Wednesday, August 05, 2015

HIGHWAY 301 (1950)

This crime film begins with the sitting governors of three states giving brief introductions about the actual case the movie is based on, all drily expounding on the message that crime never pays. Luckily, the movie that follows is far less pedantic than the governors, as we follow the exploits of five guys (and a couple of molls) known as the Tri-State Gang, bank robbers who are not above killing innocent bystanders if need be. The leader of the gang, Steve Cochran, seems like a smooth charmer who might have a sensitive side, but he's really a dead-eyed brute. The other gang members (including Richard Egan and Robert Webber who both went on to long character-actor careers) will follow Cochran anywere, but after an apparenly successful bank job, a witness sees them change cars and the cops finally have a concrete clue with a license plate number. Cochran's gal (Aline Towne) gets tired of running, so in a particularly graphic scene, he guns her down on the stairs of an apartment building. The gang slowly splinters from here on out; their next robbery, of 2 million dollars from an armored car, goes south when, after killing one of the guards, Cochran finds out that the money is "cut cash," worthless bills which have been cut up and are headed for destruction. Eventually Webber's Canadian girlfriend (Gaby Andrè) becomes a liability and, in a tense scene, Cochran hunts her down on the streets and shoots her. However, she survives, though in a coma, and Cochran, now basically solo, goes after her one more time.

After that dry opening, the rest of the film has a bit of a split personality problem. Some scenes are done in a straightforward, narrated police procedural mode, and these scenes slow the movie down. Luckily, most of this is a noir melodrama with dark city streets, bursts of violence, and a gritty feel. Cochran (pictured above) is the main reason to watch; he gives a solid, controlled performance as a sociopathic crook, slightly less unhinged that WHITE HEAT's Cody Jarrett (James Cagney) but heading in that direction—Cochran played a gang member in that movie, and the final moments of this film are reminiscent of WHITE HEAT's finale. Webber and Egan are good, Towne and Andrè are fine as the molls, though the good guys, including Edmon Ryan as a cop and Virginia Grey as a reporter, don't get many chances to shine. The first bank robbery is shot effectively from above, and all the scenes of violence are tense and brutal. The typical conflicted noir hero is absent—Cochran never gives a second thought to his violent ways—though some of the gang members have second thoughts. Highly recommended. (In the picture at left, Cochran is to the left in the front seat, and Egan is behind him.) [TCM and DVD]

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