The Crooked Way

Released Apr 22, 1949: THE CROOKED WAY, starring John Payne, Sonny Tufts, and Ellen Drew. Directed by Robert Florey (Lady Gangster, Man from Frisco, Johnny One-Eye).  John Payne plays a WWII veteran suffering from permanent amnesia due to injuries suffered in the war.  After being released from a veteran’s hospital in San Francisco, he ventures back to his hometown of Los Angeles in search of clues that might shed light on his forgotten past.  Almost immediately, he’s picked up by police andTheCrookedWay brought in for questioning.  It turns out they know him as Eddie Riccardi, although he had enlisted in the Army under the name of Eddie Rice, which is why the military couldn’t find any background information about him.  Payne continues to encounter more people from his past, and a picture of his previous life begins to develop.  He discovers he was a small-time gangster who avoided serving time by testifying against his partner (Sonny Tufts).  To avoid retribution from Tufts, Payne left town and enlisted in the Army under an assumed name.  In the meantime, Tufts served his sentence and resumed his criminal activities after being released.  When he learns that Payne is back in Los Angeles, he’s eager to take his revenge.  Amnesia is a popular theme that appears in many noir films.  It’s an ideal storytelling device for conveying disorientation, isolation, paranoia, and mystery, all of which are hallmarks of film noir.  It works well in this film, although the story does get a little muddled at times and loses some of its momentum, but these aberrations are only temporary.  Payne is perfect as the former thug with amnesia.  He convincingly portrays both sides of his conflicted character’s persona: the amiable veteran under a perpetual haze of confusion, and the brutal tough guy who’s ready to kill when necessary.  Throughout it all, Payne’s sincere nature has us rooting for him one hundred percent.  Payne began his career in musicals and melodramas, but transitioned to darker roles after the war.  The Crooked Way is one of his earlier noir films, and he is well suited to the nice guy/bad guy duality of this particular role.  As Payne’s betrayed partner, Sonny Tufts creates a deliciously ruthless and violent villain; the kind that audiences love to hate.  Ellen Drew plays Payne’s former wife, who turns out to be the only real friend he has in a city full of people out to get him.  She turns in a heartfelt if unspectacular performance.  But the real star of this film is John Alton’s outstanding cinematography.  Alton is primarily known to film noir fans for his creative partnership with director Anthony Mann, but his visual genius is equally apparent in this film.  The Crooked Way is filled with one spectacular expressionist scene after another.  Alton’s bold use of light and dark (especially dark), unexpected camera angles, unsettling close-ups, and deep focus create a wealth of iconic noir imagery.  If for nothing else, this film is worth viewing just for its magnificent black and white visuals.  Enhancing the visual splendor is the fact that this film was shot on the streets, giving us an unfiltered view of post-war 1940s Los Angeles.  In fact, there are so many different locations depicted throughout the film, that only a few are ever reused more than once.  The Crooked Way is an excellent entry in the film noir canon.  It has its flaws, mostly having to do with occasionally clumsy pacing and an ending that’s wrapped up a little too neatly, but overall, it’s a solid representation of what film noir is all about.  Payne’s earnest portrayal of a lost hero and Alton’s sumptuous cinematography make The Crooked Way a film well worth seeing.  We give The Crooked Way 4 of out 5 fedoras.

4 Fedoras


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