Columbia Noir: Drive a Crooked Road (1954)

cnoirdveThe third times the charm- here we go with the third film in Indicator’s Columbia Noir #1 boxset and this one won me over completely. I thought this was absolutely terrific. The script, the direction, the characters, the actors, everything is just firing on all cylinders, a great film all round and the most obviously noir of the films I’ve seen so far in this set.

Two bank robbers, Steve Norris and Harold Baker, are looking for a getaway driver for their next heist, and decide car mechanic and amateur race car driver Eddie Shannon (Mickey Rooney) is the perfect choice: a down on his luck racer who never achieved the success of his dreams, with no family or freinds who lives alone in a rented room.  The robber who has planned the heist, Steve (Kevin McCarthy) sets his girlfriend Barbara (Dianne Foster) as a honeytrap, pulling Eddie into a relationship and eventually  ensnaring him into a scheme that requires a souped-up getaway car and a hair-raising race down dangerous roads to foil a police roadblock once the alarm is raised.

This film works on so many levels. Even just as a character drama; Mickey Rooney is excellent as the lonely and melancholic Eddie who becomes smitten by the surprising attention from the beautiful Barbara, a woman clearly out of league. Rooney’s performance proved something of a revelation to me, I’ve never been much of a fan of his (probably because of his early comedy-musical work not really appealing to me) but here he proves that are real depths to him as an actor. Its a very quiet, subtle performance that truly convinces and proves really endearing- clearly not the simple hero one might expect him to be. One can understand how, once his natural doubts are assuaged, that he falls head over heels for the ‘too-good-to-true’ beautiful woman who shows an interest in him.

Rather at odds with the usual depiction of a noir  femme fatale, Dianne Foster plays Barbara with warmth and some subtlety (again, there’s that word ‘subtle’ which really distinguishes this film from the exploitation thriller it might have been). Usually one would expect Barbara to be a scheming beauty using her sex as a weapon and trapping our male hero into her web, but this is refreshingly more sophisticated than that. Barbara’s sudden doubts, and guilt, about pulling Eddie into the bank robbery feels genuine. “Lets call the whole thing off… he’s like a lonesome little animal that’s never had any love in his whole life” she pleads to her boyfriend Steve, but Steve’s having none of it. Indeed, there is a hint that Steve’s been manipulating Barbara all the time, and that his real affections lie elsewhere, with his crime buddy Harold (Jack Kelly) – that the two men are homosexual lovers and that Barbara is almost as much a means to an end as Eddie. Kevin McCarthy, a favourite actor of mine, always seemed to look rather dangerous- here he is sometimes a charming fellow and quite disarming but at others chews up the scenery with a coldness to him that feels psychopathic. 

Naturally it eventually dawns on Eddie how he’s being used, and that he’s never going to get what he was promised-  neither Barbara or his share of the heist money (which he was going to use to finance his racing dreams in Europe). But he’s still a ‘good soul’ and realises that Barbara needs saving, leading to a deadly confrontation at the close of the film that ends well for no-one. How very spectacularly noir.

I was really taken by this film, really surprised by Rooney’s empathic and sympathetic performance, and beguiled by Foster’s charm. There’s quite an impressive chemistry between them even if physically they seem as mismatched as their characters. Foster had a surprisingly short career as an actress, perhaps not fulfilling her potential- I was really taken aback to learn that she didn’t have a long career and the success I expected to see. Again, there is that horrible, almost morbid perspective looking back on these ‘old’ films and performances, and then seeing actors lives and careers summarised so perfunctorily, almost dismissively, while in the films themselves they are frozen forever young, forever perfect. Its a sobering perspective I don’t think I’ll ever get used to.

Director Richard Quine would go on to direct a few more notable films during the next decade or so -notably Bell, Book and Candle (which I still somehow haven’t seen yet) and one of my favourite comedies, the glorious How to Murder Your Wife. Blake Edwards, who wrote the screenplay for Drive a Crooked Road, would go on to considerable fame as a director  with films like Experiment in Terror, Days of Wine and Roses, Breakfast at Tiffanys and of course the Pink Panther films all ahead of him. Mickey Rooney’s career, while it never regained the famous heights of his earlier days, remains a formidable achievement but he seems now as infamous for his personal life as what he left on the screen. Declaring himself bankrupt in 1962, drinking problems and eight marriages suggests his private life was as much a soap opera as anything daytime television could put on screen. After his long career his estate should have been worth tens if not hundreds of millions, but following his death in 2014 the media was full of stories of his poverty and suffering elder abuse at the hands his eighth wife and one of her sons, questioning how Hollywood turns its back on its stars of old. Dianne Foster, as I have noted, did not go on to any long-lasting or glittering career as an actress, her most notable later film role being in Burt Lancaster’s The Kentuckian in 1955 before languishing in guest-spots on television shows in the early 1960s. Other than the 1956 classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Kevin McCarthy’s future success largely lay in television in guest-star roles, mostly as bad guys, but I’d cite his role in Joe Dante’s Innerspace as a late career highlight.

3 thoughts on “Columbia Noir: Drive a Crooked Road (1954)

  1. I agree. I found this unexpectedly good too. I think part of that came down to my generally not being all that fond of Mickey Rooney. However, I found him excellent in this movie and made me look at him in an entirely different light.
    On Quine, if you haven’t seen it then I heartily recommend Strangers When We Meet. I watched and wrote on it last year and was powerfully affected and impressed by it.

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