Confusion and disorientation, a world suddenly tipped out of kilter, false and mistaken identities – such phenomena are par for the course in the film noir universe. Taken individually, these elements crop up in countless ordinary thrillers, but mix them all together in an urban setting with a story of organized crime and it moves into noir territory. The late 40s saw the full flowering of this type of cinema, when the initial optimism of the post-war years was just fading enough to allow disillusionment to take a firmer hold. The Crooked Way (1949) is one of those low budget efforts that is easily overlooked – the stars and director are people only familiar to hardcore movie fans, although the cinematographer, quite rightfully, still draws huge critical praise. What’s more this film often gets overshadowed by a glossier, more expensive production with a strikingly similar theme. I reckon it’s a touch unfair as there are plenty of positive ingredients; it’s by no means a perfect movie, but it does deserve a bit more credit and attention than it’s normally afforded.
Eddie Rice (John Payne) is on the point of being discharged from an army hospital in San Francisco. He’s seen sitting in a doctor’s office while questions are fired at him, questions like where he came from and what he did. Well, Eddie doesn’t have any answers for the simple reason that he has no memory. There’s a piece of shrapnel lodged in his brain, in an inoperable spot, and as a result he’s suffering from amnesia. All that’s known is that he joined up in Los Angeles using the name of Eddie Rice. The doctor’s advice is to go back to LA, see and be seen, and maybe someone will remember him, give him some lead about his vanished past. So that’s exactly what he does, and no sooner has he stepped out of Union Station than he runs slap bang into two guys who seem to know him very well indeed. These are two cops (Rhys Williams & John Doucette) and neither one is thrilled to run into him. This is vaguely unsettling for Eddie but a greater shock awaits him at the station house when he learns that his real name is actually Riccardi, and he’s got a rap sheet as long as his arm. Lots of films noir feature regular guys stumbling into trouble and desperately trying to escape it, but in this case that’s not possible; whatever else a man can do, he can’t run away from himself. The temptation is there alright and Eddie weighs it up yet there’s that fundamental philosophical desire to know oneself as well as one can. No, he’s going to have to stay, to discover what kind of man he was and why he did the things he did. To do so, he must reacquaint himself with the woman he once loved (Ellen Drew) and the partner (Sonny Tufts) he crossed up and sent to prison. Trying to trace back through the blank pages of his own past is a big enough ask in itself, but Eddie’s quest for his own identity becomes even harder when he finds himself beaten, framed for murder and running from both the mob and the law.
In 1946 Joseph L Mankiewicz made Somewhere in the Night, telling the story of a veteran with amnesia returning to LA to trace his background and unearthing some disconcerting facts. It was produced at Fox and exhibits all the gloss that studio could afford to give its movies. The basic premise is quite similar to that of The Crooked Way and I imagine more people have seen or heard of it – that loaded, evocative title can’t hurt any either. It’s a fairly good picture on its own terms, but if you put these two amnesia films up against each other, then I’d have to plump for The Crooked Way every time. This is partly down to the grittiness which goes hand in hand with a lower budget, and also the strong reliance on authentic LA locations. On top of that, there were two men behind the camera whose presence is a significant part of why the film works for me: Robert Florey and John Alton. I guess few will know the name of Florey nowadays – he was one of those émigré directors who came to Hollywood in the early thirties and worked mostly on B pictures before moving into television, where his credits are extensive. The thing about Florey is he had a background in expressionism and consequently his work has a strong visual sense that’s ideal for capturing mood and atmosphere. In addition to this film, I strongly recommend checking out his direction of Perchance to Dream from The Twilight Zone, one of the finest episodes of that excellent series. John Alton should, of course, need no introduction. A true artist, Alton’s deep black shadows and imaginative lighting are a joy. Any film he worked on bore his unmistakable stamp, and The Crooked Way is no exception.
This is quite a pivotal film in the career of John Payne. George Sherman’s Larceny had got him into crime pictures and The Crooked Way builds upon that. Payne was a good fit for noir in that there was a toughness about him but also a lived-in, kicked around look which such movies required. His role was a demanding one, calling for innocence, bewilderment and a bit of an edge too. The character of Eddie is complex due to the fact he starts out as someone trying his best to be decent yet also lacking assurance. He is, by necessity, a man aware of nothing beyond the here and now but he’s also keen to know how he got to that place, what path in life led him there. When the revelations come, Eddie is shocked and confused since it doesn’t square with the way he feels about himself. Payne is fine at getting across the nervy uncertainty of the character, the flashes of aggression which are buried deep within. The movie was a good stepping stone for him, laying the foundations for strong performances in later noir vehicles like 99 River Street and Kansas City Confidential. Ellen Drew, in the films I’ve seen, often appeared to be handed passive roles. The Crooked Way gave her more to do though by casting her as a woman who’s had a hard enough time and thus encourages a more gutsy performance, even stopping a bullet meant for Payne at one point. As the principal villain, Sonny Tufts is suitably mean, his introduction during the interrogation of a mob informer setting the tone for what follows. In support, there’s good work from Rhys Williams, John Doucette and Percy Helton.
The Crooked Way was released on DVD in the US by Geneon a long time ago now. It’s not a bad transfer, a bit harsh looking in places maybe, but it’s also interlaced. Some of the other titles from that imprint have subsequently appeared or been announced from Olive and Kino, so I’d like to hope a stronger version would hit the market sooner or later – and I’ve just noted that it appears Kino do indeed have plans for this title in the summer. The movie isn’t without its faults of course – there’s a heavy reliance on coincidence on a number of occasions (but, in all honesty, that could be said of a lot of noir pictures) and the ending is just a little too pat. Still, I don’t see these as major flaws of the type to ruin the viewing experience. Overall, this is a good solid noir, based on an interesting premise, beautifully composed and shot, oozing the requisite hard-boiled feel. It’s the kind of half-forgotten film I always like to tell people about, if they have the time or patience to listen to me. I say give it a try, it might surprise you.