HIGHWAY 301 (1950)

“You cannot be kind to congenital criminals like these. They would show you no mercy. Let them feel the full impact of the law.”

Back in the days before the no-holds-barred speedway/parking lot that is Interstate 95, sun-seekers in their Nash Ramblers and Studebaker Champions trekked from Baltimore to Florida on U.S. 301. In the 1950 Warner Bros. noir, Highway 301, a ruthless band of killers known as the “Tri-State Gang” exploit the thoroughfare’s easy on-easy off access to engage in that most American of crimes: kicking over banks.
The leader of the outfit is played by Steve Cochran, a good-looking and underestimated actor who could do more than the critics of his day were willing to acknowledge. Cochran could be boyish and naïve in one picture and a greasy scumbag in another; in Highway 301 he creates a legitimately terrifying screen persona, most certainly influenced by Jimmy Cagney’s neurotic turn in the previous year’s White Heat, in which Cochran co-starred. Here, Cochran borrows from the older actor and still manages to keep him at arm’s length. Unlike Cody Jarrett, Cochran’s George Legenza murders so casually that the film’s heartbeat barely flutters whenever he squeezes the trigger. Yet despite the actor’s idyllic good looks and his wardrobe of switchblade-sharp suits, there’s zero glamour to be found in this evocation of the criminal life. The Tri-State mob live out their doomed lives in a series of cheap roadside flops, greasy spoons, and chop suey palaces. Hustling from place to place, all cigarette smoke and nervous sweat, crammed five or six to a car, going nowhere.
If you can get your hands on a copy (Warner Archive DVD), stick with it beyond the first five minutes—viewers must first endure a trio of warnings from the governors of Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina about the perils of the criminal life. Juvenile delinquency was an ongoing national concern in the postwar period, as distressing as polio, the bomb, and Biro and Wood’s Crime Does Not Pay. Parents, teachers, and church groups wrung their hands over how all this glorification of crime might lead to a generation of profligates, so the brothers Warner must have been eager to let three pontificating politicians blow for a minute or two at the start of the picture. This is by no means a juvenile delinquency movie—that filmic fad was still a few years away—but given the gunfire about to light up the screen, it’s hard to blame them for welcoming any stripe of official endorsement.
Wait. Biro and Wood,* you say? Who? They were the boys behind the most brutal comic book ever made. You thought those 1950s EC strips were bad? Get wise. Crime Does Not Pay plumbed the depths of human depravity and put it all on display on the glossy covers and pulpy pages of a sensation that was devoured by millions of kiddies and adults each month from the 1940s to the early 1950s. The comic dodged censors (at least for a while) because its crooked culprits always got it in the end, but in the pages leading up to those last few panels, Biro, Wood, and company exalted in an orgy of tommy guns, nooses, shotgun blasts, short skirts, and shallow graves. They spilled buckets of blood; they jammed hypodermic needles in their characters’ eyes; they set women on fire. As a matter of fact, in their June 1948 issue they even told the story of notorious Depression-era gangsters Walter Legenza* and Bobby Mais, the same fellows whose capers loosely inspired Highway 301. The movie creeps right up on that same thin razor of a line between documentary and exploitation that Crime Does Not Pay gleefully spat upon. With the exception of, perhaps, The Phenix City Story, it comes closer than any other midcentury crime film to capturing the wanton lewdness of those comics.
Highway 301 opens in tobacco country, with the Tri-State crew taking down a Winston-Salem bank in broad daylight. One by one, as the hoods exit the idling getaway car and take up positions in the lobby, a narrator gives up the skinny on their respective yellow sheets. One henchmen boasts 21 arrests and zero convictions—accused of everything from arson to murder. Another has just as many collars, with nothing to show for it beyond a hundred-dollar fine. George Legenza himself is on the lam, having busted his way out of the state penitentiary some months ago—though if he’s worried about being nabbed it doesn’t show. Highway 301’s moralizing tone is front and center from open to close: the system treats crooks with kid gloves, and the boys and girls in the audience need to be scared straight before the George Legenzas of the world get their hands on them.
The robbery comes off fine—turns out the gang has been tearing up and down Highway 301 for a while, leaving the bluecoats in the lurch. Even the feds are in on it now, but, as it happens in so many mid-century noirs, the law is obliged to impotently wait on the crooks to goof up. Fate and Destiny are the twin puppet masters of the noir universe, and they don’t give a damn about making the police look smart. When noir screenwriters wanted to lay crooks low, they zeroed their scripts in on tiny mistakes that turned out to have big consequences—a cosmic, ironic brand of justice. Take, for example, a canonical picture like Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing: karma comes not via the law, but rather from a discarded horseshoe in a parking lot, a cuckolded husband, and a gust of wind on an airport tarmac. In the noir universe, cops mostly chase their tails until the time comes for them to swoop in and pick up the pieces.
In Highway 301, fate comes with penciled eyebrows and a French accent. Lee Fontaine, (B-movie actress Gaby André), a recent conquest of Legenza’s protégé, is new to the gang. After she’s logged enough time to see what Legenza does to cops (shoots them in the back), armored car guards (shoots them in the back), and his girlfriends (shoots them in the back), she decides to beat it back to her native Canada. The film’s second and third acts take a detour from all that bank robbing and nestle into the shadowy confines of the Warner’s back lot, as the narrative shifts focus away from the gang’s crime spree to Legenza’s efforts to snatch Fontaine before she can blab. Don’t think too hard about why the Tri-State boys carpool to and fro with their girlfriends stashed at nearby motor courts instead of leaving them safe at home—the story falls apart if they don’t. But let’s at least acknowledge that in most other like-minded films (including Cochran and Cagney’s White Heat) the paramours don’t travel. I’ll back off that point as far as Hollywood lifer Virginia Grey is concerned. Her seen-it-all floozy steals every scene, and Highway 301 would be a lonely stretch of blacktop without her.
Yet the film’s tone is such that it barely resembles the iconic noirs from just a few years before. Double Indemnity, Laura, The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Big Sleep, and many others class-up their violence under a veneer of lust and sex. That’s not the case here—Highway 301 is as brutal as it is detached. Its killings are more coldly matter-of-fact than any seen in the classics mentioned earlier, and more closely resemble those from another bank job picture, 1995’s Heat, release nearly a half-century later.
In the end, this is a low budget affair, but a stylish one. Yes, Richmond, Virginia has far too many palm trees and conspicuously resembles the Bunker Hill neighborhood of downtown Los Angeles, but the serpentine streets of the WB back lot never looked better, doused in shadow and drenched with rain. The film’s final moments, including a fantastic car stunt and a hair-raising sequence set atop a train trestle, are not only worth the price of admission, but also render bearable all of the dreary semi-documentary bits that showcase law enforcement. •

Legenza in Crime Does Not Pay

 * Writer-artist Bob Wood beat a woman to death in New York’s Irving Hotel—she was “giving me a bad time” he bragged to the cabbie who drove him home—and did three years for first-degree manslaughter. Seem like a short sentence? Apparently in those days being drunk was a mitigating factor. Rest easy though: Wood signed some IOUs with the made guys at Sing Sing in order to make his prison stretch go easy. When he got out and the time came to pay the piper, Wood couldn’t find his wallet. He was murdered within a year of his release.

* The real-life Legenza would die in Virginia’s electric chair on February 2, 1935. A wealth of documents are available here.

Highway 301
Written and Directed by Andrew Stone
Produced by Brian Foy
Starring Steve Cochran, Virginia Grey, Gaby André, and Robert Webber
Cinematography is by Carl Guthrie
Released by Warner Bros. Pictures
Running time: 83 minutes

A New Book by Yours Truly!

Hi everyone! I haven’t been very active lately, and the reason was just released by Fantagraphics this week. My newest book, Take That, Adolf! The Fighting Comic Books of the Second World War hit Amazon, Target, and bookstores on Tuesday. It's a full-color coffee table book that digs deeply into the comic book industry’s participation in WWII, and features more than 500 covers, all restored by me. I feel pretty strongly that this is one of the most beautiful and comprehensive collections of Golden Age comic covers ever collected in a single volume. There’s also a 50,000+ word essay that examines all of the issues surrounding comic’s involvement with the war, including the rise of the patriotic hero, government propaganda, racism, bond and stamp sales, and so on. I hope everyone will check it out, and forgive me for not posting for such a long time! I'll be back on the crime front in no time! 


Lawrence Tierney’s hallowed reputation as the real-life embodiment of a film noir tough guy endears him to most movie fans and generally insulates him from criticism. Hard core enthusiasts often establish their noir bona fides by slinging stories of his off-screen exploits. He’s the cinematic equivalent of a made guy. If you can’t get with Tierney, it seems at times, you might as well leave film noir well enough alone — it probably ain’t for you. In spite of all that, beyond Tierney’s unique one-two punch — leading man good looks and his spectacular ability to project menace — he wasn’t much of an actor. When a role came along that he couldn’t charge into with his head down and his fists up, as was the case with director Richard Fleischer’s Bodyguard, his performance comes up a few shells short of a stacked clip.

There’s little to care about here by way of story: Tierney plays a detective who gets pink-slipped on account of his strong-arm tactics, then framed for the murder of his lieutenant. That’s the extent of Bodyguard’s noir statement: wrongly accused ex-copper has to get out from under on his own steam. The rest is just running time. Along the way Tierney gets mixed up in some intrigue surrounding a murder cover-up at a meat-packing plant, and the wealthy owners who may or may not have had something to do with it.

Nevertheless, the critical mass surrounding Bodyguard is generally favorable, owing to some slick dialog and several deft directorial touches by Fleischer, just beginning his career. As far as Tierney is concerned, most other reviewers rehash the same tough mug platitudes that one bumps into when reading about Dillinger, The Devil Thumbs a Ride, or Born to Kill. In this case the praise isn’t merited. Tierney is miscast; and Bodyguard would have been a better movie with a more capable leading man. Woe is us that Paramount had Alan Ladd locked up at the time, because this is the kind of part that he was made for. Tierney is one-dimensional and flat; Ladd had something else. I’ll stop — I know the comparison is unfair.

Tierney had more in common with film noir’s iteration of Raymond Burr, and maybe even a leg up on him. Admittedly, this comparison is also unfair because Burr, in spite of his wide range and other special gifts as an actor, didn’t look like Ben Affleck. But can you imagine Tierney instead of Burr in Pickup? It’s at the very least intriguing. His air of corruption, the rough edges, the cheapness, and that hair trigger? Bodyguard asks him to holster all of these things, to sit on his hands, and one wonders if Priscilla Lane — she’s too perky not to like — wasn’t cast as the girl Friday in order to soften Tierney. After all, if we like her, and she likes him, we ought to as well, right? The hard sell goes even further: Tierney plays big brother to some neighborhood kids, tosses a ball back and forth with another, and drinks his milk like a good boy. But we’re unmoved; as an actor Tierney just wasn’t meant to be liked. Perhaps it took this movie to make sure of it.

* A note or two about the poster: In spite of the artwork, Tierney doesn’t rough up any women in the film. (For that matter, he never actually works as a bodyguard either.) Certainly the RKO brass were hoping the artwork would pull in the audience from his successful turn the previous year’s Born to Kill. And the image of Lane — it couldn't be less flattering. 

Bodyguard (1948)
Directed by Richard Fleischer
Screenplay by Fred Niblo Jr. and Harry Essex, based on a story by George W. George and Robert Altman.
Starring Lawrence Tierney and Priscilla Lane
Produced by Sid Rogell
Cinematography by Robert De Grasse
Released by RKO Pictures
Running time: 62 minutes



It opens, this thing, on death row. A nameless penitentiary squats next to a river that turns over and over, churning like the guts of the suckers wasting away inside its walls. Three hours to go until the lights flicker and the warden once again flips the switch on the vacancy sign. It’s Number Five’s turn tonight, and he’s got no taste for the meal that arrives hot under a silver platter. Number Three puts on a record, hoping to take Number Five’s mind off the ticking of the clock, which echoes so loudly that not even the crashing of the river can drown it out. The other doomed men whisper to him from up and down the block, “Talk boy, tell us how you got here. Talking takes your mind off things when you’re up close to it.” So Number Five hunkers down onto the rack, probably for the last time, and gives. It has to do with a dead man, a wallet full of big bills, and a pair of dancing shoes.

“Where you been?” he remembers asking her.

“Around the world in a rowboat.” She said, her lips barely moving, tired after yet another night on her feet, eyeballing the bed and longing for the numbness of sleep. Give her a few hours and she’ll come back to life, having momentarily forgotten the too-tight heels, the threadbare dress, those same old tired records, and the wretched breath of lonely, clutching men.

It stings to look at her, to think about what she does for the rent. He isn’t pulling his own weight — they live off her sweat and tears. They both used to be real dancers, but that was a lifetime ago. The city was magnificent when the war was on, bright and abundant with six-week contracts, every grinning theatrical man’s door wide open. Not now though. In the months since it ended and the naval yard in Brooklyn began to teem with men again — older now, their eyes different — the nightclub gigs dried up and the city boiled down to this one room apartment and the dark alleys that surround it on all four sides.

He remembers his anger that night, the tangy flavor of it, remembers throwing one new dancing shoe, then the other after the alley cats bleating on the fence outside their window. The shoes were a gift from her, a sign that she still hoped, but to him they were just another reminder of his failure. He shut his eyes thinking he’d either get the shoes back in the morning or he wouldn’t, but when he dragged himself out of bed they were already there, leaning neatly up against the flat’s scarred door. He should’ve figured the shoes’ reappearance was fishy. If he wasn’t such a dumb cluck he would have thrown them in the incinerator.

Maybe he should have gotten wise later that afternoon, when he found the wallet and the money on the street. Third-rate hoofers like him didn’t catch breaks, there was something else at work here. It was if the thing had been put there just for him, where only he would find it. He had pounded this stretch of sidewalk, from one dour theatrical man’s locked door to the next, so often that he could do it through the haze that his life had become. He could have, should have turned it in — he wanted to, really — but she lit up when she saw the bills. She thought of the money as their ticket out, to the coast and maybe a chance in the movies, and what good was a man if he couldn’t give his girl the things she wanted?

But the cops had his number. They had taken a plaster of the footprint at the murder scene — in the alley right outside the apartment window. They knew it was a tap shoe. They knew the damn thing belonged to a man of his size and build. They started watching him and waiting for him to spend the money. It was a Bakelite radio that fouled them up, and not even a good one. Can’t a man buy his wife a radio without being hauled in for murder? Not in this nightmare. Now in a few hours, at midnight, this first Tuesday after Christmas, the lights will flicker and a day or two later some other sap will take his place, and the others will call him Number Five. He’ll have a story of his own to tell, and a river that listens.   

I Wouldn’t Be in Your Shoes (1948)
Directed by William Nigh
Screenplay by Steve Fisher
Story by Cornell Woolrich
Starring Don Castle, Elyse Knox, Regis Toomey
Cinematography by Mack Stengler
Released by Monogram Pictures (Walter Mirisch Productions)
Running Time: 70 minutes