Thursday, January 15, 2015

Pre-Code Parade: HELL'S HIGHWAY (1932)

While Warner Bros.' I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang quickly entered the canon of American cinema, RKO's rival chain-gang picture was quickly forgotten until renewed interest in the Pre-Code era revived the reputation of writer-director Rowland Brown. A Pre-Code character in his own right, Brown killed his own career as a director by walking off multiple projects over creative differences with producers, though he continued to write for movies and TV into the 1950s. He was a very hard-boiled director, on the evidence of Hell's Highway, with some pictorial ambition besides. He puts his chain gang to artistic use, shooting them most strikingly from below and between two files, the chain itself passing over the camera as the men march on either side of the frame. For a few minutes, it also looks like Brown meant to do without conventional narrative. After a preface using real newspapers to show that his story is inspired by real events, Brown offers a montage of bits and pieces of prison life. It sinks in eventually that one convict, Duke (Richard Dix), is going to be our point-of-view character. We also meet more eccentric prison types, from Duke's pal Michael (Charles "Ming" Middleton), a bigamist with a spiritual gimmick for whom prison's a vacation from his wives, to an ambiguously gay cook who tends to flaunt his privileged position and gets a slap on the ass from a guard for one sassy crack. Tensions gradually build as head guard Skinner (C. Henry Gordon at perhaps his most loathsome - he's the man with the whip in the ad) inflicts collective punishment on the men for a missing spoon and condemns an individual convict who collapses on the job to a stay in the "hospital," aka the hotbox,where the victim is shackled in an upright position by neck and ankles and left to roast -- or, in this case, strangle to death. Duke, a bank robber, proves himself a troublemaker and leader of the prisoners, angrily protesting both the death of a buddy and the withholding of spoons at suppertime. The cook is finally showered with soup and beans by the cons, but that only temporarily relieves the tension.

One of Duke's buddies has stolen some extra sets of shackles, and Duke gets the idea that the guards might mindlessly run the chain that keeps the cons still at night through the extra shackles while he and his pals keep their legs free to make an escape. Duke depends on Michael, who isn't ready to leave yet, to keep corrupt guard Popeye distracted. Popeye had sought advice from Michael earlier. He has a sort of spiritual, sort of sexual problem that Michael diagnoses in his best visionary fashion as a cheating wife. That distracts him all right. As Popeye races home to murder his wife, Duke and his buddies make their move -- but here a more melodramatic plot imposes itself, as Duke discovers that one of the new prisoners awaiting processing outside overnight is his own kid brother (Tom Brown). Furious that Johnny had ignored his advice to keep straight and take care of their ma, and fearful that the kid is too soft for the joint, Duke abandons his escape attempt. However, he now has leverage with Popeye, knowing exactly what the guard had done that night.

If anything, Johnny's too tough for his own good and gets into a fight with a guard. That gets him sent to the "hospital," but Duke is able to intimidate Popeye into letting him go. When Skinner sees what's going on, he realizes that he has leverage over Duke and promises easy jobs for Johnny if Duke will give up the work stoppage -- a protest over the spoons and the con killed in the hotbox --on the road the cons are building for a corrupt contractor. Working in the mailroom with a sympathetic warden, Johnny learns that Duke is due to be extradited to another state for a crime that may earn him a life sentence. The news provokes Johnny to stage a mass breakout himself that escalates into a reckoning for several characters....

I hadn't been impressed by Richard Dix's work in the Pre-Code era until this film. He always seemed merely oafish rather than powerful -- his lilting voice may have something to do with that -- but Hell's Highway lit a fire under him, inspiring a tough, aggressive performance that finally made me see something of what fans saw in him for years. He's well supported by a surprisingly likable Middleton in a role that exploits his innate creepiness and makes something amiably comical about it, and by the dependably vile Gordon.

Even if the fraternal storyline drags Hell's Highway back to conventional territory -- and you should see the wildly deceptive advertising describing a film that has women in maybe two scenes as "A Heart-Pounding Story of Love" -- Brown continues to do unconventional things with the story. Perhaps needing to pad a film that comes in at around 63 minutes in its present form, he halts the plot for a digression in which Clarence Muse and a group of black convicts comment on the Popeye subplot by drawing cartoons and singing a Popeye-specific variation on "Frankie and Johnny." Another subplot running through the picture is the case of the stolen spoon. Brown occasionally shows us an unknown figure gradually working the spoon into a shiv, until the figure, who remains unknown, stabs Skinner in the back through an open window as the guard starts his violin practice. The violin business is a wonderful extra bit of eccentricity in this odd, tough little movie, while Brown's refusal to reveal Skinner's killer tells us that individual details ultimately matter less than the film's overall picture of prison life. Hell's Highway dares to end on a comic note as Duke adopts Michael's "yea, brother!" catchphrase, which may undermine the outrage the picture may have meant to generate but tips us off to Brown's more-likely real feeling that all this suffering and struggle is just a great joke.  I Am a Fugitive remains outraged throughout, and that may be while it endured, while the hard-boiled attitude of Hell's Highway is more specific to its time. It may be only certain other times, like our own, can appreciate it.

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