Action/Adventure Mystery/Noir

The Crooked Way

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.

Action/Adventure Mystery/Noir

Kansas City Confidential

In the years after the war, actor John Payne, director Phil Karlson, and producer Edward Small collaborated in various configurations, yielding a solid run of modestly-budgeted, high quality films. The post-war period saw many movies merge elements of film noir with the traditions of the gangster melodrama, including the first collaboration of these three men: 1952’s Kansas City Confidential.

At one level, this is a superb heist film (which allegedly influenced Quentin Tarantino’s conception of Reservoir Dogs). A masked criminal mastermind half-recruits, half-bullies three lowlifes into pulling off an armed robbery. All of them wear masks and thus are unknown both to the police and to each other. The mastermind instructs them to hide out until the money is laundered, and gives them a secret method of identifying each other when the time is ripe for the payout. Meanwhile, an ex-con, ex-GI (Payne, playing two noir archetypes in one!) who was at the wrong place at the wrong time gets pinched by the police. He escapes their clutches and decides to pursue the gang, though whether he wants them brought to justice or just desires a piece of the pie is not immediately clear.

This film is proof-positive that you don’t need much money to make a solid, entertaining film, and the complete lack of pretension to anything else is one of Kansas City Confidential’s charms. The script has some satisfying twists and moments of delicious tension. All the performances are very good, particularly Jack Elam as a twitchy, chain-smoking criminal, Preston Foster as an embittered ex-cop with both a brutal and a soft side, and Payne as a cynical tough guy out for some sort of redemption. George Diskant’s camerawork, particularly in the first half, is striking, with effective use of close-ups and lighting to let the actors act and the dark mood to suffuse the audience. The film’s viewpoint is bleak: The cops are not much better than the criminals, to extent that they are even different people at all.

John Payne’s career is almost a noir story in itself. He was originally an upbeat singer and dancer in light-hearted films and was also of course a star of the heartwarming Miracle on 34th Street. But a few years after the war he changed into a tough actor with great physical presence and a clipped style of delivering dialogue. He was very smart about the film business as a business (and shrewdly cleaned up a packet in Hollywood due to wise investments) and may therefore have grasped that the war shifted filmgoers’ taste toward darker movies that would begin to supplant sunnier fare. Whatever the reasons for his transformation, he was very effective both as a smiling song-and-dance man in love with the All-American girl as well as in the hard bitten roles he later took on. Truly, an actor of significant range.

Happily, Kansas City Confidential is in the public domain and you can therefore legally watch it for free here at Internet Archive.

p.s. Payne, Karlson, and Small also collaborated on another of my recommendations, 99 River Street.

Action/Adventure Drama Mystery/Noir

99 River Street

There are worse things than murder. You can kill a man one inch at a time.

Another of my recommendations, Kansas City Confidential, brought together Director Phil Karlson, Producer Edward Small and Actor John Payne in 1952. They re-teamed the following year to make another fine film: 99 River Street.

Payne is compelling as ultra-hard-luck Ernie Driscoll, a former boxer turned cab driver. In the opening scene, which is a pre-Raging Bull master class in how to convey the violence of boxing on film, Ernie is on the verge of becoming champion when he gets a bad break. And the bad breaks keep coming for the rest of the movie, in his marriage to his ice-cold beauty of a wife (Peggie Castle, at her best), in his friendship with a manipulative aspiring actress friend (Evelyn Keyes, on fire here), and in his battles with some ruthless jewel thieves who want to destroy him for reasons he can’t understand. His only consistent source of support is his former manager, a dispatcher at his cab company (played sympathetically by Frank Faylen, who played a cab driver in many Hollywood films and apparently got promoted).

If this film noir/gangster melodrama deserves one adjective it’s brutal. There are many scenes of physical violence, filmed with unusual realism (My favorite is Payne’s torture by and knock down drag out with a karate chopping jewel thief played by tough guy Jack Lambert). The emotional violence is even more pronounced, particularly in a long, gripping sequence in which Driscoll is played for a chump by a group of “theater people”. The tragedy of Payne’s character is that while he once was a master of his violent nature, frustrations and failures have led him to become a slave to it, preventing him from being happy in his achingly simple new life ambition of moving from hack work to becoming the owner of a filling station. Payne and Karlson are well up to the challenge of bringing across Driscoll’s emotional flaws and vulnerabilities, while at the same time making him completely credible in the many physical confrontations of the story.

The movie also gives the audience a fine bunch of criminals to root against. Brad Dexter (the guy from The Magnificent Seven whose name few people can recall) is both scary and smooth as the jewel thief who frames Payne for a terrible crime. Lambert exudes the menace that served him so well in his decades as a heavy in films and on television. Eddy Waller is even scarier in a different way as a criminal who has a kindly manner but in fact is a cold-blooded killer. The final, extended confrontation at 99 River Street of the protagonists versus the villains is thrilling and satisfying.

The only weakness of this movie is the final two minutes, a tacked on “where are they now?”-style epilogue that is too upbeat and pat given the tone and content of the rest of the film (The otherwise perfect Sideways had the same flaw). It was unlike Karlson and Small to pull a punch, but it doesn’t diminish 99 River Street as a gritty, gripping piece of cinema.