Saturday, November 26, 2016

The Crooked Way (1949)

“I could forget a lot if things- you, for instance.”

This picture is directed by Robert Florey, lensed by John Alton, scored by Louis Forbes, and scripted by Richard Landau (whose name you will find attached to several notable early Hammer Films noir titles), from “No Blade Too Sharp,” a radio play by Robert Monroe.

It stars John Payne as a war hero with a silver star and a bit of shrapnel lodged in his brain from the war.   I love how the opening cleverly fakes out the audience with documentary-style narration that transitions to a doctor (Crane Whitley) explaining to Payne the extent of his injury and giving advice on ways to possibly tease some of his memories back by returning to his home town in hopes he may be recognized by someone who knew him before.  If only he had realized he was a character in a noir film, he’d have known that was a bad idea.

As the doctor talks and show x-rays of the injury, Payne’s face is hidden in darkness, just as his own identity and past are hidden from himself and the audience. Lights come up and we see the man he is now- a man known only as Eddie Rice, a blank slate with a an unknown past and uncertain future.
The script does a good job of keeping the audience only slightly ahead of Eddie in his quest for answers, making it more interesting to see how he uses wits to track them down. Amnesia gives him an odd, cool edge that serves occasionally to his advantage but more often gets him deeper into trouble than if he knew the score.

As the scene moves to the city where he lived before the war, the voice-over narrative duties are transferred then to Eddie, who occasionally reveals his thoughts to the audience by this means. Before he has a chance to even leave the train station in town, the first person he meets upon arriving is Lieutenant Joe Williams (Rhys Williams), who scoops him up and takes him to headquarters to talk things out, calling him Eddie Riccardo and hinting that he was not wanted in town when he left 5 years ago. Captain Anderson ( is also introduced at this point, but primary cop-duty on this film is left to Williams for now.

As they have nothing to hold him on, Williams and Anderson let him go, but strongly hint that they’d rather he left town.  Naturally, with his desire to recollect his old self, Eddie has no such intentions.  As he is leaving the station, he is spotted and recognized by a woman (Ellen Drew) across the street who is busy posting bail for a man names “Petey.”

She comes up close to be sure, and speaks to him, but he doesn’t recognize her, taking a blind stab in the dark at her name, based on the initials on her purse.  Seeing his uncertainty, she offers to drive him to a hotel, and probes deeper to see why he’s come back.  At the same time, he is subtly picking up clues about her, since she obviously recognized him but didn’t offer her name at their meeting. He slyly gets her name from her driver’s license.  Nina Martin.  The name still means nothing to us.

While he goes to his room, she makes a call to tell a certain interested party about this development.
The party she calls is gangster Vince Alexander (Sonny Tufts), who is in the middle of roughly interrogating a man named Kelly (John Harmon), who formerly was in his employ, bur turned stool pigeon.   This scene serves triple duty 1) in introducing the character as a big shot who doesn’t like stoolies, 2) showing his obsessive focus as he ignores the ringing phone, and 3) setting up Kelly as a corpus electi that will come in handy later on.  Vince has his thugs beat and kill Kelly, then takes them along to visit their long-departed friend Eddie.  His parting words to Kelly cement the image of Vince as a vindictive killer.  “Kelly, You’re dead! Oh, and Kelly- when you get to where you’re going, have ‘em give you a nice even burn.  Don’t let let ‘em just fry you on one side.”

When they show up in Eddie’s apartment to confront him, they are thrown a bit off balance by his claims not to recognize them, but not enough to prevent a thorough and ugly beat-down from occurring.  Vince goes off on how they grew up together, went into the rackets together, and how Eddie betrayed him and let him take the rap for him and go to jail for 2 years.  He stops short of killing Eddie, instead urging him to leave town in 24 hours.

When Eddie recovers, he deduces that Nina was the one who set him up for that beating, and traces her down to find out why.  She learns his amnesia is real, and lets him know just how rotten he used to be, and give him several nasty clues to the full brutality of their past together.  They were once married, and he was an abusive, no-good louse to her.  In spite of seeing how bitter toward him she is, in his desperation, he ends up turning to her for help anyways when he becomes a wanted man, suspected by Williams of working for Vince to execute Kelly. The gradual thawing of their relationship forms the romantic “divorce-reset” fantasy element of the story. If only real life relationship problems were as simple as a case of amnesia.  This aspect of the film almost seems like an early model for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

But when Williams get too close to figuring out Vince is in back of the killing, an alternate plan springs into Vince’s mind to get rid of two birds with one stone.  Kill Williams, frame Eddie. He has his thugs pick up both men, one dead and the other unconscious, and they are left in a car together outside town. Fortunately Eddie awakens in time to get away from this falsified scene of the crime.

He hitchhikes a ride back to town, catching a lift with a passing mortician’s van, “Green Acres Mortuary” which simultaneously symbolizes his potentially riding toward his own funeral, and offers a brief moment of dark humor, as the man driving (Garry Owen) goes on about hoping he’s not missing out on any business, and bragging about his business policies “pick ‘em up while they’re alive, and they won’t forget you when you’re dead!”

With both the police chasing him and the crooks intent on his death, Eddie hides out with Nina and her roommate Hazel, until suddenly the gangsters’ hit man bursts in firing live ones. Nina takes a bullet meant for Eddie.  She hazily looks up to him while watches over her, waiting for a doctor to arrive.

“Light me a cigarette,” she whispers.  As he does so, his face is again shown in total shadow, an echo of opening sequence. His identity has become a mystery to her now, too. This isn’t the Eddie Riccardo she knew, loved, and learned to hate.  He’s a shadow, a phantom, some stranger.  Riccardo is drifting away into the past.  “You’re far far?” she says, perplexed.

“Five years.  A lifetime. Beyond that, a blank.” As he says this, the light slowly reveals his face to her.  Is it Riccardo or Rice that she sees? Can she trust him enough to love again?  He confesses he feels he’s being cornered, forced back into the Riccardo role by fate.  Can her love keep him on the path back into light?

The one person who holds the key to the resolution is Petey, the man she had helped bail out in the beginning.  As memorably played by the familiar character actor Percy Helton (you may recall him as the drunken parade Santa in Miracle on 34th Street), he is a nervous, craven little man with an attachment to his pet cat, Samson. As a potential witness in the cases against Vince Alexander’s organization, he’s been kept in hiding in an old warehouse.

Eddie finds him after a desperate search that leads him through all the darkest, cheapest filthy corners of town.  Knowing that Vince’s gang will be hot on his trail, he tips off his cab-driver to  who he is so that Captain Anderson and his police will end up coming to the same location and force a show-down between the competing hunters out to get Eddie.

Vince is first on the scene, and after his attempts to lure Eddie back to the dark side and death fail, he manages to put a bullet in Petey. Eddie manages to narrow the odds by killing the thugs with Vince, and there is a deadly struggle between these two, brought to a halt only by the arrival of the police, who offer each a deal if they bring the other out with them.

Vince has the upper hand, dragging Eddie out at gunpoint, but Petey manages to crawl to a gun and fire a couple at Vince, whose reaction make it clear to the cops who the real villain is.  All is wrapped up neatly with a bit of exposition from Captain Anderson, and Eddie and Nina  have a chance for their happily ever after.

The film is an exciting exploration of ideas of identity, redemption, and transformation. It dares to ask big questions, like “what makes a man evil,” but dares to keep from ending up too black-and-white in its conclusions.  Despite his forgotten past, Eddie finds himself doing similar things- and with same intense drive- as if he were the old Eddie, Riccardo. Only his intent seems different. The idea of Rice vs. Riccardo is played with in multiple levels throughout the movie, though never losing sight of entertainment as the main objective. The result is an engaging film for noir or any genre.

**** out of 5

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