Amnesia 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 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 my recommendations 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.
There 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.