What did you watch? The Crooked Way, a crime thriller from 1949 starring slab of beef John Payne.
What kind of steak can you make out of John Payne? He’s this intensely expressionless actor from way back who is perfect for crime thrillers. You might know him from Kansas City Confidential, one of the best known crime movies that was a direct influence on Resevoir Dogs. That’s a crime movie where he’s stone faced throughout a mistaken identity frame up followed by a romance with the daughter of the criminal mastermind. He looks pretty same throughout.
I kid, I kid…or do I? I mean, he’s alright in these movies…actually, he’s perfect in these roles where he’s blindsided by criminal acts he’s been dragged into, which is somewhat close to the adventure he has in The Crooked Way. You almost feel as if the rest of the world is playing a joke on him and he hasn’t figured it out yet, notably snapping back at police and criminals who want little to do with him once he’s out the door and the scene is over. Payne’s characters don’t want to move on – he seeks to clear his name in KCC, and here in The Crooked Way he sticks around when it’s obvious that leaving a town full of jerks would do everyone a world of good.
The Crooked Way starts out with infantryman Eddie Rice (Payne) not being able to recall anything about himself, amnesia due to shrapnel lodged in his brain. The army has no info on him beyond that he had enlisted in Los Angeles. So, the doctor suggests that Eddie go to Los Angeles and maybe he’d run into someone he knew that and that would jog him memory.
Thankfully Los Angeles is a very small town and the minute he steps out on Main Street, he’s recognized and picked up by a couple of police officers. They grill him hard, as they recognize him as gangster Eddie Riccardi, whom they kicked out of town five years prior. Eddie doesn’t want to go straight to the hoosegow so he flubs that he wants to stick to being Eddie Rice, so they offer to boot him out of town if he can be Eddie Rice elsewhere. Los Angeles isn’t big enough for Eddie Rice and Eddie Riccardi, afterall.
As Eddie is being walked down the steps from the police precinct, he’s recognized by a woman who runs after him. He tries to suavely play along but he’s not as smooth as he thinks. The woman puts him up in a hotel and then immediately calls another mobster, who sends goons to beat him up.
From there, we learn that the woman is Nina, Eddie’s (ex)wife. Eddie was caught five years ago in a crime and turned on his pals, sending some mobsters up the river. The main mobster, Vince, is an intense gent who has the police on his tail for a few murders while committing a few more at the moment. He’s introduced ordering the death of an underling as Nina is put on hold when she calls to set up Eddie with Vince’s goons.
From there – stuff happens. The movie goes in a few directions where the police think they can finally nail Vince for a few crimes. Vince murders one of the cops, and pins it on Eddie. Eddie had had his chance to leave town but he had doubled down to at least try to reclaim his relationship with Nina and maybe lead some kind of normal life. Once he’s framed and the cops are out for blood, however, the movie takes another turn where Vince feels he has to be the one who takes Eddie down, giving Eddie a chance to bring the cops in to his hiding spot for a climactic gunfight.
There’s a narration from Eddie that comes and goes as the amnesiac Eddie questions what is going on. It disappears but not as a sign that Eddie has remembered his criminal past or his return to being mobster Eddie. But instead of a dark turn where Eddie Rice becomes Eddie Riccardi as his battle with Vince tears up a possible reconnection with Nina, it becomes a story where Eddie’s past is just an added bonus to him being framed for the murder of the police.
It’s not noir, but it’s far darker in tone (and, uh, lighting) than the last movie reviewed here, Pushover, to the point where it makes an actual noir movie like Pushover seem bland in comparison. Vince is a monster, played frighteningly by Sonny Tufts, to the point where he’s lashing out in a rage at Eddie and the police at the end when he could have just laid low until the police caught up with Eddie. There’s a few opportunities for Eddie to lose it all or give up his life trying to save Nina (who is shot at one point) but everything wraps up surprisingly nicely for Eddie and Nina, happily ever after ‘n all that.
The budget might’ve been low but there’s plenty of ballroom locations and seedy hotels and gangster hideouts – the plot and characters are intense, but even with what seems like a weak transfer on the streamed copy, I was impressed with the lighting throughout the film, which aids in the intensity of every scene.
It’s not noir, and the battle between Eddie and Vince goes off the rails, but it’s worth checking out.