Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Crooked Way (1949)

Using amnesia as a plot device has a long and varied history in film and television, showing up in everything from noirs such as Somewhere in the Night (1946) and The Clay Pigeon (1949), both of which feature amnesiac World War II vets trying to uncover their pasts, to modern-day mainstream films such as the recent Liam Neeson thriller Unknown (2011) as well as just about every soap opera ever broadcast. In theory, using amnesia as a plot device in a film like The Crooked Way should be a slam dunk, since it allows the filmmakers to invert the conventions of the detective genre by forcing the amnesiac to play the role of detective - except instead of investigating someone else’s crime, he must investigate himself. However, in this particular instance, the results are less than satisfactory.

The Crooked Way tells the story of Eddie Rice (John Payne), who has recently come home from World War II with a silver star and a chunk of metal in his head that has completely wiped out his memories. He only has one clue to his past - that before the War, he lived in Los Angeles. After getting his release from a psychiatric hospital, he decides to go back to L.A. in search of answers.

The film wastes no time getting Eddie into trouble. He’s barely stepped off the train from San Francisco when a cop named Joe Williams (Rhys Williams) accosts him and demands to know what he’s doing back in L.A. It turns out that the war hero’s past isn’t so stellar. Eddie finds out that his name isn’t Eddie Rice, it’s Eddie Riccardi, and Eddie Riccardi was part of a criminal organization with a heavy named Vince Alexander (Sonny Tufts). See, Eddie and Vince used to be partners - until Eddie turned state’s evidence and set Vince up to take the fall on a manslaughter rap in exchange for immunity from prosecution. Complicating matters is Nina Martin (Ellen Drew), who was once married to Eddie - until Eddie bailed on their marriage and skipped town, changing his name and going off to war, leaving Vince to pick up the pieces by giving Nina a job in his club’s back room, flirting with patsies and getting them to part with their money at his gambling tables. Needless to say, no one is particularly pleased to see Eddie back in town, and no one is exactly buying his I-can’t-remember-anything tale.

Unfortunately, the solid setup doesn’t pay off in the execution, particularly in the performances. Payne, who followed the Dick Powell career trajectory (star in some musicals, then make a mid-career move into more serious fare like noir), began a string of noir appearances in The Crooked Way, going on to star in Kansas City Confidential (1952), 99 River Street (1953), Slightly Scarlet (1956) and Hidden Fear (1957). His performance in this film is uneven, although it does improve as the film progresses. The rest of the cast doesn’t fare as well. Drew is average and unremarkable, Williams does little more than recite his lines, and Tufts - well, if you’ve ever seen a film with Sonny Tufts, you know where this is going. Calling his delivery wooden is insulting to trees.

Sonny Tufts (sitting) and Percy Helton with the cat.  Photo from Alan K. Rode's collection

The film also bites off more plot devices than it can chew, and this shows in the uneven pacing. The first half of the film tries to deal with Rice/Riccardi’s amnesia as well as his relationship with his ex-wife, and then it abruptly shifts to a more traditional revenge plot in the second half, in which Vince frames Eddie for a crime he didn’t commit. The end result is undercooked characters and implausible plot developments, testing the viewer’s suspension of disbelief on more than one occasion. In addition, the climax manages to be overlong, lacking in suspense, and laughably ridiculous on more than occasion.

However, The Crooked Way has an ace up its sleeve: John Alton, the king of noir cinematography. Alton does typically excellent work on this picture, and since most of the action is set at night, he gets many chances to show his stuff. Some of the visuals in this film are truly striking - Eddie and Nina in her house at night, silhouetted against a backlit window; a car enveloped by the night as it speeds into the dark; Eddie wandering the seedier, neon-lit sections of L.A. after the sun has gone down. Even if the story doesn’t cohere and the performances leave a lot to be desired, the film is consistently a joy to watch on a purely visual level.

The Crooked Way would have been better served had it simply pared down the amnesia plot elements, cut out some of the more unbelievable aspects of the Eddie/Nina relationship and focused more on the Eddie/Vince dynamic, since the plot starts to hum along nicely once it shifts its focus to Eddie trying to clear his name. A different cast couldn’t hurt, either. If you’re an Alton aficionado or can enjoy a noir simply because it features excellent cinematography, then you’ll find some pleasure in watching The Crooked Way. Otherwise, skip it and watch Somewhere in the Night instead.

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Written by Nighthawk






3 comments:

  1. Nah. I think it's a great film.

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  2. Oh you must see Random Harvest! My favourite amnesiac film of all time!

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  3. Oh I think the reviewer has been harsh on this film which I watched tonight. Certainly Sonny Tufts is just a bad actor and Percy Helton is his familiar annoying self. However I have to disagree with his comments about Ellen Drew who I found interesting and very watchable as the ex-wife who still desperately wants to be loved.
    As to Payne well just as I defend John Hodiak for his performance as the amnesia suffering ex-soldier in the excellent 1946 film Somewhere in the Night, I have to say that Payne gives an above average and convincing performance here. When you're searching for your identity you're not going to be able to express every emotion for things you don't understand and Payne manages to convey it appropriately without coming across as wooden or flat.
    However there is no disagreement as to the look of the film which is excellent. There are just so many nice shots: from Payne's initial arrival into LA to his wandering around the streets at night.

    Cheers
    Mimaroba

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