Gangsters and their ladies live the high life until their “biggest robbery” goes bad in this great thriller.
Highway 301 is a well made and very exciting crime picture with a big cast led by Steve Cochran, Virginia Grey, Robert Webber, Richard Egan, Gaby Andre, Aline Towne and Edmon Ryan. The film begins with a documentary style preamble by three actual Governors talking about the scourge of crime and the hopes that movies like this, based on actual events, might discourage it. Next, voiceover introduces us to a car full of criminals: the stooge (Egan), the congenital criminal (Webber), the handy henchman (Wally Cassell) and the fearsome head man (Cochran). They enter a bank and proceed to hold it up, revealing their hard, tough and dangerous methods and characters. Later that evening they relax at a nightclub where we meet the girlfriends who live well off the proceeds of crime. Cochran slaps his girlfriend Towne when she gets jealous over his ogling of Webber’s new French Canadian “souvenir,” Gaby Andre. A rattled and angry Towne starts spilling the beans about the mens’ criminal activities to Andre, who had no idea what the men do. Virginia Grey, a wiser moll, tells Towne to shut her mouth, but it’s too late; Cochran, once crossed or disobeyed, has no mercy, and Towne’s loose tongue seals her fate.
The scene where Cochran follows Towne back to her apartment is incredibly suspenseful, and uses the elevator dial to great effect, first representing a delay Towne can’t afford; she runs up the stairs. Only moments later the dial signals Cochran’s approach, as she waits for the elevator doors to open and is horrified to see him standing there. He guns her down in front of the petrified elevator attendant and she tumbles down the stairs. It’s a graphic scene that shows us what a brutal monster Cochran can be (he reloads immediately after shootings), and also leads into the police work that’s going on in the meantime, as the bullet is matched to another murder and a partial licence plate number gets them one step closer to their car. The rest of the film concerns the mob’s next heist, their “biggest one ever,” which any crime movie fan knows usually means a jinxed and ill fated one. In this case they murder a payroll truck guard to steal $2 million and end up with stacks of worthless cut bills, more troubles within the gang, and more evidence left behind.
Virginia Grey is really good as the sassy but smart woman who puts on the right act to survive with the gang. Watch the smooth way she sidles up to the men, almost putting on a tough girl mask before interacting with them. She’s gritty enough to be one of the boys but knows it’s safer to stay in her place. She has her own mind and coping mechanisms, like carrying that radio everywhere and blissfully relaxing to its sounds as an escape. When she’s sent to a hospital to get some info for the men she pretends to be a reporter and is a delight to watch as she gets deeper stuck in the mire with every lie she tells. She ends up trapped with detective Edmon Ryan as he quizzes her and takes apart her story, while trying not to let on he’s noticed her nervously fidget with the gun in her pocket.
Robert Webber has a nice part as a potentially good bad guy who loves Andre, hates that she had to find out about his unpleasant work but might just be able to walk away from it all to please her. The star of the show is Cochran, who creates a criminal psycho so vicious, and one who has such a dramatic fate, that you could easily place him in a lineup next to Tony Montana, Rico Bandello, Tom Powers and the like (in fact some of those guys might run away from Cochran, he’s so nasty). He even anticipates modern movie gangster style by holding his gun sideways as he fires his way out of a shootout.
Highway 301 does a great job combining noir grit, darkness and contrast with intense dread and some genuine shocks. There are a couple impressive sequences that unfolded on brightly lit nighttime streets, once when Andre sneaks away from a diner and grabs a paper to see if Webber survived a shootout. She walks slowly away as she goes through all her emotions, then picks up the pace in panic and determination as she decides to make her escape, all while Cochran watches, then races to catch up to her. In another attempt she hides in the alleys, corners and shadows of an increasingly empty neighbourhood. Cochran is relentless but keeps losing her, and when she begs for help from a group of drunken revelers, their good deed results in a scary surprise.
And that’s not the half of it. I didn’t even tell you about the great roadblock part where the police poke around what looks to be an egg truck bound for market, parting the crates just enough to throw shafts of sunlight on the gangsters hidden in the space behind all the boxes. Nor did I mention which of the women is crafty enough to escape being locked in a room by working the key out the other side of the door and pulling it back to her side on a newspaper. Or the amazing overhead shots that capture the bank robbery, or the gangsters’ visit to the hospital to silence a witness, which reminded me of a similar bit in The Godfather. It’s all done with skill, efficiency and atmosphere courtesy of director Andrew Stone (The Last Voyage, The Steel Trap, Julie), and put to thrilling music by William Lava. The Governors’ speeches at the start may make some wonder if this will be a cookie cutter procedural, but nothing about this plot is predictable, the investigation has some interesting forensics and familiar faces, and the story zips right along with the gang and their women as they spiral out of control and fall apart. Very cool movie that should impress any gangster or noir fan.
Thanks to commenter John K for recommending this one! It’s available from Warner Archive.