Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Crooked Way (1949)

The Crooked Way is a good stylish B noir that deserves to be a lot better known than it is. This 1949 United Artists release has a lot going for it with John Alton’s superb cinematography being a highlight.

Eddie Rice (John Payne) is a war veteran without a past. He has a piece of shrapnel lodged in his brain and he is suffering from amnesia. As the doctor explains to him, this is not the sort of amnesia than can be treated by psychotherapy. It’s organic and it’s permanent. There is however a way he can regain something at least of his past. Army records show he enlisted in Los Angeles so the chances are that’s where he lived. If he goes back there he may find someone who knew him, someone who can fill in the blanks in his life.

Eddie soon discovers that while he can remember nothing of his life there are plenty of people who remember him. They remember him as Eddie Riccardi. And none too fondly either. He makes the unsettling discovery that he was a hoodlum. That’s bad enough, but he double-crossed his partner in crime, Vince Alexander (Sonny Tufts), by turning state’s evidence against him. Vince is now a major gang boss and he’s a man who is not inclined to forgive or forget.

The police don’t remember Eddie with much affection either. They assume he’s back in town to pick up his criminal career where he left off. They’re not going to be very helpful to him and Eddie will soon need all the help he can get.

Vince’s initial reaction is to have Eddie beaten up. He considers killing him but he comes up with a better idea. If Eddie sticks around Vince may be able to get his revenge and have Eddie help him out of a tight spot. Vince has had one of his men killed for sqealing to the cops so maybe he can pin the murder on Eddie. That would be a nice way to get his revenge. And subsequent events provide Vince with an even better chance to frame Eddie and escape the rap for an even bigger crime.

Eddie’s only possible ally is Nina (Ellen Drew). Nina works in Vince’s gambling joint but she is also Eddie’s ex-wife. Eddie Riccardi treated Nina very badly, but Eddie is not Eddie Riccardi any more. Eddie Riccardi died when he took that piece of shrapnel in Italy during the war. Now he’s a different man, but can he convince Nina of that? And he needs Nina’s help badly.

Eddie Rice might have the same personality traits as Eddie Riccardi but he knows the mistakes Eddie Riccardi made, the mistakes that led him to choose the crooked way. Eddie is older and wiser and since he has no memories of his unpleasant past he hasn’t been hardened and twisted by that life. He is the man Eddie Riccardi might have been if he’d made smarter choices.

Of course the really smart thing for Eddie Rice to do would be to get out of LA and start a new life somewhere else. Start the decent life he now wants. Get an honest job, get married, have a family. That’s the sort of life that Eddie Rice would like. There are however two reasons why he can’t just do that. The first reason is that Vince has now got him embroiled in big trouble with the cops. The second reason is that just as Eddie Riccardi once loved Nina, Eddie Rice now finds he’s falling for her as well. And she is his ex-wife and if he’s going to find redemption he’s not going to find it by running out on her again, especially as she is now just as deeply involved in the mess Vince has gotten Eddie into as Eddie himself.

Amnesia was a bit of an obsession with Hollywood in the 40s. This is one of the more successful attempts to deal with this theme. Of course the plot requires a certain amount of suspension of disbelief but the movie is sufficiently well-crafted to provide that. The amnesia theme also neatly gives us a classic noir set-up - Eddie Riccardi may have been a gangster but Eddie Rice is an innocent man, and a decent man, who is being sucked into the noir nightmare world.

John Payne was always good in film noir. He conveys the right blend of toughness and sensitivity and his tendency to underplay his performances is perfect for noir. Eddie Rice doesn’t have time to indulge himself in self-pity - he’s too busy trying to survive.

Sonny Tufts is an excellent villain, playing Vince as a man always on the edge of violence. Ellen Drew is quite competent as the heroine who combines the attributes of the noir good girl with just a hint of femme fatale. She’s not a bad woman but she’s been hardened by her life and she’s no angel.

Director Robert Florey had a long career in film and later in television and he knew how to make a solid no-nonsense B crime thriller.

Of course the real star, as so often, is John Alton’s moody cinematography. No-one ever did noir cinematography better than Alton. He captures the noir mood effortlessly and gives us a wonderfully seedy but compulsively watchable view of the underside of LA in the 40s.

Geneon’s Region 1 DVD is barebones but it’s an acceptable if not pristine transfer and since it comes at a budget price it’s worth grabbing.

The Crooked Way is content to be a very good well-made B movie and I highly recommend it.

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