Tuesday

A CHAT NOIR WITH GRAHAM CHAFFEE


This interview was originally published in The Comics Journal

“I’m a terrible writer, is what it is,” Graham Chaffee tells me—but I don’t believe him. The cartoonist, who spends his days working as a tattoo artist in his Hollywood studio, is being too modest. His fourth graphic novel, To Have and To Hold, is a gut-punch thriller that argues otherwise, proving that Chaffee’s a storyteller who knows how to make the most of his medium. Whether he’s using spoken dialog or intimating a narrative through his character’s gestures, facial expressions, or body language, his work is consistently engrossing.

Set in the early 1960s at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, To Have and to Hold centers on Lonnie, a disgraced ex-cop forced to eke out a living as a night watchman, and his beleaguered wife Kate, whose marriage never served up any of the bliss promised by all those TV commercials and glossy magazine ads. Now the Ross’s life together is etched by petty bickering and smothering resentment. When Lonnie discovers that Kate has been stepping out on him, he reacts in a way that brings their world into chaos and threatens to destroy more than just their lives.

Over the course of 200 chiaroscuro pages, Chaffee puts his spin on the classic heist story through deeply-articulated characters and a black-and-white style perfectly matched to the subject matter. On the one hand, his work captures the visual élan and narrative smack of some of the best classic Hollywood B crime pictures—think 1950’s Armored Car Robbery or 1953’s Crime Wave, while on the other hand it recalls the melancholy bleakness and sophisticated relationship politics of noir writer David Goodis, rather than the cardboard rat-a-tat of Mickey Spillane.

Over the course of several emails, Chaffee and I discussed, among other things, his creative process, the influence of cinema on his work, and the dark side of the promise of prosperity in postwar America.


You’re a full-time tattoo artist in Los Angeles. I’m curious about how that job overlaps with your work as a cartoonist. Does your work in one area inform or influence your work in the other, and do you ever struggle to avoid burnout?

Tattooing is restrictive to my work as a comics artist. I am so used to crafting these clean designs with recognized protocols for outline, shading, and color, that it’s hard to switch gears and loosen up as a draughtsman. I fear my comics are more controlled and uptight than I’d like them to be. I’m no Ware or Burns, but I’d like to be even less so: looser, more expressive, more Julie Doucet!



You once described your graphic novels as “paper movies.” The narrative sensibilities in To Have and To Hold are often unmistakably cinematic—even the cover is reminiscent of a vintage movie poster. In what ways do films and filmmaking inform your process?

It’s more that I see the story like a movie in my head. I’m trying to draw the scenes the way I’d shoot them if I had a camera. I watch a lot of movies, but I don’t study specific scenes or shots or anything. This also means I don’t use a lot of narrative boxes or thought balloons—I’m a “show it, don’t say it” kind of guy. My characters run around and do stuff, and you gotta infer their motives and desires from their words and actions, because we’re not going inside their heads. This means a lot of the weight is carried by the actors—their gestures, body language, facial expressions, tone of voice and whatnot.



To Have and To Hold is a noir crime story in the classic sense. Does your fascination with noir come just from movies, or are there other sources—pulp fiction, true crime, or other comics and graphic novels?

Hmmm…Well, I read a ton of pulp fiction and detective stories. I love Cain and Thompson and Hammett and Chandler and all that crew—Christie, Sayers, Greene, Highsmith, Doyle—not to mention the Scandinavians... 

But Noir seems more a product of postwar cinema—and I think my noirish influences are more movie-oriented than bookish. I’m never thinking about books or authors when I’m trying to write or draw a scene; I’m definitely moving a camera around in my head.



The Cold War, specifically the Cuban Missile Crisis, is a constant presence in the story. Why did you choose to situate the story in that specific moment in history?

To date, all my stories have taken place in the same imaginary east-coast metropolis and the time is vaguely 60s—that’s a paradigm that just sort of evolved through the various graphic novels. You’ll see the same people and buildings recur throughout my work.

Anyhow, for To Have and To Hold, I needed a realistic news broadcast that could play on the radio or television in various scenes. I found one from October of 1962 and the Missile Crisis was the main story—so I thought, okay: October ‘62—that’s when all this happens. As the plot developed, the Crisis seemed more and more appropriate as a paranoid backdrop for a story with so many tense and unhappy people. So, to be honest, it was a serendipitous sort of accident.



I couldn’t help but grin when I saw your nod to the poster for The French Connection. It’s just one of many cultural references that are peppered throughout To Have and To Hold. What’s behind them? Do you ever worry that they might yank your readers out of the story?  

I’ve been pulling that shit since Big Wheels—I can’t help myself!  Sometimes, I see an image that’s just too good not to include—too inspiring. Like this painting by Millard Sheets:


…or this one by Norman Price, from Treasure Island, which has haunted me since childhood—my French Connection image is my way of giving it a 60s update, while also paying homage to the Friedkin film.


While we’re here, I’d like to point out the closing reference to the closing shot in Psycho:

 


So, yeah—it’s childish, but whatevs—I look at it this way: anyone who would get these references is likely the sort of person who would enjoy spotting them more than they mind being briefly taken out of the story...at least I hope so.



Your drawings capture the dark moodiness (or is it the moody darkness?) that goes hand in hand with noir, while retaining a confident, economical quality that lends itself to this kind of storytelling. Is that something that comes naturally, or did you need to tweak your technique for this project?

It comes naturally. I have always wanted to tackle noir—love the dramatic imagery—my favorite panels are the nighttime shots. It’s a challenge to compose using only black and white. I have become reasonably adept at it, but I’m still far behind masters such as Alex Toth and/or [Epileptic author] David B. In fact, I have recently branched out into gray—which you’ll see in my next book.



Your action sequences are especially vivid, yet so much of the story is told through smaller, often silent panels that rely on facial expression or body language instead of dialog. I’d like to learn more about your process here. Do you work from a tight outline? Are there moments, for example, when you realize a page needs an additional panel, or that a panel is unnecessary?

Good Dog had a typed script, then a fully finished sketchbook layout with lights and darks, before I started the finish art. So I did the whole book three times, which was exhausting and slowed me down a lot. And then Gary [Fantagraphics publisher Groth] told me it was too short for a graphic novel and I had to go back through it and add 30 more pages somehow...

So for TH&TH, I decided to just get into finish art as soon as I could. I plotted the story—the main bits of it—and then wrote the first scene, sketched a layout or two, and jumped into finish art right away.
I kept on that way, writing a page or two ahead of the art and finishing as I went along. I definitely went back and rewrote and redrew stuff as the story evolved—sometimes gluing a new panel over an old one, sometimes replacing the whole page. Sometimes it’s just finding a better image, like here:



 …and other times, it was about writing a better scene. Mostly this involved the evolution of Kate, from “cheating wife” to actual person. There’s a scene at the beginning of the book, after Lonnie has learned that he’s been deceived, and he wakes her up to fish for clues. There’s a conversation that amounts to a struggle for moral advantage, which Kate wins by means of a grumpy handjob. I rewrote that sequence twice—and redrew four pages trying to get it right.



The plot of To Have and To Hold is more urgent and straightforward than that of Good Dog or The Big Wheels, with an ending that offers readers plenty of closure. And at 200 pages it’s also a good bit longer. How has working this way been different for you, and is it a direction you think you’ll carry on in the future?

I’m a terrible writer; is what it is. Big Wheels and Good Dog are just sort of: “Okay, it’s 6:00 AM and we wake up...now what?” To Have and To Hold is the first story with a real plot—it was way more work, but now I feel sort of committed to the idea of beginning/middle/end, so I’ll probably keep trying to do it...



The marriage at the center of the story is in awful shape. Lonnie and Kate are bored, bitter, barely getting by, and without children to soften life’s hard edges (though you give us a few glimpses of what their life together was like in younger, happier years). What does their story say about the postwar American Dream?  

Well, it’s the promise of prosperity that fuels Kate’s dissatisfaction, isn’t it? We can see in the flashback panels that she thinks she’s backed a winner. When Lonnie threw his career away, dealing impounded dope with his beatnik friend, she felt gypped. Now they have to watch their expenses; she’s gotta go back to secretarial work to help pay the bills—hardly the fulfillment of the American dream. Tucker, on the other hand, seems like a pretty safe bet: good job, swell dresser, looks a little like Kennedy. If she can’t have the American dream, she can fake it with Tuck, and she’s realistic enough to know that’s about as good as it gets for her.

 



I really enjoyed getting to know Kate; she’s a wonderful character, easily the story’s most subtle and—awful pun completely unintended—fully developed. Was she difficult to write? Is she a femme fatale?

She wrote herself.  Kate started this story as “cheating wife” but I knew as soon as I gave her a line of dialog, that she wasn’t gonna stay there.  Her real breakout came in this scene:

 

Lonnie thinks he’s got her number. He thinks that he’s gonna toy with her and learn the truth, but she shuts him down while still half-asleep and then, when he pushes it, reverses the moral advantage he feels he has and leaves him in no position to question her about anything. Their dialog in this scene told me what my heist story was really about: the slow dissolve of a marriage. Fictional characters (at least my characters) exert a level of independent agency, outside the writer’s control. Once you introduce them, they take on their own personalities and insist on being heard. Kate moved herself out of the fairly insulting role of “protagonist’s object of desire or revenge” to “real person who has her own desires.” The final story is as much about her as it is about him. She has the best lines, too...


She is not a femme fatale, for all the reasons outlined above. A fatale exists only as an object for the hero to desire/pursue/whatever. They aren’t real people; you have no idea what they like or dislike or want or anything. They’re just there to reflect the hero’s own desires. 

This never happens to a femme fatale:

 



To Have and To Hold is dedicated to Eddie Coyle and Popeye Doyle—a worn-out crook and an obsessed cop—two of the early 1970s cinema’s grittiest anti-heroes. Lonnie is cut from the same cloth. What is it about these guys that appeals to you?

Lonnie is one of those guys who is just smart enough to underestimate the people around him—to think he’s got an edge. Feeling like he’s a little smarter than everyone else has given him this frustrated sense of entitlement; he’s his own worst enemy, perpetually biting off more than he can chew.  If he didn’t, there wouldn’t be a story, naturally, so perhaps that’s the appeal.

“The consequences of hubris” is a pretty well-established theme, going back past Popeye Doyle to...Oedipus, maybe? Lotta antiheroes in between. Lonnie’s got plenty of company there, wherever he is...

  



He’s also an ex-soldier and an ex-cop forced into “early retirement,” both of which are familiar noir beats. Nevertheless, To Have and To Hold breaks from that tradition in some fascinating ways. Unlike heist films such as The Asphalt Jungle or even Ocean’s Eleven, it doesn’t waste page after page scouting out the perfect crew or glorifying the details of the plan. Was it important for you to update (or upend) certain noir tropes?

It’s less about upending noir tropes and more about telling a story I like. While I love noir and have always wanted to do a noir story, I wasn’t too concerned with sticking to the rules of the genre. I am not the world’s most original writer, and I knew I was gonna lean on some archetypes and clichés—but I wanted to keep ‘em to a minimum—to make my characters as real as they could be in this absurd situation I created for them to run around in. I wanted it to feel grounded in reality. I didn’t want to romanticize any of it. I knew To Have and To Hold was gonna end hard for somebody—that doom was inevitable—but that’s about it.

There’s a bleak, understated quality to some of these crime films of the 60s and 70s (Get Carter, The Friends of Eddie Coyle, The Taking of Pelham 123, etc., etc.) that appeals to me as a writer. I don’t think I could have escaped the lurid, hammy, melodrama of classic black and white noir. I wanted to play with atmospheric lighting and whatnot, but all those weary gumshoes and sexy dames are too entrenched in their iconography for a guy like me to break ‘em out. But these little 70s noir flicks—I could get in there and push my story around without feeling like I was gonna break the genre.



I follow you on Instagram, where you post a lot of in-progress panels and pages. Howzabout telling us what we can expect from you in the future?

I’m working on another noir, this time in 1970s Hollywood. It’s about some low-budget filmmakers who fun afoul of the mob. There’s arson and insurance fraud and general mayhem in the valley.
Here’s that gray I was talking about:

 





Wednesday

CHAMPION (1949)





Champion is usually described as a cautionary tale about the bitter price of ruthless ambition. Rubbish. The character of Midge Kelly is heroic, admirable, and downright glorious. A rotten son of a bitch? Certainly. But I envy him, and you should too.

Champion airs from time to time on TCM and has been available on DVD for ages, so this essay assumes that you know the film. Besides, you just can’t dig into this thing without considering the ending — proceed knowing that spoilers await. For those who need a refresher, the story goes like this: Michael “Midge” Kelly (Kirk Douglas) and his brother Connie (Arthur Kennedy) are heading west in search of their fortune when they get rolled and are forced to thumb it. They cadge a ride from a palooka (John Day) on his way to fight a main event in Kansas City. Hoping to earn a quick buck, Midge takes a fill-in spot on the undercard. He’s beaten badly but catches the eye of manager Tommy Haley (that noir-iest of actors, Paul Stewart), who offers to Mickey him into a real fighter. When Midge and Connie reach Cali and discover their prospects vanished they are compelled to find scut work in a roadhouse. Both are attracted to a waitress, Emma (Ruth Roman), who Midge is forced to marry in the wake of a tryst. Feeling trapped, Midge eighty-sixes Emma and scrams for L.A., where he takes Haley up on his offer. Midge’s toughness and ambition make him a natural in the ring, and soon he rates a bout with number one contender Johnny Dunne, the same cat who taxied him into Kansas City. Midge is ordered to take a dive in trade for a legit title shot down the line, but he stuns everyone when he batters an unsuspecting Dunne. Although irate gamblers get their revenge, Midge’s refusal to cheat makes him appear heroic and he gets a title shot anyway, which he wins. Now standing on top of the heap, Midge alienates everyone around him. When he gives Dunne a rematch, he takes a terrific beating — until the jeering crowd and the ringside announcers spur him to final victory. Staggered, leering, and triumphant, Midge returns to his dressing room where he collapses and dies.


Everyone involved scores points for making a great picture about an asshole, but Kirk Douglas deserves the lion’s share of the credit. His Midge Kelly is one the most interesting and complicated boxers in screen history, which is a significant accomplishment considering how droll the character likely would have been in the hands (gloves?) of a lesser talent. Champion was a landmark early Douglas landmark film and justly earned him an Academy Award nomination. Most of what has been written about the movie praises his virtuoso performance or affirms the film’s status as a morality tale. While Douglas is indeed the stuff of legend, the “What Price Fame?” angle just doesn’t wash. Champion is a coldly cynical movie about a hard-as-nails tough guy; made during an era when all the little kids didn’t get a trophy. If it were merely a cautionary tale it would have ended differently: with Midge dead and defeated in the center of the ring. Redemption? No, thanks. An apology tour? Piss off. Midge Kelly isn’t redeemed at the end of Champion — he’s validated. Let’s come back to this later, first Douglas deserves his due.

Kirk Douglas was a great performer who, if nothing else, understood what made him a movie star. He was blessed and cursed with a hyper-magnetic screen presence. Everything about him was just...exaggerated. No actress could wrest the spotlight from him, which is why he isn’t remembered as one of the great romantic leads. Don’t buy it? Next time you watch him in a love scene and things start to heat up, take note of who grabs your attention. It’ll be Douglas. That was his great gift: he was bigger than the story, bigger than his cast, bigger than his directors. His innate arrogance was his greatest asset. He’s cast perfectly here. 

Let’s get back to Midge. Here’s a Depression-era kid who came up tough. His father took a powder in the first round of Midge’s life. And his mother, unable to keep both her sons, sent Midge to the orphanage and kept Connie at home. Midge grew up abandoned and institutionalized, on the losing end of a low-rent Sophie’s choice. Then with adulthood came the war and the bloody hell of combat. This is a guy who’d been rolled, robbed, cheated, chastised, red-taped, taken for granted, swindled, and sent to war. How would you handle it? After Midge mustered out he took on the thankless role of provider for his mother and little brother, and bore no grudge. Sure, he stepped on people along the way, but didn’t he get stepped on first? In spite of it all, he’s probably the most upbeat character in the film. He raised himself out of a hellish upbringing through his own grit to become the champion of the world. All he wanted out of life was the respect of other men offered by success in the ring. Boxing exacts a steep price in exchange for that success, and Midge saw clearer more plainly those around him that he’d ultimately have to pay it. If success left Midge feeling entitled yet emotionally crippled, who can blame him? 

Who does he hurt? The story places Midge in the arms of three different women. First with Emma, the wife/waitress whom he deserts. Of the film’s women, she’s the most deserving of happiness, which she ultimately finds with Connie. Although she married Midge, she understood going in that he didn’t love her. Their mistake causes her much short-term distress, but it was through him that she met Connie and eventually found what she was looking for.* Midge’s second tryst was with the aptly named Grace Diamond (Marilyn Maxwell), a good-timer who treats fighters like Kleenex. She’s an opportunistic user who meets her match. The idea that Midge could hurt someone so despicable is silly. His final girlfriend is Palmer Harris (Lola Maxwell), the spoiled and slumming wife of the crooked fight promoter. Their affair is brief, and ends when Midge agrees to cut ties in exchange for a bigger percentage of the gate. Undoubtedly a cold-blooded choice, but it bears repeating Midge has no idea how to make himself or anyone else happy, especially not a married woman. Midge is a pig, but he never tries to hide it. All the women in the story are well rid of him, but none suffer lasting harm.


That leaves the brother and the trainer. Connie is supposedly the sympathetic conscience of the film, constantly exasperated with his brother, yet he seems to have forgotten who pays the bills—and, for that matter, who grew up in the orphanage. Hell, Connie even gets the girl; what does he have to grouse about? As for the trainer, Haley is the only guy in the picture who knows the score all along. In quintessential noir fashion, he knows that he’ll be dropped him when the bigger purses come, yet he returns to train Midge for his climactic title fight anyway. As he repeats time and again, “I can’t keep away from it, I like to watch a good boy in action.” The idea of a fighter leaving one trainer for another happens as often on screen as it does in real life, a cliché in both worlds. It’s important to realize that Champion is a noir film in which none of the characters come away clean. Dig this most of all: when Midge finally lands that first big fight with Johnny Dunne, both Connie and Tommy want him to take the dive—they want him to cheat. 

If the movie has a flaw it’s that it doesn’t fully depict the grueling physical realities of the prizefighter’s life. The ring scenes (directed by Stanley Kramer rather than Mark Robson, who Kramer said didn’t know enough about boxing) are exquisite, but the narrative’s preoccupation with fight-fixing doesn’t afford any screen time to the everyday sacrifices made by fighters. Midge stacks knockouts way too fast and scores a title shot in no time at all, while in reality the achievement of a world’s championship, or even a spot on the undercard of a championship bout, was a pipe dream for most pugs. The film does include a Rocky-style training sequence, though nowadays it plays for laffs. 

Douglas is miraculous in his final scene. Bloody and victorious, having returned to his dressing room after ferociously pummeling Dunne, he leers and gesticulates at the camera, his battered face a desperate reflection of his maimed but resilient soul. Midge’s life comes full circle with his defeat of the man who opened the door to a life in the ring—a dichotomous life that offered not only the illusory pleasures of fame, fortune, and women; but more importantly, the respect and legacy he craved. Cinematic convention keeps us expecting that he’ll see the light and turn an improbable Ebenezer Scrooge-like corner at the end, yet he never does. Midge’s refusal to compromise or live on anything but his own terms is a worthy valediction. It imbues his life with a strange and moving integrity. It also makes him an iconic hero of film noir. It’s fitting that he should die after he wins the final fight; he has nothing in the world left to prove. Some men are not meant to suffer old age.

Champion (1949)
Director: Mark Robson.
Cinematographer: Franz Planer
Screenplay: Carl Foreman, based on a story by Ring Lardner.
Starring: Kirk Douglas, Arthur Kennedy, Marilyn Maxwell, Ruth Roman, and Paul Stewart.
Released by: United Artists
Running time: 99 minutes

(Some viewers/reviewers of Champion suggest that Midge rapes Emma late in the film. For the record, after numerous viewings I still don’t read the code in that way, but I’d certainly change my tune (and, of course, my review) if someone were to convince me. This essay is something of a justification Midge’s bad behavior, but certainly not for rape. 

Thursday

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!