Highway 301 (1950)

Highway 301 (1950) is gang-on-the-run moralising action film noir with police procedural action on top, and starring Steve Cochran as a bold-knuckled psychopathic gang leader, who leads a mini-mob of five violent thieves and three women, who terrorise the banks and payrolls in North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland.

Supposedly modelled on the real life 'Tri-State Gang', this film noir, very much in the style of White Heat (1949) takes the criminal viewpoint for the most part, showing the exciting and sadistic execution of the robberies, the escapes and the life on the run that the criminals face. 

This is cut with elements of police procedural although the real glue of the movie is the voiceover, which in this instance is delivered by the chief investigating police officer.

Steve Cochran is the lead actor and plays George, the gang's leader, who is a cold hard goon with a gun, who seems willing to kill armed guards as readily as any of the group's girlfriends, when the heat becomes too much for them.

Car full of criminals in film noir Highway 301 (1950)

The women Highway 301 seem to distinguish it from other similar films of the time, as none of the three — played by Virginia Grey, Gaby André and Aline Towne — seem to be criminal-minded in the slightest, or have any stomach for crime. Even stranger, none of these women seem to suffer from the normal moral defects that gangster's molls, dolls, girlfriends, babes, broads, bims, chicks, dames, dishes, chippies, Janes, kittens, lookers, roundheels, skirts, twists and tomatoes do in similar noir-based scenarios.

Compare Virginia Mayo as Verna in White Heat (1949) to Virginia Grey, Gaby André and Aline Towne in Highway 301. Verna is loose talkin', drunk and avaricious. She is a love cheat and prone to bored outbursts when cooped up for too long, and on top of that she is passionate about her guys — whether it's her steady guy or the one she is cheating with.

Active heist in Highway 301 (1950)

Mary, Lee and Madeline in Highway 301 have no such traits and although there is a scene early on in which the three are seen drinking together, nothing comes of these relationships, and all of them of course come-a-cropper largely because they are trying to get out of the gang rather than support it.

Steve Cochran in Highway 301 (1950)

Moments of tension in Highway 301 (1950) do reveal a better film than critic Bosley Crowther saw at the height of the film noir boom. Writing in the New York Times in December of 1950, Crowther said:

"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 Carolina's 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... However, the whole thing, concocted and directed by Andrew L. 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."

Of course, 'low sadism' might be worth the admission price of any half decent film noir, and there are many less decent than Highway 301.

Encounter, reaction, action and execution — Steve Cochran and Aline Towne
Highway 301 (1950)

Crowther is correct in his assertion that the governmental interference and messaging at the had of the film is depressing, and embarrassing, and Highway 301 must be notable for being the worst example of this kind of propaganda noir that one could find. 

The most obvious and significant comparison must be made with the classic film noir T-Men (1947), which is introduced by Elmer Lincoln Irey, then then head of the Treasury Department. There is also a similarity to The Phenix City Story (1955) which opens with some equally sober documentary-style interviews.

Police laboratory in Highway 301 (1950)

Highway 301 is however far worse, parading no less than three state governors at the beginning, as Crowther mentions. This was exactly where things were headed and must be the ultimate expression of the Code — to actually have film of real life politicians in your movie, not just warning people about crime — and presumably in their own minds winning votes — but earnestly moralising to the crowd before the action has even begun.

Highway 301 (1950)

The film's title, Highway 301 — which is never mentioned in the film —  refers to a highway that connects Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina, where the Tri-State Gang committed their crimes. 301 was however, the real-life gang's favoured escape route.

The real life gang, led by Walter Legenza did carry out a real-life robbery and murder rampage through Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, although like 301 itself, Pennsylvania is not mentioned in the movie. The real gang had uncanny luck or benefitted from poor policework in escaping from many close call situations, including Legenza’s mother smuggling guns hidden in a baked turkey into the jail where they were detained. 

After the jailbreak, the gang did run out of luck when a nine-year-old school girl told her friends that she did not want to go home because her mother’s friends were staying there and that they had lots of guns. 

The women of this film noir gang are curiously moral in themselves, and not cut out for crime in any way. 

Madeline: Maybe I'll hear you cracked the skull of an old bank guard, killed a truck driver or ran over a child in a getaway. I'm scared! Even liquor won't drive away the nightmares. I can't sleep. When you're away, I'm fenced in and when you come back, it's the same terror. Oh, please, George, please - I want out!

[George slaps Madeline]

George: Okay, now you got it out of your system. You feel better. Just make like you got caught in a revolving door. Well, come on. We're supposed to be having fun. Enjoy yourself.

The heavy lifting regarding the profiles of the gang members themselves is done by voiceover, and a cop voiceover at that. The effect of the classic film noir voiceover is somewhat lessened when delivered by a cop.

The true effect of the great voiceovers of the 1940s, was to first frame the movie in an often fantastical and cynical tone, and then the compliment the visuals with an intimate and privileged descant deepening viewer engagement.

Steve Cochran in Highway 301 (1950)

The general effect of the cop delivering the voiceover, as her, is to fall foul of the old adage that writers should show and not tell. Thus when the male characters first appear and conduct their first violent armed robbery at the head of the dramatic part of the film, they introduced in a manner that ultimately fails to fully engage us —first because there are five men here to meet and in quick succession, and all the mean are really standing still and looking shifty — all told and nothing shown.

Detective Sergeant Truscott's voice over begins:

This is Winston-Salem, North Carolina, drowsing in the mid-afternoon sun of early spring, not knowing it had been chosen as the scene for the next exploit of the arrogant mob we know as "The Tri-State Gang". These men operated openly, wearing no masks, boldly flaunting the law. To escape detection, they simply killed anyone who might possibly get in their way.

He then introduces the gang, in this manner:

"Herbie Brooks - a stooge member of this mob. He liked high living and easy money. Working for the outfit was an exciting experience for him.

"This is William B. Phillips, congenital criminal, fugitive from the Lorton Reformatory. He went to college, had every advantage. He began his career for excitement: stealing cars, breaking and entering, burglary - a record of many arrests and only one light sentence.

"George Lagenza: specialist in robbing banks... the head man. He'd been Phillips' partner in the escape from the Lorton Reformatory. Now he was a success in his chosen field. Men listened to him. He was bright, tough and deadly.

"Robert Mays - a no-good guy. A police record of twenty-one arrests for serious crimes - everything from arson to suspicion of murder. The severest punishment of his whole criminal career was a one hundred dollar fine."

Although cheap, there are moments of brilliance in Highway 301, and some true tension from time to time, such as the moment when some gang members are hidden in an egg truck, being serached by the police.

For devoted wise-head classic noir fans there is also pretty good dialogue and for example, we learn “Don’t dance with strangers or talk to anyone with a moustache.” And as Edmon Ryan's moralising cop character also states: “You cannot be kind to congenital criminals like these. They would show you no mercy. Let them feel the full impact of the law.”

Richmond, Virginia, where some of the best action photography takes place has far too many palm trees and even resembles the Bunker Hill neighbourhood of Los Angeles. at the conclusion there is a terrific car stunt-smash — one of the best of 1950 for certain — and a bricky sequence on a  a train trestle.

Curiously cut with dry interiors showcasing law enforcement and the focused psychopathy of Steve Cochran's character Leganza. A brilliant combination of the elder James Cagney's character in White Heat the year before, in which Steve Cochran had starred, and the fear-o-god real life Leganza who took the ride on the electric chair on February 2nd 1935 — Cochran kills without raising an eyelid or changing tone, temperature or pace, detached and matter of fact he coasts onwards from cops, armoured car guards and girlfriends, all of whom he shoots in the back. 

Highway 301 is wild and kicking at times, which is just as well as its attempt at warn Americans that crime does not pay. After the first robbery, Legenza wipes out his girlfriend (Aline Towne) in front of her hotel’s elevator man (Bill Cartledge).

Later the gang’s Lincoln is spotted parked in front of their hideaway in Richmond and Phillips is killed resisting arrest. Later still Legenza later plugs Phillips’ naïve French-Canadian wife Lee (Gaby Andre) as she makes a bid to blab to the cops in another fearful female flight from the gang. 

Film Noir framing in Highway 301 (1950)

But the interest here is that Lee is not dead, only in a coma, which leads us to hostage taking, shootouts and mania as the the gang try to pull the plug on her in a hospital, even though she’s guarded by cops. 

No other film features such a trio of state governors (all Democrats too) physically interrupting our night at the cinema us in that crime doesn’t pay and giving Jack Warner a big self serving thumbs up for this latest production which I’m sure boosted his already enormous ego.

Virginia Grey in Highway 301 (1950)

Enormous egos are butting into the film industry, one can only dread what cinema would be like if this took off. 

Maryland's William P. Lane Jnr. states:
As governor of Maryland, we pride ourselves on the high standards of peaceful-sy and law abiding standards that we have achieved. You are about to witness a factual motion picture of criminal terrorism. Some of the events that take place in this story, actually took place in this state. For those who select a career of crime, there awaits relentless punishment and prosecution. This picture dramatically demonstrates that important point. I recommend this picture to you and I congratulate Warner Brothers for producing it.

Probably no film noir ever made has more behind-the-desk moralising than does Highway 301, which is thick with it, top and tail.  The film starts with comments from then-governors of North Carolina, Virginia and Maryland about how crime doesn't pay.

H.L.Mencken’s 1934 article for The Baltimore Evening Sun “More and Better Psychopaths” tells the story of the I.R.L. Leganza while chastising the culture’s romanticising of violent hoods, gangsters and other maniacs:

Some time ago a professional criminal named Mais, wanted for various murders and robberies, went into hiding in Baltimore. The cops, getting his scent, tracked him down promptly, and took him into custody. He was heavily armed, and they risked their lives, but nevertheless they took him. Sent to Richmond to answer for a peculiarly brutal murder, he was convicted and sentenced to death. But in a few weeks he had broken out of jail, and on the way he had killed a policeman. Now he is at large again, and robbing and killing again, and other cops will have to risk death to take him again.

Dr. Mais’ escape was a monument to the sentimentality with which such swine are now treated. Though he was known to be an incorrigible criminal, and all his friends were known to be of the same sort, he was premitted to recieve visists from them in jail. Presently one of them slipped him a pistol, and the next day he was on his way, leaving one man dead and two wounded behind him. Suppose you were a cop, and you met this Mais tomorrow? Would you approach him politely and tap him on the shoulder, and invite him to return to the deathhouse? Or would you shoot him at sight, at the same time giving thanks to God that he didn’t see you first?

On March 8th, 1934, outside Broad Street Station Leganza and his partner Bobby Mais tried to make a big score by hijacking a Federal Reserve truck, apparently just walking up, opening the door and firing on the driver. 

There was no cash in the truck though and just cancelled checks and letters, and a headache for the police. It took time but the film noir era was able to announce that it was all over, three governors worth. In the 1934 Depression-era America, murderers like Machine Gun Kelley, John Dillinger and Al Capone were defeating the police departments.

Edmon Ryan in Highway 301 (1950)

Walter Leganza and Bobby Mais were two criminal thugs from Philly with long rap sheets and a tendency for for hijacking and targeted Central Virginia.

Their targets were sometimes tobacco trucks from North Carolina loaded down with cigarettes and their exploits became deadly. 

The real-time real-life Tri-State Gang raiding and heisting in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Viriginia of Walter Legenza and Robert Mais were arrested by postal inspectors. For postal inspectors in film noir look no further than tough postie cop Al Godard played by Alan Ladd as in Appointment With Danger, also 1950. 

In the course of their robberies Leganza and Mais killed a mail truck driver, police officers, and even acquaintances who knew too much as depicted brutally and with fulsome film noir flavour in Highway 301

Fate was never better spelled out than it was at the close of classic film noir
Highway 301 (1950)

In addition to mail thefts, they had jail breaks, bank and military arsenal robberies on their resume. And these were just the actions that law enforcement officials were aware the gang had committed.


New York Times (1950)

Highway 301 (1950) lobby card

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