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The Crooked Way

The Crooked Way(1949)

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teaser The Crooked Way (1949)

Amnesia has served as a popular plot device in countless genre films but it provides a particularly satisfying narrative hook in the obscure but stylish film noir, The Crooked Way (1949). Eddie Rice (John Payne), a World War II veteran and recipient of a Silver Star, returns home to Los Angeles after his release from a veterans hospital. Eddie's head injuries have impaired his memory but he begins to piece together his former life as a notorious mobster who turned police informer and sent his partner Vince Alexander (Sonny Tufts) to prison. Having served his time, Vince is now operating a crime syndicate out of a nightclub and uses Nina (Ellen Drew), Eddie's former wife, to lure Eddie into a trap for the sake of revenge. Lt. Joe Williams (Rhys Williams) is convinced that Eddie will return to his criminal ways but instead the war veteran becomes a relentless seeker of truth and justice that puts him in harm's way.

Despite the prosaic opening credits of The Crooked Way, this independently produced B-movie released by United Artists proves to be a striking minor triumph highlighted by the taut direction of Robert Florey (The Face Behind the Mask [1941], The Beast with Five Fingers [1946]), John Alton's shadow-laden cinematography, baroque art direction by Van Nest Polglase, evocative, on-location glimpses of a postwar Los Angeles and scenes of intense violence which were considered extreme for its era. The ensemble cast is also impressive with John Payne providing the right mixture of brooding and moral confusion as a man who slowly comes to terms with the brutal animal he used to be.

Like Dick Powell, Payne first rose to leading man status as a romantic lead in musical romances. At 20th Century-Fox, he played opposite Betty Grable, Alice Faye and Sonia Henie in such box office hits as Springtime in the Rockies (1942), Hello Frisco, Hello (1943) and Sun Valley Serenade (1941). And like Powell, Payne changed his image in the postwar years and adapted a tougher, more hardboiled persona that was more appropriate for crime thrillers and westerns. As good as he is in The Crooked Way, however, his co-stars often steal the picture from him from Ellen Drew's slinky, deceptive heroine to Rhys Williams' crafty detective to Percy Helton's pitiable black marketeer who has a fondness for cats. The real surprise here though is the usually wooden Sonny Tufts as Payne's vicious and calculating nemesis; his performance suggests that the rest of his career might have been a mistake of miscasting and bad film choices.

The Crooked Way was derived from a radio program called "High Adventure" which was broadcast on the Mutual network during 1947-1948 and based on the episode "No Blade Too Sharp" by Robert Monroe; Richard H. Landau (The Quatermass Xperiment, 1955) adapted it for the screen. During the pre-production stage, both Shelley Winters and Jeanne Cagney were briefly considered for the Ellen Drew role. The movie also ran into censorship problems, according to AFI sources, which stated that "PCA director Joseph I. Breen requested that producer Benedict Bogeaus "considerably reduce the brutality" in the film, specifically the scene in which "Eddie" is beaten. The PCA Office would not administer a certificate of approval until the action of a man "stamping on Eddie after he has fallen down the ladder" was omitted."

At the time of its release, The Crooked Way was mostly ignored or dismissed as a routine B-movie crime melodrama but The New York Times was more mixed, calling it " incredible melodrama bursting with violence..." and that it "races along as a melodrama should and it has more than enough plot to keep its hard-working actors going from one dangerous situation to another. But there is so much pointless brutality in it that one may seriously question whether the movie people are wise to go on with the making of such pictures. The human family may not be perfect, but why subject it to so-called entertainment that is only fit for savage beasts." Thanks to a resurgence of interest in the film noir genre and particularly the work of cinematographer John Alton in the past decade, The Crooked Way is slowly working its way toward a cult status long denied it.

Producer: Benedict Bogeaus
Director: Robert Florey
Screenplay: Richard H. Landau (screenplay); Robert Monroe (radio play "No Blade Too Sharp")
Cinematography: John Alton
Art Direction: Van Nest Polglase
Music: Louis Forbes
Film Editing: Frank Sullivan
Cast: John Payne (Eddie Rice/Eddie Riccardi), Sonny Tufts (Vince Alexander), Ellen Drew (Nina Martin), Rhys Williams (Lieutenant Joe Williams), Percy Helton (Petey), John Doucette (Sgt. Barrett), Charlie Evans (Captain Anderson), Greta Granstedt (Hazel Downs), Raymond Largay (Arthur Stacey, M.D.), Harry Bronson (Danny).

by Jeff Stafford

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