The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Highway 301

I was worried about 90 seconds into 1950's Highway 301. Real worried. This crime thriller from the Age of Film Noir looked to be diving into the genre flick...with a warning that crime is BAD. Oh no! Worse? Those warnings come from the real-life governors of three states. So immediately a story that sounded like it had a ton of potential was turning into something not so appealing. Did it drive out of the nasty detour? Thankfully, YES.

It's the early 1930s and a gang of vicious killers and bank robbers are cutting a swath across a three-state area including Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. No job is too big or small and no life is worth more much to this small gang of gangsters that's been dubbed the Tri-State Gang. At their head is an escaped convict, George Legenza (Steve Cochran), who leads the gang with a brutally efficient, sinister hand. If anything (ANYTHING) gets in the gang's way, he'll plug it with a bullet and move on no questions asked, no emotions hanging in the air. The gang's dubious exploits and a trail of dead bodies has caught the eye of the F.B.I. and law enforcement agencies all over the three state area. Legenza and his gang haven't been too interested in hiding their faces, and that decision may come back to bite them. Time is running out and the gauntlet is getting tighter and tighter.

Right up there with war, western and sci-fi flicks, one of my favorite genres is and has been the film noir genre. This 1950 crime thriller from director Andrew L. Stone isn't an out-and-out film noir entry. Instead, it has that distinct noir feel -- mood and style against a dark, often nighttime backdrop -- mixed in with a more straightforward crime thriller. This is based on a true story (read more about the gang HERE) so 'Highway' has the distinct feel of a crime thriller documentary, almost like something TV's Dragnet would focus on in the next two decades. We get that fly on the wall feel. We see both sides, crooks and cops, with characters often addressing the camera directly, especially those on the law enforcement side. It is a style that finds a groove between the noir genre and the more straightforward crime thriller angle, and all for the better.

That blending of genre works because....well, this is a particularly nasty movie for a 1950 audience. Yeah, 1950s film noir and crime thrillers were particularly dark, but there was almost always some flawed, imperfect anti-hero who you could slightly root for. The focus here in 'Highway' does detour some from the gang but not a lot. This is a movie about a murdering, ruthless bloody gang. Cochran is a vile, nasty scene-stealer. An actor who never became a huge star, usually starring in B-movies and appearing on countless TV shows, Cochran is the perfect villain here. His Legenza -- an escaped convict with murder and burglary raps on his record -- is emotionless, his brutal crimes not fazing him in the least. He kills because he doesn't want to get caught. It is a business decision and little else. Something in his way? With the snap of a finger, Legenza will knock you off. Just a terrifyingly effective bad guy who doesn't get the attention he deserves in the genre.

Watch out for the rest of the Tri-State Gang too though. Cochran's Legenza is the head of the snake, but this isn't a bunch to take on lightly. Also look for Robert Webber and Wally Cassell as the most visible of the gang, Legenza's most trusted men. Neither man is as efficiently and brutally cold as their gang leader, but it's close. Adding an interesting angle to the gang is the wives of the members, including the cynical, smart-mouthed Virginia Grey (with Cassel) and innocent Canadian woman Gaby Andre who marries Webber not knowing what her newlywed husband's occupation truly is. It's a cool change of pace within the genre-bender, showing female characters amidst the gangland chaos. Not as visible as the other parts of the game, also look for Richard Egan and Edward Norris to round out the gang.

Director/writer Stone is at the helm of a surprisingly good, interesting flick here. It crackles along at 83 minutes, covering a lot of ground and mixing in some robberies and heists with some shootouts, betrayals and chases along the way. It's never really in doubt how this will end once law enforcement (including lead officer Edmon Ryan) gets heavily involved, but it remains solid throughout as we see exactly how this gang will meet its end. When it comes along, it is a very satisfying finale. Not a well-known film, but one that's easy to recommend. A very dark, cool change of scenery for an at times familiar genre.

Highway 301 (1950): ***/****

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