Highway 301 (1950): “a straight exercise in low sadism”

The demonic protaganist features in this German poster for Highway 301
The demonic protagonist features in this German poster for Highway 301

In 1950 New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther was “disturbed” and “depressed” by Highway 301, a dark gangster flick from Warner Bros.  He was emphatic in his dismissal: “the whole thing, concocted and directed by Andrew Stone, is a straight exercise in low sadism”.  Glen Erikson in his review of the DVD, described the relentlessly violent trajectory thus: “Imagine White Heat shorn of its rich characterizations and reduced to little more than its basic violent content: no complexity, just action and suspense scenes”.

Get it? A police procedural stripped back to its unardorned essence: violent hoods on the rampage. In deep focus and on the streets of  L.A.

In the way of the burgeoning police procedurals of the 1950’s, the movie is prefaced by homilies from not one but three State governors, each attesting to the veracity of the story and the lessons it holds for those contemplating similar escapades. The Tri-State Gang led by a remorseless “pretty boy” killer played menacingly by Steve Cochran, are heist specialists who find time to have settled relationships with women. One is even married to a totally amoral yet passive woman – unnervingly portrayed by Virginia Grey. A dame not offended by her better-half’s style of life, and who finds solace on those long  lonely nights with a portable radio that goes with her everywhere. Cochran early on dispatches his talkative erstwhile girlfriend by shooting her in the back.  He then latches on to the French Canadian girlfriend of another member of the gang, after he checks out when a heist goes wrong. Trouble is “Frenchy” finds out too late the trap she has fallen into. There is real terror here, and most strongly delivered in an extended sequence where Cochran pursues the girl on dark city streets after she tries to cut loose. The gang is eventually picked-off  by the law in increasingly bloody encounters.

Don’t look for ambivalence or redemption. This is a brutal modern take on the police procedural: uncanny in that the picture sets off rather than ends the late cycle segue on film noir.

One thought on “Highway 301 (1950): “a straight exercise in low sadism””

  1. “Get it? A police procedural stripped back to its unardorned essence: violent hoods on the rampage. In deep focus and on the streets of L.A.”

    I see Bosley Crowther again passed quick judgement on a film that others have apparently held in solid regard. This has been available from Warner Archives for three years, but I haven’t moved to secure it. The use of the opening homilies goes way back to SCARFACE and I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG, though it’s clear there will be no redemption or compromise here. Erikson’s point of comparison to WHITE HEAT is telling.

    Excellent piece here Tony. I’ll definitely check this film out.


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