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.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

4 thoughts on “Weekend Film Recommendation: The Crooked Way”

  1. Keith: can you suggest a couple of options as to how I can watch this film (this weekend) ? or anything on the A-Z list ? (apologies if dumb question…)

  2. Have you ever considered doing a two-part movie recommendation? One, your Pick Of The Week, and the other your Pick Of The Week Currently Available On Neflix Streaming (e.g.)? I live outside the U.S., and so I can't simply order up a random film and have Netflix send it to my door. Nor are there any such things as Blockbuster (not sure Blockbuster exists in the US anymore either, and good riddance, the sleazy pirates). So to look up old films, I'm confined by what Netflix Streaming has available. There's always plenty of good stuff. I caught White Lightning and Bridge at Remagen this week. But it would be nice if once in a blue moon your splendid reviews includeds something the readers could actually access over the weekend.


    A.C. Doyle, Queretaro, Mexico

    1. Replying to both of you: I don't have Netflix streaming. Quite a few of the films I recommend are on Amazon prime instant video. A number of others are public domain and can be found for free at Internet Archive — some of these I have embedded directly in my post. Some examples of the latter off the top of my head are And Then There Were None and He Walked by Night. Many, many films are on youtube, but I can't legally recommend those unless they are in the public domain.

      1. Thanks. Just checked out Amazon Prime, and after laughing at a few pages of Sharknado and Star Trek: Nemesis, getting ready to compose a snarky reply, I began to appreciate their older stuff. So I clicked up The Friends Of Eddie Coyle.

        "Streams only available in Continental U.S. due to licensing restrictions". Oh well. That's what Netflix always used to say in Mexico until about 18 months ago. Maybe Amazon will evolve. I know I can't download Kindle texts here either.

        Ah well, there's always the local Mercado for 80 cent bootlegs…….

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