Friday, March 3, 2017

Forgotten Noir Fridays: Highway 13 (1949)

The Norris Trucking Company has been the focus of several unfortunate accidents, thanks to some generous use of stock footage from Republic serials.  But when Henrietta Norris, heiress to the Norris fortune, meets her demise in an automobile wreck along the same stretch of California highway that’s claimed so many gearjammers, her father (Tom Chatterton) and husband Frank Denton (Michael Whalen) sit up and take notice.  (Ms. Denton and the drivers all perished along Highway 13.  Get it?  Because “13” is an unlucky number.  Hello?  Bueller?)

Robert Lowery and Dan Seymour
Driver Hank Wilson (Robert Lowery) witnessed Henrietta’s accident, and he’s soon paired up with apprentice trucker George Montgomery (Steve Pendleton, billed as “Gaylord”)—who’s really a private investigator looking into the matter at Denton’s request.  Montgomery is killed in a suspicious truck accident not long after, and Hank is immediately fingered for the crime.  But Wilson is a right guy; it’s hard to believe he could be capable of such mayhem; suffice it to say, there’s no shortage of suspects including Norris personnel manager Mary Hadley (Maris Wrixon) and cantankerous garage/café owner Bill “Pops” Lacy (Clem Bevans).

No one was more surprised than I when I watched Highway 13 (1949) because this makes the second “Forgotten Noir” in a row that’s actually a fairly decent little B-picture.  Tooling along at a crisp, economical 58 minutes, Highway has a very good cast and was directed by journeyman William Berke (Shoot to Kill), who demonstrates with confidence that he knows his way around a programmer (this puppy was shot in three-and-a-half days).  Maurice Tombragel (whose contributions include the serials The Great Alaskan Mystery [1944] and Mystery of the Riverboat [1944]) gets the credit for the screenplay, from a story by John Wilste.

In his write-up for Highway 13 at DVD Talk, Stuart Galbraith IV is most laudatory—labeling the film “a genuinely baffling mystery that keeps viewers guessing.”  Steve at the Mystery File blog has a dissenting opinion: “Most other reviewers of this film rate it a whole lot higher than I do, but personally I don’t care for crime films in which the culprit(s) is/are obvious…”  I kind of have to throw in with Steve on this one; the individual(s) responsible does stick out like a sore thumb (when one of your suspects resembles the Gavin Elster character from Vertigo—not an encouraging sign) but despite this (and a finale that’s a teensy bit contrived) I’d still give the movie high marks (sometimes getting there is half the fun…even if you have predicted the outcome).

Mary Gordon and Clem Bevans
Most of the time when I’m watching Robert Lowery in a movie I’m trying to figure out why so many people thought he looked like Clark Gable.  (Lowery was in last week’s “Forgotten Noir,” Western Pacific Agent [1950]—though he didn’t make it past the first reel.)  But props to Bob—he’s very effective in Highway 13 (I also liked him in another Robert L. Lippert production reviewed on the blog, Arson, Inc. [1949]) and his chemistry with Monogram pin-up girl Pamela Blake (she plays his love interest, a waitress named Doris) is astoundingly good.  (Galbraith observes that Lowery resembles Victor Mature more—I’m with him on this.)  The casting in Highway is one of its major strengths; it’s filled with old pros like Clem Bevans, Mary Gordon (“Mrs. Hudson!”), and Lyle Talbot.  Talbot must have had one hell of an agent—he’s barely in the film and yet he’s mentioned in the opening credits; character veteran Dan Seymour (as an insurance agent named Kelleher) gets more screen time yet goes unbilled.

Pamela Blake and Robert Lowery
The short running time of Highway 13 is also a plus—it zips by so fast you aren’t afforded the opportunity to see where the seams show.  Galbraith also notes that “Lippert must have gotten access to the big diner set from some other movie; it's too elaborate to imagine that it was constructed for this film.”  (I concur, and thought the “Clover Café” background was very impressive for a programmer.)  Highway 13 has resurfaced on DVD as part of the Forgotten Noir series now available at The Sprocket Vault and can also be rented from the new ClassicFlix Underground.  (As to its noir bona fides—DVD Talk says yay, Mystery File says nay…proving it to be one of the most elastic of movie definitions.)


glynis37 said...

Ivan, could I ask a huge-ish favor? Could you caption some of the stills you use? Some of us, well, me anyway, don't know every minor and/or character actor on sight.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

glynis37 took advantage of the stillness:

Ivan, could I ask a huge-ish favor? Could you caption some of the stills you use?

Since your nickname references one of my favorite actresses (ah, Glynis...) your wish is my command.

glynis37 said...

Bless you, sir!