THE CROOKED WAY. United Artists, 1949. John Payne John Payne, Sonny Tufts, Ellen Drew, Rhys Williams, Percy Helton, John Doucette, Don Haggerty. Director: Robert Florey.

   Although in many ways a highly impressive film noir, The Crooked Way doesn’t have much in the way of depth. The story is a familiar one to those steeped in the works of writers such as Cornell Woolrich and David Goodis. World War II has ended. A man (John Payne) wakes up in a U.S. Army hospital in San Francisco with a metal fragment in his skull and no memory of his past life. He thinks he’s named Eddie Rice and from Los Angeles.

   It therefore makes sense that he’d go to the City of Angels to piece together who he is so he can begin living again. When he gets to LA, though, he soon learns that his real last name isn’t Rice. It’s Riccardi. Eddie Riccardi. And he led a life of crime and was mixed up with some seriously bad dudes.

   He also had – or has – a wife named Nina Martin (Ellen Drew), who is now working with his former associate, the nasty and brutish Vince Alexander (Sonny Tufts). Much of the running time is spent on the cat-and-mouse games played by the LAPD and Vince with Eddie (Payne) caught in the middle. And just when things don’t seem as if they could get any worse for him, he finds himself framed for the murder of a LAPD officer.

   All standard material in the world of late 1940s crime cinema, topped off with a significant amount of time devoted to the then nascent science of forensics. Payne does more than an admirable job in portraying the film’s doomed protagonist, although he isn’t quite able to capture his character’s inner life. How tormented is Eddie Rice/Riccardi after all he’s been through? To be honest, we don’t really know. Had the producers wanted more of the lead character’s trauma explored, someone like Robert Ryan would have been a more suitable actor for the part.

   What The Crooked Way may lack in depth, however, it more than makes up for in flair and style. The movie was lovingly photographed by cinematographer John Alton, who lent his signature touch to numerous films noir in the 1940s and 1950s. From the lighting to the prototypical noirish mood settings, the movie is steeped in the dark and shadowy world of film noir.

   I know that sometimes there is a debate about whether a movie can rightly be considered a film noir. Trust me, this one with the neon lights, the nightclubs, the rainy LA street, the shootout in a warehouse, the unique camera angles, is about as visually noir as you can get. Recommended.