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After Mickey Rooney was released from his contract with MGM where he had been one of the studio's most popular and prolific stars during his youth, he had a rude awakening. As an actor entering his thirties, he was no longer the box office champion he had once been and his roles and film offers began to reflect that. Almost overnight he went from such lavish MGM productions as Summer Holiday (1948) and Words and Music (1948) to B features like The Big Wheel (1949) and Quicksand (1950), both of which were made for Samuel H. Stiefel Productions, a low-budget outfit. Rooney's descent into B movies and supporting roles would continue through the 1950s and beyond and he would see his film career rise and fall several more times through the decades, reaching another peak with his Oscar® nominated role in The Black Stallion (1979).
Despite the actor's disappointment at not being offered better material in his middle years, some of his excursions into genre fare, particularly crime thrillers and melodramas such as The Strip (1951) and The Big Operator (1959), were much better than he would admit and a few have even achieved cult status such as Don Siegel's Baby Face Nelson (1957). Drive a Crooked Road (1954), a modest but tautly directed film noir from this middle period is one that Rooney actually liked too. In his autobiography, Life Is Too Short, he wrote, "In 1954, I did the third picture in my three-picture Columbia deal, Drive a Crooked Road. Blake Edwards wrote a terrific script, about a garage mechanic (me) who falls in with some bank robbers. The film got good reviews, and it even won a Redbook Award for the best picture of the year."
In a plot that mirrored other noirs where an average Joe is seduced into crime by a femme fatale, Rooney plays Eddie Shannon, a car racing buff who competes in local Los Angeles races and dreams of going to the Grand Prix one day. When Barbara Mathews (Dianne Foster), a customer at the auto garage where he works, takes an interest in him, it quickly evolves into a love affair....a one-sided one. Barbara is merely the lure for Eddie's involvement in a bank robbery being planned by Barbara's boyfriend Steve (Kevin McCarthy) and his partner Harold (Jack Kelly). Despite his reluctance to get involved in robbery, Eddie is pressured into being the getaway driver in Steve's heist but, as we already know from the film's title, the road ahead is full of twists and turns.
Unlike some of his more bombastic, larger-than-life performances in films like The Fireball (1950) and The Atomic Kid (1954), Rooney is impressively low-key and believable here, giving a subtle, nuanced performance as a working class loner with self-esteem problems. Dianne Foster, an extremely attractive, talented actress who never graduated to major stardom despite impressive work in Bad for Each Other (1953) and The Brothers Rico (1957), makes an irresistible femme fatale. And Kevin McCarthy and Jack Kelly add dramatic weight to the tale with their smooth villainy.
While not a forgotten masterpiece by any means, Drive a Crooked Road is a fast-paced, entertaining B movie that clocks in at a tidy 83 minutes under Richard Quine's direction (Quine made several films with Rooney including Sound Off  and All Ashore , which was co-written by Blake Edwards.) Blake Lucas in his entry for the movie in Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style wrote, "The lack of pretentiousness in a film like Drive a Crooked Road could be mistaken for a lack of artistic zeal; but such films take the motifs of the cycle out of the dark corners of a noir underworld and bring them into the sunlight, where human nature remains as corrupt as it is in the dark. The doomed noir hero played by Rooney is all the more poignant for being a very ordinary human being..."
Director: Richard Quine
Screenplay: Blake Edwards, Richard Quine; James Benson Nablo (story)
Cinematography: Charles Lawton, Jr.
Art Direction: Walter Holscher
Film Editing: Jerome Thoms
Cast: Mickey Rooney (Eddie Shannon), Dianne Foster (Barbara Mathews), Kevin McCarthy (Steve Norris), Jack Kelly (Harold Baker), Harry Landers (Ralph), Jerry Paris (Phil), Paul Picerni (Carl), Dick Crockett (Don).
by Jeff Stafford
Life Is Too Short by Mickey Rooney (Villard Books)
Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style, edited by Alain Silver and Elizabeth Ward (Overlook Press)