Drive a Crooked Road
The idea of Mickey Rooney as a noir hero just seems preposterous. Andy Hardy dark and brooding? Not possible, you might think. I’m as anti-Rooney as the next shadowy guy in the trench coat and I’d never seen him in anything that was even decent. Until Drive a Crooked Road, that is. The 1954 Richard Quine picture, with a screenplay by Blake Edwards years before he ruined Breakfast at Tiffany’s by having Rooney play a highly offensive Asian caricature, finds just the right tone and allows Quine’s natural strengths to mesh effectively with a very uncharacteristically subdued performance by Rooney. The result is striking, if not visually then at least thematically and from the perspective of narrative economy. It’s noir generally absent the dark and shadowed visuals but still confidently retaining the wounded themes so necessary in capturing the essence of the style.
Rooney plays Eddie Shannon, a mechanic who loves to race cars as time and money allow. He’s a loner who isn’t quite the social butterfly appreciated in southern California. (If the character sounds not unlike another driver, someone from a 2011 film, then you can at least be assured there are no vicious beatings or other acts of extreme, visceral bloodshed found here.) Eddie is also quite short and has a large scar that runs down the center of his forehead and extends to the side of his face. There are no women in his life. Indeed, there seems to be hardly anyone in his life outside of the other mechanics at the shop where he works. His modest apartment is adorned with racing photos and trophies, including a large one awarded to him for finishing in second place. Unfortunately for Eddie, he’s the perfect chump.
The enabler for a chump in film noir is most often a pretty woman. Drive a Crooked Road subscribes to the usual Richard Quine romantic idea of having the female be attractive and more outwardly kind than sinister. The classically nasty femme fatale just wouldn’t appear in a Quine picture. And so it is with Barbara (Dianne Foster), who appears at the large automobile center where Eddie works to have her car fixed. Once she calls the shop the next day to have Eddie come out and take another look at the car, this part of the set-up should be apparent from a mile away. But Eddie is either too dense to realize or too smitten to care that Barbara has plans for him. It’s to the film and Rooney’s credit that his failure to catch on feels far more sad than dumb. Eddie is a highly sympathetic character who takes nothing for granted and is played completely by Barbara. Even the introduction of Steve (Kevin McCarthy) and Harold (Jack Kelly), the two men behind the planned bank robbery for which Eddie is wanted as the getaway driver, becomes the most natural of circumstances – a chance encounter followed later by a casual party.
We believe everything, particularly when using the logic of noir. The portrayals of Steve and Harold are further examples of Quine not really shading things in overt blacks and whites. Even his villains are rather bouncy and light, and never outwardly menacing prior to the robbery. McCarthy is all toothy grins while Kelly, who was soon to be Bart Maverick on the television series Maverick, shoots out sarcastic one-liners in quick succession. These aren’t people you or I might trust but the facade for Eddie is built pretty well. He’s essentially made vulnerable by Barbara taking such interest in him and the friendly association she attaches to these two guys. Even so, Eddie balks strongly when first presented with the idea of being involved with a bank robbery. It’s only because Barbara makes him believe any future they might have together would be dependent on the $15,000 share Eddie would take that causes him to ultimately agree to the job.
The sunny look of the California shown onscreen can’t hide just how downbeat Drive a Crooked Road often feels. From most every angle, Eddie has sucker’s luck. He’s this withdrawn, awkward individual with little going for him aside from a talent for fixing and driving cars, and then it’s that very strength which puts him in an even worse position than the crappy life he was waking up to everyday. It sort of begs the question whether that perception Eddie has of being happy with an attractive woman is, even when basically false, better or worse than the pathetic existence he was previously living. Quine paints such a tragically romantic picture of Eddie’s time with Barbara that it almost does seem better to have experienced those feelings, however fake and temporary. Something to note is that, in Quine’s hands, Drive a Crooked Road strongly eschews cynicism. It’s instead sad, romantic, and ultimately tragic.
The robbery that serves as the film’s linchpin comes and goes somewhat brusquely, shown well enough but hardly the dynamic set piece promised from afar. In an interesting choice, Quine never takes us inside the bank. We instead stay, appropriately enough, in the car with Eddie. The dusty drive through miles of backroads that follows is tense and shot well enough, yet never quite as suspenseful as had been assumed. In a way, this entire act which Drive a Crooked Road is sort of built around fades away in favor of the implications involved. The major impact we’re expecting actually comes with the film’s ending. It probably handles the situation as well as it possibly could given the limitations still in place from the Production Code. Without wanting to delve any further into spoiler territory, I’ll only comment that the hint of ambiguity feels appropriate. Although some things seem inevitable and we must be aware throughout that this cannot end well, the eventual finish is a nocturnal heartbreak. For once, the movie, finally, looks like its mood.
(Drive a Crooked Road is now available on DVD as part of the Columbia Pictures Film Noir Classics III set, available exclusively through TCM’s online store and Movies Unlimited. The film appears clean and crisp here, with impressive sharpness.)