Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Highway 301
(Warner Bros., 1950)

George Legenza: mean as a snake and twice as deadly.

The whole blazing story of the Tri-state gang!

Just the Facts
Highway 301 is a down and dirty crime picture that evokes in its fierce energy and breakneck pace the Warner Bros. gangster movies of the thirties. Written and directed by Andrew L. Stone, the film charts the extralegal activities of the “Tri-State Gang,” so named because its members ply their trade in Virginia, Maryland and North Carolina. The five-man crew is led by George Legenza (Steve Cochran), a stone-cold sociopath who doesn’t hesitate to kill anyone he deems a threat—not excluding girlfriends who contemplate ratting out to the police.

Following a brief “crime does not pay” preamble by the actual governors of the aforementioned states, we see it pay very well indeed as the outlaws knock over a Winston-Salem bank with military-like precision. That evening the gang unwinds at a swank nightclub, but George’s squeeze Madeline (Aline Towne) kills his buzz with her incessant worry that the police will soon catch up to them. George smacks her down, but it’s not enough to make her tone down. She eventually splits and cabs back to her hotel, intending to pack and run out for good. Legenza tails her and is on his way up in the hotel elevator as she nervously waits to ride it down. She gets the surprise of her life when the doors open and she finds herself face to face with lover boy. “Goin’ somewhere, sweetie?” he asks calmly, and just as calmly pulls out his piece and guns her down.

Legenza's girlfriend no longer has to worry about the cops.

Their next job, a payroll truck heist, goes just as smoothly as the bank job, but as the men tear into the booty, they discover the money's been cut and was en route to the federal mint to be burned. A bad omen, one the gang ignores at its peril, as its heretofore-profitable program starts to unravel. Even Legenza’s trigger-happy habit can’t prevent the law from closing in. The fast-paced film picks up even more steam as the boys become embroiled in one desperate scrape after another. Following a tense hospital shootout, the remaining gang members end up on the losing end of a fierce police pursuit, which culminates in spectacular fashion as one of them suffers further—and fatal—trauma from the effects of machine gun bullets and a speeding train.

Summary Judgment
Andrew Stone was one of numerous Hollywood directors who labored in relative obscurity while making consistently reliable entertainment. His films are notable for their frequent location shooting, direct sound and naturalistic lighting. He worked hard and he worked fast, but most important, he worked efficiently, turning out a series of taut crime thrillers throughout the fifties: Confidence Girl (1952), The Steel Trap (1952), A Blueprint for Murder (1953), The Night Holds Terror (1953), Julie (1956) and Cry Terror (1958). The no-nonsense approach he brought to his films reflects the character of the man who turned down a lavish MGM contract, stating: “I’d have had to pacify the stars and keep them happy—like a priest who doesn’t believe a word of what he says.” Stone’s contrarian personality can be sensed in the disparity between his handling of the film’s authority figures and those on the other side of the law. The prologue’s gubernatorial trio is presented in static setups that do nothing to mitigate the numbing boredom of their platitudes. Ditto for Detective Sergeant Truscott (Edmon Ryan), who leads the investigation of the Tri-State Gang and is also heard in periodic sanctimonious voiceover.

A new twist on making a withdrawal.

In marked contrast is the beautifully filmed bank robbery sequence that opens the film proper. Stone first gives us a privileged view of the men riding inside the getaway car, introducing them visually before we learn their names. This first brief glimpse of Legenza immediately establishes his low-key yet unquestioned leadership. After the car parks a few yards from the bank entrance, one man gets out and saunters into the building as the voiceover states his criminal resume. In like manner, three more gang members follow suit, one at a time, and take up strategic positions inside. After impersonating customers for several minutes, they suddenly spring into action. The measured pace gives way to fast cutting as one crook disarms the harmless old security guard, another covers the patrons and employees, and two more nimbly leap over the teller windows, a shot given added dynamism through its high-angle perspective. (French director Jean-Pierre Melville must have been a fan of this scene, as he faithfully copied its slow-building rhythm, and many of its shots, in his 1973 neo-noir Un Flic.)

A similar level of unobtrusive craftsmanship enriches many other set pieces: There’s a tense scene in which Legenza and Robert Mais (Wally Cassell) hide in the back of a truck amidst dozens of egg crates while a pair of checkpoint patrolmen peer through the cracks, putting the hoodlums in a cold sweat as they try to make themselves as small as possible. Elsewhere, Stone deftly evokes the threatening atmosphere of the urban jungle when an innocent girl caught up in the gang flees through deserted streets as Legenza tails her from a distance with near-spectral malice.

It's a jungle out there.

Stone’s screenplay is on par with his direction. It’s tight as a drum and peppered with dark humor. While hiding out after one of their outfit has been killed, Legenza and Mais must prevent the girlfriend of the dead man from escaping and informing on them. Legenza locks her in a room, leaving Mais to watch her while he grabs a bite to eat. As he exits, Mais asks, “What are you gonna do with her?” Legenza stares at him for several seconds and then says, “That’s right.” As Mais closes the door behind Legenza, he glances balefully towards the girl’s room and turns out the light.

Cochran is solid gold as career criminal George Legenza. Beginning his film career in 1945, he contributed memorable turns in The Chase and The Best Years of Our Lives (both released in 1946), earned additional notice by holding his own against scene-stealer James Cagney in White Heat (1949), and showed further range as a high-class hood who falls for Joan Crawford in The Damned Don’t Cry (1950). Highway 301 was his first starring role, and Cochran took full advantage of the opportunity, creating one of the most bone-chilling characters in the crime film canon. He underplays his role nicely, wearing a heavy-lidded expression that evokes a snake waiting for the right moment to strike. His character also has an interesting kink in that he likes to have sex after pulling a big job (a characteristic shared by Richard Stark’s main character in the Parker novels). The dialog hints at this when Legenza is dancing with a reluctant Madeline after the bank job. “C’mon, sweetie, brighten up. You know what I like after a big deal. I gotta soak up a little fun.” “I don’t feel like fun,” she replies. “Well, try it for size,” he snarls.

Stone cold.

Fingering the Fifties
• People smoking in hospitals.
• Uniformed elevator operators.
• Pleasant bank tellers.

ROBERT MAIS [reading article on the gang’s exploits]: “Truscott says this and Truscott says that. He’s making a career out of us.”
GEORGE LEGENZA: “Well, it’ll be a long career.”
ROBERT MAIS: “Don’t sell the guy short. I heard he’s plenty smart.”
GEORGE LEGENZA: “Just like all the rest. A stupid cop.”
MARY SIMMS: “Would you like a little background music to that? It’s called a swan song.”

OLD MOTORIST [after almost being run off the road by the gang]: “Why, ya crazy galoots!”

All aboard!

Contemporaneous Reviews
The New York Times, December 9, 1950 (Bosley Crowther)
The most disturbing and depressing of the many depressing things about the Strand’s current Warner Brothers’ shocker, “Highway 301,” is the fact that governors in Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina endorse this cheap gangster melodrama as an effective deterrent to crime. In forewords which are personally delivered by Maryland’s lame-duck Governor Lane and by Virginia’s and North Carolinas Governors Battle and Scott, respectively, these eminent and honorable officials convey the solemn idea that what you are about to see is something that will prove to you how profitless crime is. And what you see is a conventional modern-day cops-and-robbers film, based on the dismal depredations of the so-called Tri-State gang, in which robbing and shooting and violence are exhibited for pure sensation’s sake, with the gangsters annihilated in a juicy blood-bath at the end.

Opening with the supposed robbery of a bank in Winston-Salem, N.C., by a gang of five sinister hoodlums, not one of whom would win a brain-test prize, this picture recounts their adventures in their escapes, their other crimes and with their “molls” through a series of ticklish moments, until the cops finally give them the works. Steve Cochran plays the gang leader, so he’s the most arrogant of the mob, and Gaby Andre as a naive French-Canadian is the most sympathetic of the “molls.” As other gangsters, Robert Webber, Richard Egan and Wally Cassell are standard muggs, and Virginia Grey is acerbic as a “moll” who tries to play the game. However, 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 mentioned above.

(As Pauline Kael noted in 1964, one could invariably rely on Crowther’s “reverse acumen” to determine a film’s true merit.)

Director: Andrew L. Stone; screenplay: Andrew L. Stone; producer: Bryan Foy; music: William Lava; cinematography: Carl Guthrie; format: black and white, 83 minutes, 1:37:1 aspect ratio

Steve Cochran (George Legenza); Virginia Grey (Mary Simms); Gaby Andre (Lee Fontaine); Edmon Ryan (Detective Sgt. Truscott); Robert Webber (Bill Phillips); Wally Cassell (Robert Mais); Aline Towne (Madeline Welton); Richard Egan (Herbie Brooks); Edward Norris (Noyes Hinton)

Who's the boss?

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1 comment:

  1. I am in the process of researching a book on the real Legenza and Mais. Interesting how fragmented bits from the movie are from real life and obvious that the writers got a clippings file together on these two criminals before pounding out the screenplay.