Drive a Crooked Road. Now that’s what I call a great film noir title. Is it actually a great film noir movie, though? Well - yes, absolutely, I would argue, although admittedly you’d be hard pressed to really clock the film’s noir credentials from its sleek, contemporary (circa the mid-1950s) visual style.
For make no mistake, we’re in a clean, freshly laundered, proto-suburban Southern California here. The deep shadows, high contrast lighting and oppressive visual clutter which usually serve as noir’s visual signifiers have been thoroughly excised, swept away in favour of an ambient, sunshine grayscale, almost sinister in its lack of visual emphasis.
Our characters meanwhile observe a strictly smart cas dress code. Nobody here wears a hat (unless it’s a mechanic’s cap); very few of the men wear ties, irrespective of profession or social class. Being so comfortably attired, nobody seems to sweat very much, and the closest we get to a dingy dive bar is a faintly rowdy collegiate cocktail party.
A decade after Double Indemnity hit cinemas, the glamour and mystique of ‘classic’ noir has clearly been consigned to the past - a remnant of a more baroque and barbarous age, way back in the rear view mirror. It’s much easier to imagine the events of ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ taking place just around the corner than it is to picture Philip Marlowe snooping around, looking for trouble.But, the essentials of storytelling and human psychology can’t be abandoned on the roadside quite so easily. With its tale of a desperately lonely man ensnared by the duplicitous charms of a beautiful woman, coerced into a series of criminal undertakings which will lead him, inevitably, to doom and desolation, Blake Edwards’ script for ‘Drive a Crooked Road’ scores a dead-on noir bullseye.
In fact, it feels to a significant extent like a rewrite of the 1945 Fritz Lang / Edward G. Robinson classic ‘Scarlet Street’, retaining much of that film’s slow-motion-car-crash accumulation of tragedy and unbearable sadness, even as the characters and settings are significantly rejigged and the plot machinations recalibrated for a leaner, less melodramatic age.
Key to the film’s success in this regard is a truly remarkable central performance from Mickey Rooney. By this point of course, there was already an established tradition of comic actors using pitch black noir projects to segue into more serious, dramatic roles - Dick Powell (‘Murder, My Sweet’, ‘Cornered’) and Fred McMurray (‘Double Indemnity’) immediately spring to mind. But, those guys were at least fairly conventional leading man ‘types’. The transition undertaken by Rooney in ‘Drive a Crooked Road’ is of an entirely different order of magnitude.
Turning a full 180 on both his on-screen persona as a hyperactive, pint-size song-and-dance man and his off-screen reputation as a hard-partying womaniser, Rooney here captures the essence of a particular kind of deeply introverted, socially disconnected single man with almost uncanny accuracy.
We have all, I daresay, known people like ‘..Crooked Road’s Eddie Shannon in our own lives (assuming we haven’t actually been one of them ourselves to a greater or lesser extent). Humble, quietly dignified men who perpetually avoid eye contact, as if constantly withering under the scrutiny of others. Speaking only when spoken to, they feel (or are treated) like outsiders in literally any situation. Engage them on their specialist subject however (car maintenance and motor racing in this case), and they will speak with an authority and depth of experience which defies their unassuming presence.
Incredibly, Rooney (who in real life was in the mid-way through his fourth marriage at this point, at the age of 34) is completely believable here as a man who has potentially never experienced familial love or real human connection in his entire life. As such, we can easily appreciate the extent to which Shannon finds himself twisted up beyond all comprehension when Barbara (Dianne Foster) - the very definition of the kind of ‘knockout dame’ Eddie’s chauvinist workmates at the repair shop spend their days drooling over - suddenly appears on the scene and takes an interest in, uh, ‘getting to know’ him.
We in the audience immediately recognise of course that no good can possibly come of this. With the best will in the world, there is no way in hell that a confident, attractive and apparently affluent woman like Barbara would take a legitimate, romantic interest in a nervous, emotionally stunted grease monkey who barely reaches her shoulders. So what’s her pitch, exactly?
Well, more observant viewers will figure the scam pretty quickly as soon as Eddie arrives for his first unofficial ‘date’ with Barbara, beachside in Malibu, and finds her sharing a towel with one Steve Norris (Kevin McCarthy) - a man we first saw in the film’s opening scene, observing Eddie’s victory in an amateur motor race, and remarking to his associate (Harold, played by Jack Kelly) that the winning driver is a loner with no family, who “..lives alone, and hates it”, thus making him “perfect” for their as-yet-undisclosed purpose. Uh-oh.
Blissfully unaware of this, Eddie continues to pursue his nascent relationship with Barbara - his conduct characteristically restrained, but his mind clearly way up in the clouds, unable to even process the idea of such a life-changing development. In the pair’s first public outing as a ‘couple’, he accompanies her to a party at Norris’s rented beach-house, where, smooth, confident and casual to a T, the Ivy League scum-bucket of a host begins systematically grilling Eddie on his driving expertise and his experience of souping up old cars for racing.
At some point thereafter, Steve and Harold invite Eddie round for martinis (which of course he politely declines, preferring soda), and drop the inevitable proposition. Y’see, they’ve got a fool-proof plan to knock over a bank in Orange County, but, in order to succeed, they need a car and driver with the ability to - yes, you guessed it - drive a crooked road in twenty-two minutes flat, thus beating a police roadblock.
Of course, they know it’s a big ask, and they don’t expect Eddie to make a decision straight away, but… maybe he should talk to Barbara about it. They’re sure she’d want him to be a big, brave boy and earn himself enough dough to invest in the professional racing career he’s always dreamed of.
Needless to say, seasoned noir fans won’t exactly need a motoring atlas to figure out where this is all headed.
After much painstaking preparation, the heist goes off without a hitch. (The high speed blast down a perilous mountain trail, whilst it ain’t exactly ‘The Wages of Fear’ in the suspense stakes, is excitingly shot and edited.) Eddie’s subsequent realisation of how thoroughly he’s been had however, combined with the villains’ callous failure to even understand the extent to which they’ve shattered the poor guy’s heart, swiftly leads all concerned into a hot mess from which there is no good way out for anyone.
One of the elements I found most interesting within the unfolding of this grimly fateful tale is the portrayal of Steve and Howard as the villains of the piece. Whilst plot synopses of ‘Drive a Crooked Road’ tend to describe them as ‘gangsters’, they are really nothing of the sort. Instead, they are portrayed as smug, self-satisfied New York socialites who profess to have swung by the West Coast just for a change of scene. Crime for them is presumably just a summer holiday jape, rather than an economic necessity or way of life.
Somewhat reminiscence of the fictionalised Leopold & Loeb in Richard Fleisher’s ‘Compulsion’ (1959), or their surrogates in Hitchcock’s ‘Rope’ a few years earlier, but with laziness and underachievement supplanting high IQs or intellectual rigour, they make for an exquisitely despicable pair. There is simply no excuse for, or meaning behind, the deception and abuse they pile upon both Eddie and Barbara in the name of their own self-aggrandisement.
Two years away from his career-defining turn as the paranoid everyman at the centre of Don Siegel’s ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’, Kevin McCarthy also seems to be playing against type here, and his sweater n’ slacks demeanour and oily Madison Avenue banter feels spot-on, making Steve Norris into a far more hateful figure than a more traditional ‘heavy’ ever would have been.
(A scene in which these two jokers run up against some real crooks, and promptly get their asses handed to them, could have been a good addition to Edwards’ screenplay, but, satisfying though it may have been, perhaps would have been just a bit too on-the-nose vis-à-vis the movie’s implicitly class-based moral schema.)
Also worthy of note meanwhile is the way that the character of Barbara develops through the film. Within the conventions of the period, it would have been all to easy for Quine and Edwards to allow her to see out the movie as the nefarious, super-charged femme fatale we meet during the first act, but the filmmakers deserve credit for instead taking things in a far more interesting direction.
Though presumably cast at least partially on the basis of her extraordinary, statuesque figure (her wardrobe, it should be noted, will be worth the entry price alone for aficionados of the era’s fashions), Dianne Foster’s performance is also extremely good, and the changes her character undergoes as she begins to realise the damage her deception is inflicting on Eddie, and how thoroughly she herself has been manipulated by the selfish and abusive Steve, soon become integral to the film’s overall emotional impact.
Ironically, it is Barbara’s growing sense of hatred, helplessness and self-disgust which serves to ultimately align her with Rooney’s spurned sad-sack, as their shared sense of victimhood lends them a closer connection than their fake ‘relationship’ ever allowed.
It is this line of thought which plays off both beautifully and horribly in the film’s haunting final shot. A starkly tragic, existential conclusion worthy of any classic-era noir, this finds Rooney babbling away, offering meaningless reassurances to the hunched, weeping woman who never cared a damn for him in the first place. Her tears are shed not for him or his supposed romantic rival, but in recognition of the bleak future of trial dates and gas chambers which now hangs over both of them, as the torch beams of the cops close in across the sand.
Behind them, the shadow of that rented beach-house looms, as indelible as the castle in a gothic horror movie, its presence placing ‘Drive a Crooked Road’ squarely in a lineage that runs right from ‘Murder, My Sweet’ and Mildred Pierce through to Robert Aldrich’s bleakly futurist ‘Kiss Me Deadly’ (1956), and subsequently to the even more perilously ambiguous worlds of Arthur Penn’s Night Moves (1975) and Altman’s ‘The Long Goodbye’ (1973).
Basically, just stay away from those damned beach-houses kids, and I’m sure everything will turn out just fine.