Hell’s Highway (1932)

“A Drama of the Damned.” A bleak and gritty overview of a prison chain gang in all of its depravity, Hell’s Highway has long been overshadowed by I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, which was released by Warner Brothers later the same year. However, it is just as powerful in its indictment of the chain gang system (that is until the rather banal, tacked-on ending!). In fact, a foreword to the film states, “Dedicated to an early end of the conditions portrayed herein – which, though a throw-back to the Middle Ages, actually exist today.” Directed by Rowland Brown (Blood Money) and released by RKO, Hell’s Highway stars Richard Dix as hardened criminal “Duke Ellis,” who plots an escape from the prison camp but has a change of heart when his younger brother “Johnny” (Tom Brown) gets arrested and sentenced to hard labor alongside him. The film presents a disquieting world of sadistic guards, corrupt officials and desperate prisoners subjected to torturous conditions (especially the notorious “sweatbox”). The cast includes Fuzzy Knight as “Society Red,” Sandy Roth as “Maxie,” Charles B. Middleton as “Matthew the Hermit,” Clarence Muse as “Rascal” and Rochelle Hudson as “Mary Ellen.” The film’s running time is just 62 minutes. Hudson portrayed the mother of “Judy” (Natalie Wood) in Rebel Without a Cause (1955).

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