CROOKED WAY, THE(director: Robert Florey; screenwriter: Richard H. Landau; cinematographer: John Alton; editor: Frank Sullivan; cast: John Payne (Eddie Rice), Sonny Tufts (Vince Alexander), Ellen Drew (Nina Martin), Rhys Williams (Lieutenant Joe Williams), Percy Helton (Petey), John Doucette (Sergeant Barrett), Charles Evans (Captain Anderson), Greta Granstedt (Hazel), Harry Bronson (Danny), Hal Fieberling (Coke), Crane Whitley (Doctor Kemble), John Harmon (Kelly); Runtime: 90; United Artists; 1949)
“A minor film noir.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
A minor film noir, originally made for radio. Its motif, about how someone can attempt to change his dismal past after getting amnesia, is a purely noir theme. Eddie Rice (John Payne) is a war hero who earned the Silver Star, but got some shrapnel in his brain and developed amnesia. He is being treated in a San Francisco hospital by Dr. Kemble (Crane), who explains that his amnesia will be permanent because it is organic and not psychological. The doctor tells him “Since the only thing we know about you is that you enlisted in Los Angeles, go back there and maybe someone will recognize you.”
In Los Angeles, Eddie is immediately recognized by the police and tagged as a dangerous gangster named Eddie Ricardi. The police captain, Anderson (Evans), tells him to get out of Los Angeles, your presence here only spells trouble. Lieutenant Joe Williams (Rhys), who knows Eddie from having worked on his case before, doesn’t believe his amnesia story and doesn’t believe a person can change and go from bad to good; at least, someone who was as bad as Eddie.
Eddie meets Nina Martin (Drew) at an orangeade stand, but doesn’t recognize his ex-wife. She brings him to the hotel he used to reside in and calls his old crime partner, Vince Alexander (Sonny Tufts), to warn him that Eddie is in town. Nina now works for the crime boss in his casino. Vince, when receiving her call, is busy with a petty criminal, Kelly (Harmon), who just got his bail bond posted by Nina. Kelly squealed about Vince’s slot machine operation to the police and is being worked over by the boys, who will then waste him.
When Vince pays Eddie a visit with his henchmen, they rough him up after mentioning only a sucker would come back. Vince reminisces growing up with Eddie and taking a lot of raps together, and acts aghast that Eddie should become a stool pigeon. You beat the rap, but I served a two year sentence for manslaughter. Vince warns him to leave town or else!
After the beating, Eddie returns to his hotel room and thinks to himself, “Why didn’t Vince kill me? I should call Dr. Kemble!” But Kemble is not available. So he goes to Nina’s luxurious apartment and tries to tell her that he is a different person, he is now Eddie Rice, the past is forgotten. She can only tell him that he brought her into this crime lifestyle and she likes it.
Vince changes his mind about Eddie leaving town and has Nina try and seduce Eddie to stay. But Nina now looks at Eddie differently and starts to believe that maybe he has changed, as she tells him he better leave or Vince will kill him.
Eddie foolishly walks into the Golden Horn casino and meets Nina as she is sweet talking some fat cat customers, trying to get them to lose their money at the tables. Vince’s boys grab Eddie in the casino and take him away. Vince senses the mood change coming over Nina and decides to get her later, after he takes care of Eddie. Meanwhile Joe Williams has Eddie tailed to the casino. He is told by Nina that Vince’s men have him.
At Vince’s place, it is determined that Williams is getting too close and is shot. Vince has the best line in the flick, looking at the dead cop, he says: “Just when he was coming up in the department.” Vince frames Eddie for the killing, knocking him out and leaving him where they dumped the cop’s body and also placing Eddie’s fingerprints on the murder weapon. The police now want him for the officer’s death, sending out an All Points Bulletin. Eddie doesn’t help matters by stealing a gun, as he tries to get away with Nina. She has a shoulder wound from one of Vince’s henchmen, and Eddie decides to leave her with a doctor.
The film’s finale is set in a Santa Monica warehouse where one of Vince’s flunkies, Petey, played by the rotund, minuscule veteran character actor with the high-pitched squeaky voice, Percy Helton. Percy’s my all-time favorite bit player who must have had thousands of uncredited parts, mostly in small cameo roles. Percy is hiding out with his cat Samson after following Kelly on orders from Vince, and now he knows that Vince killed Kelly and he’s in danger. Petey wheezes and coughs, reluctantly letting Eddie into his hideout, then calling out to Vince to let him know that Eddie is there.
Warning: spoilers to follow.
The final shoot-out is exciting. Vince holds a gun to Eddie and uses him as a shield to get away from the police. But Petey distracts Vince, allowing Eddie to go free and Vince is shot when he turns on the police.
In the hospital Nina and Eddie start their romance over again, hoping that they can both overcome their past mistakes.
Nina and Eddie desperately want to fit into postwar American society despite their prior misdeeds. The camerawork of probably the best film noir cinematographer ever, John Alton, captures the dark street-life of LA. What leaves a lasting impression is the warehouse shoot-out, as we see these antisocial types trapped like rats. The darkness of Vince’s past and current life is contrasted with the John Payne character who has a second chance to redeem himself, something noir characters think is impossible to ever get. That is the happy ending, but its optimism is muted. There’s always the possibility he will revert back to his old self. It all seems credible, even though we know that this story is a highly improbable one. Throughout the film, John Payne has the look of someone who has just come out of a laundry washing machine and by the film’s end is being hung out to dry.
REVIEWED ON 1/10/2000 GRADE: C+
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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