by the long arm of the law. The brutally handsome
Steve Cochran dominates his surroundings as the flint-eyed, heartless,
"take-no-prisoners" leader of the "Tri-State Gang" who can calmly kill
at the drop of a fedora and Robert Webber and newcomer Gaby Andre
(whatever happened to her?) are believable as a young con and his naive
bride in over their heads. Familiar face Virginia Grey scores as a
radio-addicted dame who knows the score and the reliable Eddie Norris
and Richard Egan are also on hand in small roles. The director, Andrew
Stone, wrote the never-a-dull-moment script and, in addition to the
solid direction and "A" production values only a major studio can
provide, the violence directed at women and the high body count made
this fast-paced police procedural a slick "shocker" for its day and it
still packs a punch. Warners also made WHITE HEAT, KISS TOMORROW
GOODBYE (both with James Cagney), and THE DAMNED DON'T CRY (again with
bad boy Cochran) around the same time. Highly recommended for fans of
this type of film -and you know who you are.
"Several good suspense sequences, some good comic observation, and many pleasing visual moments of the wet-streets-at-night category." -"Punch"
I saw this very exciting and fast paced gangster movie over 50 years ago and remember it fondly to this very day. I even remember the theater I saw it in on a Saturday matinée. It kept me on the edge of my seat from beginning to end and the action never lets up. It's a classic Steve Cochran performance. A real bad apple with no redeeming qualities. Andrew L. Stone directed which is really no surprise because he specialized in action and suspense films which don't allow the viewer to take a deep breath such as the Last Voyage, Cry Terror and Blueprint for Murder. This is the kind of cops and robbers film that they don't make any more.
I had high hopes for HIGHWAY 301 (1950). It's a Warner Bros. crime
picture produced a year after WB's classic, WHITE HEAT, with two of the
same cast (Steve Cochran and Wally Cassell), and it's based on the true
story of the Tri-State Gang. It starts out well with semi-documentary
sequences, including speeches by three Southern governors (from
Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina) warning us that crime doesn't
pay and hoping this film will reinforce that message. There are
establishing shots of Winston-Salem, NC, before the film reverts to
Southern California locations for the first caper in the film, a
well-planned bank robbery by the five members of the gang. The next
caper, still within the film's first half-hour, is the disastrous
robbery of an armored truck, filmed on location in L.A. (but taking
place in Virginia). Eventually the cops close in and the gang goes on
the run, taking with them Lee Fontaine (Gaby Andre), the
French-Canadian girlfriend of a now-dead gang member, and holding her
captive after she's finally figured out that these guys aren't women's
apparel salesmen after all. She comes off as astoundingly naive, so
it's hard to feel sympathy for her.
After all the location footage in the first half-hour, the rest of the film is shot entirely on Warner Bros. soundstages and the studio's generic urban backlot. This part is supposed to take place in Richmond, Virginia, but there isn't a single element of southern flavor nor a southern accent to be heard anywhere. (Nor do we ever see Highway 301.) There are no more robberies as the film becomes a standard gangster picture as Fontaine tries to escape the gang at various points. In one scene she's stalked by Cochran at night through deserted streets, parks, and back alleys which create a nice noir-ish effect that would have meant something if the film had managed to generate any suspense. It all culminates in a hospital stand-off and a no-budget car chase staged entirely via rear screen projection. This was during a year when location-filmed car chases were attracting attention in films like Gordon Douglas's BETWEEN MIDNIGHT AND DAWN and Anthony Mann's SIDE STREET, so it's hard to excuse the shoddy work in this film.
Two members of the gang, played by Richard Egan and Edward Norris, disappear for long stretches of the film even though they're all supposed to be on the run. Robert Webber, in his film debut, plays the boyfriend of Fontaine and the one who told her they were a team of salesmen. (The oldest film of Webber's I'd seen previously was TWELVE ANGRY MEN, 1957.) As many of these movies as I've seen, and as many books about real-life crime gangs as I've read, I don't recall coming across any major instance where the gang lets a woman into their inner circle who doesn't already knowand acceptwhat they do. Fontaine's presence, as well as that of Cochran's ill-fated girlfriend seen earlier in the film (played by the pretty Aline Towne), violate a key precept of the genre and the tacit allowance of it by Cochran's hardened gang leader made it difficult for me to suspend my disbelief. Virginia Grey plays Cassell's girl, the only remotely believable female character in the film, although her addiction to soap operas heard on the portable radio she carries around seems like a screenwriter's construction designed to give her a "quirk." Her attempt to impersonate a reporter at the hospital is pretty funny, though.
Cochran (Big Ed in WHITE HEAT) snarled with the best of them and does it throughout this film in a portrayal he could have pulled off in his sleep. He's quite menacing to the women in the film, who spend a lot of time sneaking down stairways to avoid and escape him. (In real life it was quite the reverse, or so I've heard.) Cochran was an excellent actor, but he suffered from typecasting, especially in a film like this, where he's given no characterization at all. Wally Cassell (Cotton Valetti in WHITE HEAT and also seen in THE SANDS OF IWO JIMA) plays Cochran's closest sidekick and it's the biggest part I've seen him in. He's very good, but it's strictly a standard-issue role.
Edmon Ryan co-stars as Sergeant Truscott, a mild-mannered Washington DC police officer who leads the investigation and also narrates the film. One of his final lines to the audience is quite memorable: "You can't be kind to congenital criminals like these."
Highway 301 is written and directed by Andrew L. Stone. It stars Steve
Cochran, Virginia Grey, Gaby André and Edmond Ryan. Music is by William
Lava and photography by Carl Guthrie. Story is based on a real gang of
robbers known as The Tri-State Gang, who terrorised and thieved in
North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland. Plot chronicles their activities
and the pursuit of them by the authorities.
It opens with a trio of state governors cringe worthily pumping up the hard sell, for what we know is going to be a "crime doesn't not pay" message movie. I half expected the Star Spangled Banner to come booming out the speakers and an FBI version of Uncle Sam to flash on the screen telling us to come join the Crime Stoppers! Thankfully, once the cringe stops the film kicks in with a ruthless bank robbery and never looks back from that moment.
Led by cold blooded George Legenza (Cochran), this gang don't wear masks, they are ruthless but not beyond error, and tagging along are molls who are either oblivious to the gang's activities-fully complicit-or ignorant. It's a pressure cooker dynamic and as we soon find out, women are not going to be treated well here at all, if they are in the way or a threat to safety, they will cop it. Highway 301 is a violent film with some cold characterisations, and there may even be a subtle homosexual relationship between two of the gang members.
Andrew Stone's direction is tight and in tune with the jagged edges of his characters, with barely a filler shot used in the whole running time, while his scene structure for dramatic impacts work very well. Refreshingly there are no cheat cut-aways either. His cast are on form, with Cochran looming large with an intense and thoroughly dislikable portrayal leading the way, while Guthrie photographs with shadows prominent and a couple of night time street scenes are visually noirish. Unfortunately Stone's screenplay hasn't the time to put depth into the principal players, the gang are bad and greedy, the women scratching around for purpose or brains, but that's all we know. It's the one flaw in an otherwise great crime movie. 8/10
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I will always have fond memories of Steve Cochran's portrayal of the
scheming but doomed "Big Ed" in Raoul Walsh's classic "White Heat".
Cochran gets to play the brutal lead gangster in "Highway 301". I wonder how much Cochran absorbed watching Cagney play the criminally insane "Cody Jarrett". Cochrane has a brutally handsome sinister face, but not much else. To be fair to Cochran, the script is hardly of the caliber of "White Heat". Steve is one mean son of a gun here -- he seems to get a real kick out of murdering women and bank guards. But whereas Cagney's performance in "White Heat" is a fleshed-out fully alive personality, Cochran's Legenza is a cardboard villain whose sadism is never explained.
There are some good moments. Director Stone crafts a scene that is worthy of Hitchcock (and no doubt inspired by the Master) when Gaby Andre's character uses a piece of paper and a hairpin to unwedge a key, drop it onto the paper and slide it over to her side of the door. It doesn't sound like much on paper -- but the editing is well done and the scene becomes that overused term "Hitchcockian".
Cochran's death is fairly hideous, a brutal affair involving a freight train, but the scene only reminds me of how great Cagney was on "top of the world'.
If you can get past the slow opening with three fine governors from the states bordering "Highway 301" (this film is supposedly based on a true story) pontificating about what a wonderful film you are about to see, you are in for a rough brutal ride.
Actually, thinking of Cochran, he was fairly effective as "Big Ed" in "White Heat". Even though we have seen his character in a love affair with Cody's wife Verna, there is still a curious admiration for this young gangster when he declares to Verna that he must take a stand against Cody Jarrett. As I said, had the script been better, Cochran could have done something more interesting on "Highway 301".
The criminal exploits of a small group of gangsters working in the Maryland/Virginia/North Carolina area. The docudrama subgenre of noir tends to produce few masterpieces and a lot of mediocrities. This one is closer to mediocrity, but has a few worthwhile assets. The intro, with "crime does not pay" lectures by the governors of the three states, sets the self-righteous, judgemental tone for the film's narration and messages. The story follows a standard formula, with early successes by the gang followed by the net of the law gradually closing around them and forcing their hand. The characterizations are fun but one-note. Steve Cochran in the lead has an edgy brutality but not much else. However, the action sequences are well done, and there is one nail-biting, suspenseful scene as one of the gangster's gals tries to escape. The photography is quite nice as well, at least during the gloomy night scenes.
This is a Public Service picture thinly disguised as a crime movie, and a very poor one too. You know you're in trouble when three, count 'em three governors get to pound the message home that Crime Does Not Pay. Except in politics, i guess.Man, those HUAC hearings must have really scared Jack Warner silly to produce such lame law and order tripe as this movie. It's clear from the get-go that these gangsters are basically two-bit crooks, cowards who hit women and on a one way trip to the death house. Movies like this are only of interest as a scary example of Fifties government propaganda. "Kids, these guys may look cool, but look how mean and stupid they are. I'm sure you'd all much rather be a stuffed shirt like the clever cops who are way smarter than those no-good goons. Now eat your greens and go do your homework!" I'm sure J. Edgar "What's the Mafia?" Hoover gave this his Seal of Approval. Forgettable and frightening Fifties fare.
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