It’s easy to get in over your head when you’re only five foot two. Mickey Rooney found that out the hard way in the fifties. For much of the preceding decade he had been the chipper face of American optimism—the fast-talking little guy with the can do attitude. But Hollywood started to go dark around the time that Rooney’s star persona began to decline in public favor. Of course, the public would always like Mickey Rooney, but the postwar years coincided with the end of Rooney’s unnaturally long adolescence (only as he neared thirty years old did he age out of spunky teenager roles). He began taking on adult roles, and that meant occasional forays into Noir City. He made the excellent QUICKSAND in 1950, and then in 1954 he hit the jackpot with DRIVE A CROOKED ROAD.
In the film, Rooney plays Eddie Shannon, a mechanic and part-time race car driver. Without knowing it, Eddie’s caught the attention of a group of bank robbers led by Steve Norris (Kevin McCarthy). Norris needs a wheel man for a job he’s planning, a job which will require a driver of great skill. He dispatches his sexy girlfriend Barbara (Diane Foster) to seduce the little guy and talk him into helping them pull the job. Eddie balks at first, but he’s simply too in love with Barbara. He joins the gang for the bank heist.
What happens next is interesting. We might expect the bank job to go badly, or for Norris and his gang to stiff Eddie on the money, but the film makes a rather unexpected detour. The money, oddly enough for a film noir, isn’t really the sticking point here. The fallout and the violence that follows it are really over matters of love.
In QUICKSAND, Rooney played another mechanic who meets the wrong woman and ends up suffering for it, but in that film, he’s still got some spring in his step. Here, though, we find him playing a very different kind of role. Eddie Shannon is an odd little guy. The film uses none of the usual tricks to disguise the actor’s height. Everyone in the film, including Foster, towers over him. But the film uses his diminutive stature as a physical representation of his essential character. Shannon is quiet, even around his buddies at work, and Rooney is surprisingly effective as an introvert. Eddie Shannon is a lonely man, and the gang picks him out because he’s a lonely man.
This makes his relationship with Barbara all the more tense. What ratchets up the emotional stakes, though, are Barbra’s conflicted feelings about her assignment. She seduces the sad little mechanic, but it’s a seduction of the heart. The two don’t even share a kiss. They talk, and she invites Shannon to dream big dreams for the first time in his life. He falls in love, not lust. We get the sense this job would be easier on her if it was only physical. Dianne Foster didn’t make much of an impact in films before being relegated to television and then retiring in the mid-sixties, but make no mistake about it: she was a hell of an actress. Her performance here is topnotch.
The entire film is topnotch. The bank robbery, for instance, gains tension by staying in the car with the getaway driver. And the mad dash that follows the robbery, as Shannon and the robbers race down a twisted back road in order to get to the highway before roadblocks can be set up, is a nail-biting blend of back projection and stunt driving. This kind of thing was often done badly in older films (indeed, the first shots of this movie are a pretty poor display of sloppy back projection), but Shannon’s race through the desert is a fine piece of action direction.
The film was directed by Richard Quine and written by Quine and his frequent collaborator Blake Edwards (James Benson Nablo). Both Quine and Edwards started out as actors, and both usually specialized in comedy. This might explain the wealth of snappy lines in DRIVE A CROOKED ROAD, as when Norris tells a drunk girl at a party, “Dear love, why don’t you go somewhere and pass out like a lady?” It doesn’t explain, though, the aura of heartbreak that hovers over the film. This is one of the saddest of noirs — the story of lonely man who’s taken for a sucker by a gang of sharks. Throughout, Quine directs with intelligence and restraint. The final scenes here, as Shannon confronts the woman he loves and finds out the awful truth about her and the handsome bank robber, are both exciting and tragic.
Richard Quine was himself a tragic case. A gifted director, his life was beset by misfortune. In 1945, his wife, actress Susan Peters, accidently shot and crippled herself in a hunting accident. As Peters fell into a deep depression, their marriage faltered and after they divorced in 1948, Peters got worse and in 1952 starved herself to death. Quine struggled to find his equilibrium. Working at Columbia he was confined mostly to comedies, though in 1954 he made both DRIVE A CROOKED ROAD and the excellent Fred McMurray/Kim Novak film PUSHOVER. During PUSHOVER, he had a brief but intense affair with Novak that ended with her leaving him at the altar. Quine eventually married actress Fran Jeffries, and directed a string of successful comedies, but he remained a fundamentally sad, troubled man. In 1989, he shot and killed himself in his home in Beverly Hills.
Rooney’s career continued its decline after this film, of course, and he never came close to reclaiming his box office mantle. Perhaps more importantly, he never really reclaimed his place in the culture. As the years have gone on, the Andy Hardy movies that made him an American symbol are more and more relics of the past. They have historical importance, of course, but I don’t get the sense that Mickey Rooney has had anything like the longevity of Shirley Temple or Judy Garland. A lot of kids still watch Temple. And every kid I know still loves the THE WIZARD OF OZ. Mickey Rooney, on the other hand, is just lucky that he got teamed so many times with Garland before she outgrew him.
All of which is to say that as Rooney’s big hits dim in the distance, there is more room to evaluate some of his later work. And his work in noir — particularly QUICKSAND and the 1951 musical noir THE STRIP — are very good. And one film, DRIVE A CROOKED ROAD — might be the best thing he ever did.
Note: DRIVE A CROOKED ROAD will be showing next week at Noir City Chicago.