Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Highway 13'

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

The 1948 cheapo thriller Highway 13 comes on DVD as part of the Forgotten Noir series, and it seems pretty justifiably forgotten. Barely qualifying as a feature at just an hour long, it's a bare-bones tale of corruption and sabotage marked by clumsy writing, terrible set design and special effects, listless acting and rushed pacing. There's a certain sleazy charm to these anonymous programmers, and occasionally some of them exhibit flashes of real artistry (there's a reason a movie like Detour has become a classic). Highway 13 definitely doesn't fall into that category, though.

It also doesn't really qualify as a noir: It doesn't take place in a city; the action occurs mostly during the day; the hero is never corrupted or even really tested; and while one female character has a single nasty seduction sequence, I wouldn't classify her as a femme fatale. Instead it's just a straight-up crime story, with a trucking company suffering from a series of mysterious accidents along the titular highway in rural California. One of the company's drivers (Robert Lowery) takes it upon himself to figure out what's going on, and ends up suspected of the sabotage himself. The plot twists aren't particularly interesting or surprising, the acting is flat, the characters are one-dimensional (or, in several cases, no-dimensional), and the dialogue is amusingly bad. I laughed every time the head of the trucking company (Michael Whalen) showed up to express concern in the most unenthusiastic manner possible. As the movie starts he seems far more interested in his company's reputation for timeliness than in the fact that his wife was the victim of the latest accident. (Later, when it turns out that he was behind the whole thing and killed his wife on purpose, he's just as affectless and blase.)

Highway 13 barrels ahead so forcefully that you don't have a lot of time to stop and think about how stupid it is, although any time the movie shows a horribly unconvincing "mountain" backdrop or an absurdly explosive truck crash using miniatures, the lack of craftsmanship is immediately apparent. There isn't even a whole lot of titillation to captivate the drive-in audience; just bland innuendo between the hero and his girlfriend, and the aforementioned single seduction scene. Even the camp elements (including a curmudgeonly old diner owner prone to getting pies thrown in his face) are pretty lackluster. This one is likely to stay forgotten.

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