Monday, March 13, 2017

THE CROOKED WEB (1955) and the Death of Film Noir

THE CROOKED WEB is a good example of how classic noir was smothered to death by the oppressive conventionality of the 1950s. With a sharper script — with one major change in focus — it might have been something interesting.

The film stars Frank Lovejoy as Stan Fabian, the owner and operator of a Los Angles hamburger stand. He’s dating one of his pretty carhops, a chirpy blonde named Joanie (Mari Blanchard). As the film opens, Joanie introduces Stan to her ne’er-do-well brother Frank (Richard Denning). He’s a loudmouth who brags to his sister and Stan about a scheme he’s concocted to recover some gold in Germany. He offers to let Stan in on the deal, and Stan accepts. Later, after Stan drops off Joanie, she meets up with her “brother.” They embrace in a passionate kiss.

This great set-up is followed hard upon by the first big reveal of the plot. It turns out that Joanie and Frank are actually cops who are trying to nab Stan for a murder he committed during the war. They want to get him to Germany where he can be arrested by the German police.

This big switcheroo came as a real disappointment, I must admit. For the first fifteen minutes of the film, we don’t know anything about the subterfuge of Joanie and Frank. When they lock lips for that kiss, the movie seems to be off and running toward being something really interesting.

Instead, what we get is a thoroughly unadventurous crime story, with Joanie and Frank as our brave protagonists and Stan as our squinty-eyed bad guy. The plot meanders around once it gets them to Germany, with Stan eager to recover the loot and Joanie and Frank trying to edge him into the daylight so he can be caught by the cops. Our stalwart heroes, however, are a pretty lackluster crime-fighting duo. Just to crank up the suspense factor, the script has Stan discover them not once but twice in compromising positions. It does nothing to help the already languorous plot to have them keep getting caught doing the one thing that can blow their cover. What kind of idiot undercover agents make out on the job when they’re supposed to be posing as siblings?

Neither Denning nor Blanchard bring much to their underwritten roles, and the film makes a common mistake (common to films of the era, anyway) by stacking the deck constantly in their favor. They’re the good guys. That’s all there is to know about them. They don’t have any salient characteristics beyond being the good guys. Their tendency to smooch at ill-advised times goes unremarked upon and exists entirely as a plot device. They’re simply the bland stand-ins for law and order.

The only spark in the movie comes from Frank Lovejoy as Stan. An excellent actor better seen in THE SOUND OF FURY and THE HITCH-HIKER, here he’s a surly presence, nervous in his quiet, restrained way. The one interesting scene in the film comes at the end when he is taken into custody and discovers that Joanie has deceived him. In full view of the cops, he slaps her across the face. She cries and says, “I deserve it.” In a better film, this scene would be tied to a nice ambiguity—that while Joanie and Frank are the good guys, Stan is the one being betrayed (think Hitchcock’s Notorious). Here though, it’s just tacked on at the end and has the feel of a sexist cliché.

THE CROOKED WEB illustrates the mindset that had become predominant in crime films by the mid-fifties. Perhaps as a result of the Hollywood blacklist (and by ‘perhaps,’ I mean, ‘almost assuredly’), film noir had started to die a slow death. As a genre, it had always unfolded along the margins of the industry — in the B-units and at the smaller studios — but as the decade wore on it came under more scrutiny. Films that explored “deviant characters” or tied crime to social conditions were forbidden. There was more pressure to make films about heroes rather than anti-heroes. THE CROOKED WEB would be interesting if it was about Stan, but by 1955 it pretty much had to be about boring ass Joanie and Frank.