The Call Sheet: Richard Dix, Tom Brown, C. Henry Gordon, Stanley Fields, Charles Middleton and Clarence Muse
Behind the Camera: Directed by Rowland Brown, Written by Samuel Ornitz, Robert Tasker and Rowland Brown, Cinematography by Edward Cronjager, Art direction by Carroll Clark.
Snapshot Thoughts: Hell’s Highway is a prime example of Pre Code exploitation cinema, coming as it did hot on the heels of the hype surrounding Warners' I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. Though both films were made at around the same time, Hell’s Highway sneaked into cinemas a couple of months before its legendary cousin, but like all imitators quickly faded into obscurity. However, it is an unjustly forgotten film that naturally suffers in comparison to the Paul Muni epic yet deserves serious consideration on its own merits. Although there is a powerful message contained in the story, it takes a back seat to a parade of human drama and suffering. The movie refrains from offering a clear moral stance, instead opting to view events from a detached cynical distance. An opening title card makes the audience perhaps believe that this is another movie with a conscience, offering a solemn plea for justice and an end to the “conditions portrayed herein – which though a throw-back to the Middle Ages, actually exist today”. Yet the accompanying newspaper headlines flashed before the screen quickly betray these good intentions with their sensationalism (“Naked Boy Was Chained By Throat To Overhead Rafters, Convicts Declare”). For here we have not the powerful sermonising for change of I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang but the lurid desire to show the abuses of the penal system in all its sordid glory, under the pretence of social betterment. With a cast of grotesques, a gritty, nihilistic worldview and a brisk pace, Hell’s Highway is tabloid film making at its finest, and is all the better for it.
For rather than being a film with a social purpose, the chain gang setting acts as a situation to hang two things – firstly that of the relationship between two brothers and secondly a near fetishism for prison brutality. All else is just window dressing, and incidental to the melodrama. The director, Rowland Brown was a singular talent who really deserved to achieve more in the movie industry (he also wrote and directed the excellent Quick Millions and the cult classic Blood Money) but personal and issues and creative conflicts derailed his directorial career, Always a man to fight the system, explore unusual ideas or just get kicked of a movie set, his films contain a quirky non conformity that could never realistically result in a long career in Hollywood. Hell’s Highway bears all his hallmarks and proves that perhaps he came along too early in film’s history. His ideas seem more in tune with the potent low budget exploitation cinema of the 50s and 60s and once the Production Code was enforced in 1934 a lot of his edge was lost.
Here he assembles a fine cast of character actors to portray the convicts and despite many not getting much screen time each character is memorable, and imbued with a semblance of an inner life. These include a bigamist (Charles Middleton) who prefers being in prison than being back with his three wives, a gullible prison guard who suspects his wife is cheating on him and takes lethal action (Warner Richmond), a cruel warden who in his spare time finds pleasure in playing the violin badly (C. Henry Gordon), a gay cook (Eddie Hart) who loves funerals (“The casket was all covered with a great big blanket of pansies!”), an African American prisoner (Clarence Muse) who misses his wife’s sweet charms (“…you don’t know tired a man does get when he don’t get no lovin’”) and a ladies’ man (Jed Kiley) who has signed photos from a variety of movie stars (all signed in the same handwriting) and who jumps back into his burning cell to retrieve them rather than escape. All these little sketches add so much to the supporting cast and flesh out the movie with all manner of fascinating details. When added to the carefully mapped out plot, the shocking representation of the misery and brutality of prison life and the distanced and non judgemental morality, Hell’s Highway is an intense mix of Pre Code crowd pleasing thrills.
Star Performances: Richard Dix brings a rugged menace to the role of Duke Ellis and shines in what on paper is a largely unsympathetic role. He is a tough career criminal yet heavily principled when it comes to how his brother sees him. Typically for the tone of the movie, there is no doubt about whether Duke is actually innocent of his crimes and it makes for a morally interesting choice of leading character. With his dark hair and manly good looks, there is an element of Clark Gable to Dix’s screen persona, yet without Gable’s twinkling charms and broad smile. In a sense, Dix is an unfiltered Gable, an alpha male in the prison yard and full of seething righteous anger at authority, yet without a measure of accountability for his own actions. In reality this is because Richard Dix lacks the acting range and charisma of Gable but nonetheless there is something magnetic about his performance in Hell’s Highway. It’s a stripped down role in a brutal environment and it suits his skills perfectly. Dix is an actor who had a very respectable career but who could have benefitted immensely from more of these sweat stained, gritty roles to flex his muscles to. There’s a great scene where he talks to Charles Middleton’s character while brushing his teeth in the morning, and spits out the contents of his mouth mid way through his line. It’s a small moment but refreshingly unrefined for a Hollywood production and works perfectly for his brutish character.
Speaking of Charles Middleton, he is superb as the gaunt pseudo mystical bigamist Matthew. Usually Middleton excels in high melodrama (see for example his iconic roles in the Flash Gordon serials or Laurel and Hardy films) but here he brings a real depth to his usual character. For the first time I can remember, he appeared to be a real person rather than merely a sonorous voice and grave demeanour. Unshaven and dishevelled, he stands by the sidelines watching for information then uses his new found knowledge to his advantage, disguised as mystical prophecy. With proclamations like “There is blood on the stars” he strikes an otherworldly presence. I always think that Charles Middleton usually has a certain impenetrable manner to him, like a stern Victorian father (to the point that I can’t actually image what he could be like in real life), but here given a real character and motivation he uses his considerable ability to create a memorably real persona, or at least as real as it gets with Charles Middleton.
Technical Excellences: Rowland Brown’s direction is solid and concentrates on the drama with a pared down, ground level focus that lets the action speak for itself. Where the movie really shines is in its creation of an atmosphere of confinement, routine and misery. The camera moves slowly through the prisoners' cages (essentially train compartments with bars) as we see rows upon rows of shackles and chains. Before long the clanking of the chains being locked and unlocked and the rattling of metal as it is pulled through each shackle signalling the start and end of each day become part of the background noise of the movie.. Added to this is also the ever present lilt of the Spiritual songs echoing through the encampment. It starts from the opening credits, continues during the hard labour of rock breaking and surrounds the relative calm of the evening as prisoners sit together chained up. The eerie and haunting music frames and highlights the narrative like a Greek chorus (and expertly sung by the Etude Ethiopian Chorus). Brown uses this dreamlike atmosphere as an ethereal contrast to the horrors of the sweatbox, the brutal method of torture used for straightening out an unruly prisoner, with one memorable moment where the singing is suddenly interrupted by the howl of a dog, signifying the death of a prisoner.
The Sublime: In many ways the most impressive parts of the movie are the minor details. It’s a cleverly written script wherein seemingly inconsequential moments slowly snowball into becoming life changing events and where small character details leave a lasting impression. Examples of this include the deaf prisoner who doesn’t hear the bullet that kills him, and his plaintive moans to a higher power as her dies or the group of young posse members who shoot Duke’s brother from behind and who cry and run away once they realise the reality of what they’ve done. These moments of despair and poignancy appear when least expected and make a lasting impression, hinting at inner stories that will forever remain untold.
However, best of all is a particularly brilliant subplot involving a missing spoon, grabbed by an inmate at meal time. We catch up on the progress of the stolen cutlery throughout the film in various inserts as it is whittled down to a shiv and used ultimately for a deadly purpose. From the moment the spoon is announced as missing, the audience can guess what the end result will be, and the sense of grim foreboding builds slowly and inexorably. What is striking about the subplot is that we never get a good look at the inmate’s face. He’s just a face in the crowd, a menacing silent killer blending into the background and waiting for the right moment to strike. He’s not a featured character, has no influence on the story, and has no real motivation. As a result the episode has a chilling, anonymity that underlines the randomness of the violence in the chain gang
The Ridiculous: Not surprisingly, everything is played straight in the movie and in the name of gritty realism there is little to detract from the on screen misery. However one brief scene raises an unintentional laugh. Duke is being punished for punching out a guard and the sadistic warden decides to give him a taste of his whip. He pulls off Duke's shirt to reveal his Army regiment tattoo (42nd Infantry, 167th Regiment – a real division that served in the trenches during the First World War). He sees the tattoo and hesitates before using the lash. It’s just a silly moment, firstly due to the inference that even a vile and sadistic prison warden would hesitate to punish a troublemaking career criminal because he served his country. Even sillier is the fact that the centrepiece of Duke’s tattoo is an enormous American flag. Other than the fact it’s a clumsy and awkward visual motif, you’re telling me no one noticed it before? You can’t miss it!
Is it worth watching?: Hell’s Highway may be the unloved cousin of I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang but what it lacks in artistry, powerhouse acting and searing social comment, it makes up by being wildly entertaining and lurid in equal parts. It never sermonises like its famous cousin and crackles with a raw vitality and earthiness that makes its point coolly and directly. It may be exploitative but in many ways it’s the tabloid fodder that really ingrains a message into the minds of the general public. The movie speaks to its audience on their own level, giving them a cast of recognisable characters, a compelling and violent plot that simmers slowing until exploding in a fiery climax and a leading man that delivers a square jawed, rugged performance. Hell’s Highway is great entertainment, both shocking and enlightening and deserves to be reappraised as a compelling and valid companion piece to its more famous competitor.
Random Quote: “Whosoever betrayeth his brother is in danger of brimstone, and stomach trouble”