The Crooked Way, 1949, (starring John Payne, director Robert Florey) isn’t one of the great and celebrated noirs. It’s not the most convincing film of its time either, and fails to deliver the levels of paranoia that the great noir dramas do. It doesn’t feature a detective but follows the story of a much truer noir archetype — the WWII veteran, and his struggle to readjust to civilian life. Still the movie should be better known than it is, as it is one of the truest expressions of another 1940s Hollywood obsession — amnesia. Boy they loved it back then.
John Payne as amnesiac war hero 'Eddie Rice' in The Crooked Way
The metaphors are lathered on thick in The Crooked way — so thick in fact, I should merely remind you of the set up and you can do the rest. The WWII veteran in question, Eddie Rice, played by John Payne, is suffering at a San Francisco military hospital for a permanent form of amnesia. He stands for American manhood, and more — America itself. With a tiny piece of iron shrapnel in his brain, he has been struggling to work out who he is, but cannot. Physically he is healthy, it’s just that his hard drive has been wiped.
What transpires is that the war has not only wiped Eddie’s memory, but as The Crooked Way proceeds, you’ll see that war has greater powers than that. When Eddie goes to Los Angeles to try and find out who he was, it turns out that before the war, he was not liked at all, and was a snivelling, snitchy low life that everybody despised. The Eddie that was released from the army in contrast, albeit with no memory, is kind, moral and would be the first to help an old dear across a busy street.
You get the idea fast. War has not only cleansed America, but it has returned it to a positive and innocent state from where it can assert its moral goodies. A scary package. Cathartically John Payne’s character Eddie takes a few beatings en route, in part to atone for his pre-war nastiness, but the power of his post-war glory is sufficient to heal not just him, but the nasty hussy that is his wife, played by Ellen Drew.
John Payne is good in The Crooked Way, and certainly knows how to wear a hat. He presents as lost throughout, slowly gathering in confidence as he gets a grip on the crime world he has uncovered. He has this great hangdog sadness that he wears, always staring droopily at other people and at the buildings of Los Angeles. Those who have not been at war, like Ellen Drew (below) are still living barely legal wretched lives, but doing so amid an architectural splendour that is not worthy of them. In redeeming himself, the war hero is going to pull the greatest trick you'll ever see, and redeem the others too.
This is Hollywood amnesia, a story writer's friend. It doesn't matter if it's The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) or 50 First Dates (2004), amnesic characters are plain plot fodder and function on many levels to 'cure' the audience. No fewer than 10 silent movies before 1926 use this. In Garden of Lies (1915), predictable issues arise when a doctor hires a new husband for an amnesic bride in an attempt to jog her memory. Nuptials also precipitated amnesia in Kisses for Breakfast, 1941. In 1915 The Right of Way was one of the first films to depict amnesia as the result of an assault, and the trigger for starting life afresh, as also in The Victory of Conscience (1916).
After 1945, the returning veteran became probably noir’s most recognisable hero. This guy, in every instance, comes out of the army and winds up over his head in criminal conspiracy. These films include Cornered (1945), the Blue Dahlia (1946), Somewhere in the Night (1946), Dead Reckoning (1947), Crack-up (1947), Ride the Pink Horse (1947) and Backfire! (1949). Just looking at those titles, a picture emerges — cornered, night, dead, crack-up, crooked — it’s semantically pretty clear, at least. The themes layered into these could be broadly listed as sexual hostility, psychological disturbance and social maladjustment — the perfect noir baggage.
There are also a good clutch of noirs, in which the lead is both the suspect and the investigator, and this is one of those too. Amnesia is a great tool here, as well as a metaphor, and in this subset of noir, which we could handily call the amnesiac-suspect/investigator thriller, we have Somewhere in the Night (1946), Crack-up (1946), The High Wall (1947), and a large number of Cornell Woolrich adaptations, such as Street of Chance (1942), The Chase (1946), Black Angel (1947), Fall Guy (1947) and Fear in the Night (1947). General to all of these films, and noir as a whole, is the idea of the law as insufficient — a fact which causes the hero to take matters into his own hands.
In these movies, we never hear anything about the war — you don’t hear which theatre they were in, whether they had buddies and what action they saw. In The Crooked Way we learn that Eddie has a silver star (‘can be bought for two bits in any pawn shop’ says the detective) and that he has a lump of shrapnel in his head.
Tough Sonny Tufts in The Crooked Way
Star of The Crooked Way is probably Sonny Tufts, who puts in a fairly standard psychopathic performance. As is normal, we don’t really learn what his business is, although it is some sort of crime connected with the port, where he hangs out in dingy and little used sheds and lofts. It's a neat psychpathic turn, offering a character type that has never left Hollywood, the brutal gang leader whom everyone is scared of. That's all you need to know.
Everyone seems to agree though, that the overall star of the show in The Crooked Way is John Alton who specialised at the time in those great noir contrasting shadows that we love so well. Here Alton also shot Los Angeles in a brand new manner, and even if The Crooked Way doesn’t deliver in dramatic terms, it is one of the greatest noirs when it comes to that first class cinematography for which the genre is famed.
1949 was in fact the height of Alton’s career, as it saw the publication of his book Painting with Light. You get the sense in The Crooked Way that it is lit by someone on a high, and John Alton certainly is. Find John Alton here at Wikipedia.
Alton wrote Painting with Light (1949), one of the first books written by a working studio cinematographer. The book put forth several controversial theories for the day, such as depth is created by placing the brightest object in the scene furthest from the camera, and that studio lighting must always simulate natural light in texture and direction. It addresses both conventional and unconventional methods of studio motion-picture lighting. While technical advances have made much of the content obsolete, it contains valuable information and ideas for lighting several difficult interior and exterior setups and situations.
For violence levels The Crooked Way has a couple of unusual stand out moments, most particularly when John Payne's character Eddie Rice is beaten up and thrown down a fire escape — from which he classically escapes with not a scratch or a bruise. And then there’s the final shootout scene, which is noisier and more extended than one would expect from the era. In fact, it’s much more like one of today’s dramatic finale abandoned factory shootouts.
The Crooked Way is well worth a watch if you’re interested in Hollywood, noir, amnesia and manhood. It’s tough and sensitive and although the versions of it on the go are not pristine, every good buff should have it under her or his belt as it explains so much about post war cinema, and does so in a ragged and exciting lather of beautifully lit chaos.