Weekend Film Recommendation: The Crooked Way

John Alton’s cinematography and John Payne’s performance make The Crooked Way a film noir lover’s treat

crookedwayAmnesia is one of the most overused and hokey plot devices in film. Yet if the rest of the elements of a good movie are wrapped around it, viewers can suspend disbelief and really enjoy themselves. A perfect example is this week’s film recommendation: 1949’s The Crooked Way.

The plot: A war veteran who thinks his name is Eddie Rice (John Payne, again playing a noir archetype, the ex-GI) is being treated for a head injury in a San Francisco military hospital after a heroic career as a soldier. Eddie’s physical function has returned, but he can’t recall anything about his life in Los Angeles before the war. Hoping to recapture his memories, he leaves the Bay Area for L.A. (as in real life, always a bad idea). He is immediately recognized by cops, gangsters and a dishy B-Girl (Ellen Drew) and finds himself hip deep in a world of trouble that he can’t understand because the events of his former life are all lost in a fog of failed memory.

The credibility-straining premise aside, this is a superb film noir. As the anchor of the movie, John Payne does well in the romantic and action scenes and puts over the premise of the story by eliciting sympathy from the audience for his amnestic plight. I have written before about Payne’s successful reinvention of himself as a tough guy after the war (see reviews here and here), and this was one of the high points of that second phase of his career. Another former All-American song and dance man, Dick Powell, made the same transition and his noirs are better remembered, but Powell didn’t have the physical presence and hard emotional edge that works so well for Payne in these types of films.

But even more important than Payne is noir legend John Alton, who gives a photography masterclass here. Gordon Willis is sometimes referred to among cinematographers as the Prince of Darkness; Alton was the King (I sometimes wonder if he even owned a fill light). In a wide range of L.A. locations he dazzles and entrances viewers with memorable visuals, my two favorites being of Payne getting worked over by thugs in his hotel room as a light flashes through the shutters, and, later in the film, a car driving straight away from the camera, progressively being swallowed by utter blackness.

the-crooked-way2There are no bad performances in the movie — which is saying something when Sonny Tufts is in the cast — so props to director Robert Florey for his efforts. Florey also deserves credit for keeping things moving crisply, building tension as he goes along but never making viewers wait too long for the next violent confrontation. Another plus: Amidst the vengeance and killing comes a wonderful comic relief scene when Payne, fleeing through the night, hitches a ride with an eccentric undertaker played by Garry Owen.

The Crooked Way is a suspenseful, exciting and gorgeously shot movie. I am amazed how few people know of this fine film. Please take a look at it, and then share the secret with another movie lover, so that it can acquire the reputation it deserves.

p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? Check out this list of prior recommendations.

Weekend Film Recommendation: He Walked By Night

hw3Last week I recommended The Naked City, one of the many crime investigation procedurals that became popular after World War II and continue to be a staple of television and movies today. This week’s recommendation opened in theaters a few months after The Naked City, but is markedly different than that film because of its pronounced noir elements: He Walked by Night.

Normally, police detectives have substantial advantages over perpetrators. The typical violent offender is unintelligent, impulsive, minimally-skilled and ignorant of police procedures. But every once in awhile a criminal comes along who is smart, planful, technically proficient and knowledgeable about the investigative methods of law enforcement. One of such extraordinarily dangerous people was Erwin M. Walker, who repeatedly evaded Los Angeles law enforcement while engaging in an extended violent crime spree in 1946. He Walked by Night is a Dragnet-style dramatization of the Walker case, and indeed the origins of that famous radio and TV show are right here to see.

Richard Basehart gives an icily compelling portrayal of Walker, who is here re-named Roy Morgan. Basehart is particularly skilled at embodying Morgan’s disturbing level of emotional restraint, even when he is inflicting violence on others. The only visible break in the killer’s sociopathic detachment comes in a riveting scene in which he does meatball surgery on himself to remove a bullet from his ribcage. On the other side, Roy Roberts, as Police Captain Breen, is credible as usual in one of his many no-nonsense authority figure roles. Some of the portrayals of police procedure (e.g., the assembling of a composite sketch) will be dramatically slow for modern audiences who have seen it all before. But of course that wasn’t true of audiences in 1948, so be forgiving.

he walked by night 7The docudrama’s look is one of the many jewels in legendary cinematographer John Alton’s crown. In an interview, he said the crew and director all asked him where the lights were when they started filming the justly famous chase through the sewers. He told them that a single flashlight was enough, which gives you an idea of how very dark he preferred his shots. If you watch very carefully you will see that the king of darkness did have a trick up his sleeve: There are wires visibly trailing the actors in some of the sewer chase shots, indicating that he rigged the flashlights with much more powerful than usual light bulbs.

In addition to Alton’s bravura work behind the camera, this film also benefits from effective use of silence. In several highly arresting sequences (no pun intended), the sound goes dead as the police close in on the killer. The suspense is amped up enormously by these eerie scenes, as hunter and prey creep noiselessly through the dark until a violent confrontation shatters the silence.

The one mystery this film does not solve is who directed what. Alfred Werker got the director’s credit on screen, but it was later revealed that much of the film was actually directed by Anthony Mann (whose work I have previously touted here and here). Some scenes scream “Mann” in their style but others could have been directed by either him or Werker. Whoever did what, this taut, exciting film hangs together in tone and style with no directorial seams showing.

He Walked by Night is sadly little remembered today, but it did launch some much better known radio and television shows. Jack Webb, who plays a police investigator here, befriended L.A. police technical advisor Marty Wynn on the set and soon launched Dragnet to dramatize the real-life cases of the L.A.P.D. (FYI: This story is well-told in John Buntin’s terrific book L.A. Noir). Richard Basehart never became a big movie star, but was able to parlay his modest cinema success into a long-running career on television, most notably as Admiral Nelson on Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.

This thrilling, visually stunning docudrama is in the public domain, so I am posting it right here for you to enjoy.

p.s. The fabulous sewer chase sequence in one of the greatest films in British history, 1948’s The Third Man bears more than a little resemblance to the similar sequence in He Walked by Night. No one seems to know for sure, but given that He Walked by Night’s production studio, Eagle-Lion films, had extensive British ties it is entirely possible that Carol Reed et al saw this movie and decided to mount something along the same lines.