Columbia Noir: Walk A Crooked Mile (1948)

walk1Not, as the title might suggest to our more sequel/prequel/reboot-cynical eyes, a prequel to Columbia’s 1954 noir Drive A Crooked Road, this is a pretty mundane espionage thriller that’s shot in a semi-documentary style, as if its a dramatic re-enactment of contemporary events. Unfortunately that documentary style, peppering the film with a distracting, incessant narration, dilutes the film of any actual drama – it simply doesn’t work properly as a dramatic film. Indeed when watching the film I wondered how this would work on its original theatrical release, regards whether audiences back then more readily accepted being preached at and warned/informed of a horrible Red Menace. I guess its just a case of a film being of its time.

Russian spies have somehow infiltrated atomic research facility Lakeview Labs, the FBI stumbling upon a nefarious scheme stealing crucial atomic formulas out of the country, shipping them to London (and then onwards to Eastern Bloc locations unknown) hidden inside oil paintings. Thanks to the London link, Scotland Yard ‘exchange agent’ Scotty Grayson (Louis Hayward) has come to America to assist his colleagues in the F.B.I. in bringing down their common Red enemy. Partnered with F.B.I. agent Dan O’Hara (Dennis O’Keefe), Grayson works to uncover and bring down the spy network before it can steal all Lakeview Labs research and possibly use its formulas against the Free World. 

As you can possibly imagine, there is a lot of preaching in this film- its practically a propaganda piece and full of paranoia; audiences likely lapped it all up back then but it feels very forced and more than a little unpalatable now. That said, though, one has to remember here in the UK we recently had the situation of the Salisbury poisonings so maybe films like this are a timely reminder of how little has actually changed for the better. I can only imagine how the high-tensions of this films era would have reacted to such events back then (American citizens actually poisoned by chemical warfare? Yikes!).

How much this film qualifies as noir is debatable. It has some visual noir references and naturally all the subversive menace it accounts is a typical noir staple. What I always get from films like this is a great appreciation from seeing what is essentially a Lost World, especially with this films semi-documentary style allowing us here a pretty candid, realistic look at San Francisco’s 1940s streets, decor and fashion. I just have an endless fascination with the Time Machine aspects of films like this- the mood and tensions of the era, the ‘look’ of the world back then. Walk A Crooked Mile may not work as a film as films should, but its does give me a glimpse of another world that is quite enthralling and seductive. Also, spotting locations from other films is always a bit thrilling- I believe I glimpsed the apartment building from which Scottie tails Madeleine Elster in Hitchcock’s Vertigo (Brocklebank Apartments, 1000 Mason Street on Nob Hill) through a car window in one fleeting shot.

Even better then, is that Indicator’s new release (this film first up in its latest Columbia Noir boxset) features an intriguing documentary short Routine Job: A Story of Scotland Yard (1946) portraying the routine work of detectives in the London of its day, a world as much science fiction now as anything in a James Cameron Avatar movie.  Filmed in real London locations and featuring what does seem to be real people its a more rewarding watch, to me, than the main feature, and one of those cases of special features outweighing what should have been the main draw. And hey, you can even watch it here for free on good old YouTube if you have no interest in the noir box. I’m dubious that I’ll be rewatching Walk A Crooked Mile very often, but this short feature will likely pull me back with its hypnotic window to the past and its own long-gone city and people.