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Drive a Crooked Road: Quine and Edwards Accelerate to Top Speed
|Dianne Foster and Mickey Rooney|
In cinema history — and especially the history of the studio system of classical Hollywood, in which films were specifically made on certain levels, some as A films geared for strong box office or awards or both, others as supportive B films or programmers that might be respectable and appreciated but were mainly there to hold up their part of the same system — many filmmakers whose whole careers tended to be confined to the second category have gone on to earn great respect for their work on that level. It's not quite the same with filmmakers who started in Bs and moved up to As; for them the more modest, early films are more often described as the "promising" ones, that promise fulfilled by the more prestigious projects to which they moved on. Sometimes, though, the "promising" film is much more than that. It may be THE film, or at least one of the ones, which best represents its maker(s) and shows us their best qualities.
This is the case with Drive a Crooked Road (1954), a quiet Columbia programmer that has aged impressively, indeed magnificently.
The film's quality, apparent even at the time of its release, did boost the fortunes of both of its main creators, Richard Quine and Blake Edwards, who had previously collaborated on a number of movies that Quine had directed and on which both had worked as writers. The two men, almost the same age (within two years), had come from similar careers in movies, both working initially as actors (Quine much more noticeably), with Edwards becoming a writer on two Rod Cameron Westerns at around the same time that he also appeared in Quine's first directorial credit, Leather Gloves (1948, on which Quine is co-credited with William Asher). Their rapport was probably immediately evident to both, and they worked together on four early Quine movies in the unit of producer Jonie Taps, all light comedies and musicals, before the change-of-pace drama Drive a Crooked Road. The credits suggest a deliberate effort to improve their fortunes — it is drawn from an unpublished story (by James Benson Niblo) and the credits (adaptation by Richard Quine, screenplay by Blake Edwards) intimate that Quine found this story and wrote a treatment or first script (likely with Edwards' participation in some way) that persuaded Taps to let him do something different, then had Edwards, the more brilliant writer (unlike Quine, he himself wrote or co-wrote most of his own later A films), write the screenplay along the lines they had deliberated together.
What follows in their careers is self-evident. Quine moved up at Columbia and the next year was making the A musical My Sister Eileen (1955), while Edwards effectively took his place as the B director in the Taps unit and debuted with Bring Your Smile Along (1955). Crucial to our sense of Quine and Edwards is that one observes them to be co-credited as writers on both these films. Moreover, even after he had moved up to A status as a director at Universal-International in 1957, Edwards is again a writer on Quine's Operation Mad Ball (1957) and on Quine's The Notorious Landlady as late as 1962. There's a loyalty there that is not so usual — it seems plain that the two not only valued each other as working partners but also as friends.
I emphasize the relationship because it seems important in thinking about their films, and the present film specifically. Career overviews of both Quine and Edwards suggest a lot of common interests in the kinds of films they wanted to make — mostly comedies, though both were confident in a range of genres — and a degree of sophistication they sought no matter what the genre. But if they had a lot in common, they were also different, with complementary strengths, which get full play in Drive a Crooked Road.
The simple story (though I am tempted to write "deceptively simple") centers on a shy, introverted, and lonely man, Eddie Shannon (Mickey Rooney), who works in a Los Angeles garage as a mechanic, a job tied to his love of cars, the only objects with which he displays a mastery at odds with most of his life — he is a great driver. He himself is aware of this, and would pursue a racing career in Europe if he could, but lack of money makes that impossible. So he nurses his dreams and his loneliness, both of which render him easy prey for two men, Steve Norris (Kevin McCarthy) and Harold Baker (Jack Kelly), and a woman, Barbara Mathews (Dianne Foster), who are plotting a Palm Springs bank robbery that will depend on his driving talents. Barbara's job is to ensnare Eddie in the plan.
There are two things here that I want to briefly consider before moving on to the film's greater strengths, and these are related. First there are the genre conventions one will recognize from even a brief description of the setting-up of the plot, involving an essentially decent man betrayed by a woman he loves against a background of crime, and a robbery that is carefully planned and does succeed initially but that is ultimately doomed to failure because of personal flaws in the participants and their relationships. These motifs had been so pervasive in cinema for so long and were already so familiar that I know I don't need to cite a single other title — suffice to say the film is not interested in unsettling them, and they play out as expected. This is to the movie's advantage — it gives it narrative and dramatic momentum but doesn't ask the viewer to wait for any surprises. Instead, one becomes free to look at what is so individual about the film and its characters within these genre conventions.
Second — and this is vital — Drive a Crooked Road is not a film noir. Because that term has been so successful as a marketing tool not only for older films (one is grateful for this) but also at times (more dubiously) for writers and film historians who themselves may have initially defined it more narrowly, it is now thrown like a net over anything it will catch. And certainly any film from the period of Drive a Crooked Road in which there is a crime, together with someone who may be called a femme fatale, may seem to match the usual careless characterization of film noir. The term, however, was initially well-defined as a style specific to its time and place, mostly a visual style expressionistic in nature, while it was also a set of attitudes in which the fatalism and cynicism that went easily with the stories could become something attached not only to the films but also somewhat romantically to the attitudes of the viewer. None of this is meaningful in relation to a film like Drive a Crooked Road. It is not a film of expressionistic shadows but more of functional and often sunlit images (though in black and white and in the hands of first-rate cinematographer Charles Lawton, Jr., they do strike just the right grave, plaintive note), and it is neither cynical nor romantic. Rather it captures a world, one that many years later still feels true.
Eddie is a remarkable creation, especially as played by Mickey Rooney. The actor was important in the Quine/Edwards universe — he had figured already in several of the previous films, they created a pilot for his televison show in 1954-1955 which Quine directed, and he would appear in both directors' films later — but in every other case for his comedic talents. Still, they both knew what he could do, and as his presence helped them to establish themselves, they helped him at a difficult point in his career, when his youthful star had waned. The things that were always most clear about Rooney — that he was supremely self-confident, irrepressible, would do anything and go anywhere, however immoderately at times, in any kind of role — may actually be the deepest truth about many, perhaps all of those earlier MGM movies. Here, under Quine's sensitive direction, Rooney turns these things away for the sake of a character who seems in every way his opposite; yet paradoxically he has never seemed so real.
It is an unusually deeply drawn character who centers this film, but one whose internal drama must initially register with a becoming restraint, however piercingly. One feels he has displaced all hopes of love and intimacy onto cars and driving, that he is in painful emotional retreat from any hope of the confidence with women and sexual experience his co-workers cruelly and unappealingly parade, that he is trying to yearn for nothing. He is a man whose dreams have always been answered with emptiness. No Hollywood-type fantasies wait for him. No huckleberry friend.
Rooney projects all this with masterly restraint and no plea for pathos, keeping this aspect of Eddie quietly alive on his face even as the narrative seems to provide the character unexpected hope. A facial scar from a racing accident (neither disturbing nor repugnant) and the short stature that draws comment from other characters (but that never in reality inhibited Rooney's sense of his own charm) are all the props given to him to support the sense of his apartness and aloneness, so it truly comes from the conviction Rooney is able to give to it. In Eddie's interaction with Barbara, in his expressions as he takes her for someone who actually is becoming and does seem to become his girlfriend, Rooney deftly manifests both insecurity and the bravery to try to overcome it. A scene one may look to as emblematic is the early one at the beach — with her encouragement he gets the nerve to go and find her there, but when she suggests he take off his shirt, he does so nervously, remains grim and unable to show joy in being with her, and for most of the scene, holds the shirt up against his neck and throat, as if in defense. For he still, and with good reason, cannot believe her interest even if he wants to. In the scene's longest single shot, just before the scene ends, we see Eddie in profile, listening, while Barbara, facing the camera, speaks the seductive dialogue needed to break through his timidity — he himself has only a few lines, but the way he absorbs what she says gives the shot meaning; throughout the shot, we feel the vestige of reserve and doubt and also the part of his consciousness that wants to overcome it and finally verbally affirms that he does want very much to see her again.
Relationship and character nuances are the film's greatest strengths, and the whole construction of the film seems designed to highlight them. Although there are intimations of more going on than the affair between Eddie and Barbara, the robbery plan is not explicitly introduced until the film is about half over. Here, two dramatic scenes — the first in which Steve in company of Harold presents the plan to Eddie, and the second in which Barbara tells him she knew about it and will now make it a condition of their relationship — are followed by the film's most indelible moment, a single, almost fixed shot of Eddie alone in his room (the camera moves slightly to reframe but from the same angle), first lying in bed looking up, his body clenched and anguished, then getting up from the bed and throwing one of his racing trophies across the room in a fury, and finally throwing himself face down on the bed. Brief as it is, it's difficult to think of a scene — even in a later "freer" cinema — that is more evocative of a very specific kind of heterosexual frustration, both physical and emotional in its desolation.
It is at this point that the film shifts gears and broadens. Predictably, to hold on to Barbara, Eddie assents to be part of the robbery, and in this part of the movie, a good part of the viewer's sympathetic interest in him may be deflected into admiration for his ability to modify the getaway car and especially for his masterly fast driving over a difficult road after the robbery. Otherwise, his story will follow the predictable course to disillusionment and a violent conclusion — and just as one expects, he will be more hurt than angry with Barbara when that sad nocturnal climax does come.
However, there is a second story here, one involving the other three principal characters, which brings a fascinating and resonant social context to an intimate story. Barbara — though she has the female know-how to use her sexuality confidently on Eddie — doesn't quite make it as a classic calculating femme fatale, and for two reasons: first, because she has more sensitive feelings and becomes regretful early on and finally deeply ashamed and sorry for her treatment of Eddie, and second, because she appears not to understand the situation she is in with the two sociopaths with whom she is involved. At the same time, there is the relationship between those two men, smooth Steve and wisecracking Harold (a man all too ready to murder on their behalf), suggestive in a way that I believe is clear without ever being overt. In the climactic revelation scene at the beach house where Steve and Harold are living, involving all four characters and Barbara's confession to Eddie, she describes them (Steve, Harold, and herself) as "one big happy family" — a description that might reveal something she at least half-consciously knows.
Drive a Crooked Road is a film very circumspect about sexuality, unusually so for its time, especially given that it is such an important part of the story. It is this very discretion that is one measure of its brilliance, for it allows a reading of subtext almost entirely through staging, line readings, posture, and body language of the actors in relation to each other, with just enough support in expert writing as to where the characters live and where their time seems to go. Barbara is actually Steve's lover, something the film reveals fairly early, and they share the film's only kisses and physical embraces, but these moments are strangely devoid of eroticism, not at all charged as one might expect — something is just not there, even though Barbara, who in the end seems not a terrible person at heart, is willing to thoroughly morally compromise herself for Steve. What that something is becomes clear if we consider two other relationships in which, by contrast, we see nothing physical. First, Eddie and Barbara — the film never shows a kiss between them, and in fact they barely touch; but although the film never says so, it is evident, especially from that scene of Eddie alone in his room, "cut off" from her, that their relationship is sexual, needs to be to ensure that he will be part of a crime, even though he is not a criminal and never thought of being one. Intriguingly, Steve never seems upset about pimping out his girlfriend and is more focused on controlling her as she controls Eddie. Then, still more subtly, there are Steve and Harold, who always seem in easy intimacy, Steve always the man in control of everyone but Harold more relaxed with this than Barbara and finding his autonomy mostly through his endless jokes and repartee — never so witty as he thinks they are: in the climactic scene Barbara pointedly describes his "way" as "nasty."
Just as the film does not need to show Eddie and Barbara having sex or even make any allusion to it, it does not need to demonstrate the homosexual relationship of Steve and Harold for it to be there. Steve at least may be bisexual, but he is not invested in a relationship with Barbara, nor does he have any real feeling for her (as Eddie does), and that's clear in the rapid, effective climax — by contrast, Steve and Harold seem made for each other throughout. What the film knows — and what Quine and Edwards specifically know — is that this was the world of 1954 in Los Angeles and many another place, a world in which a shifting sexuality did exist, and plenty of homosexuality beneath the surface of what was then considered "normalcy," but that it was circumspect, often felt more than openly acknowledged, and that women could be very much involved with men whose sexuality even they sensed or knew to be ambiguous.
|Dianne Foster, Mickey Rooney, Jack Kelly, Kevin McCarthy|
Is it any wonder that the brilliant plan for the bank robbery will finally come to nothing despite the especially impressive success in his part of it of key member Eddie? The plan has been created in the confusion of the Harold/Steve/Barbara relationship, a confusion built out of its own shadows. Suggestively, and convincingly, the film links sociopathic attitudes and action to just this kind of confusion, and contrasts these things to the actual clarity of thought and feeling that Eddie manifests. So the world revealed in the film is as complex as the world itself was and is — for all the effectively achieved simplicity with which its story plays out; and also, as it turns out, the self-possession we have always known in Mickey Rooney does unexpectedly return in this character after all — not as one expects but still profoundly and movingly there.
The Steve/Harold relationship may especially point the way to Blake Edwards' contribution, as he was a mainstream director who in his later films came to increasingly embrace homosexuality as one of his subjects. More important than seeing this as personal to him, though, is the way he builds this and other interesting aspects of the story into the script, clearly but discreetly, so that the film can move easily forward, unencumbered by digression to anything outside the narrative. Here, he and Quine seem to be working along similar lines, Edwards' work setting up the scenes so that Quine can realize them in the most direct and effective way possible, the crucial scene of Eddie alone in his room exemplary for the concision with which both approached it.
It's right to give some consideration to what each of the two collaborators gave to the film — how they are alike, and how they are different, and how it shows in other films each directed later. I don't want to make too much of this here because I think there is so much harmony in what they wanted the film to be, and don't sense any tension. It is a film that sustains a perfect tone, which makes screenplay and direction feel seamless.
If Edwards seems like he would be the one adept at laying in the complex elements and the darker side of the relationships, it's no less evident, I believe, that Quine has more of what one might call "heart" and would be the more effective in realizing Eddie. That he is the warmer director is evident, for example, in a behavioral comedy like the beautiful Full of Life (1957), but if Edwards is relatively colder in the long view, it's not for lack of emotion and indeed sentiment, but because he is more the master of multiple levels of aesthetic distancing, and more comfortable with artifice. Maybe for that reason it was easier for him to constantly find his footing again as Hollywood changed — Quine eventually found himself adrift while Edwards, despite reversals, did not.
While Quine always tended to take the genres straight — a comedy would be a comedy, and a melodrama would be a melodrama — Edwards thrived in movies that mixed moods and genres, like Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), Darling Lili (1970), and 10 (1979). At the same time, the concentration on comedies common to both directors may have been more to Edwards' advantage because he was more adept at farcical extremes. I can't imagine Quine succeeding with an Inspector Clouseau series as Edwards did, and though his comedies are mostly engaging, when he broadens to farcical climaxes the strain tends to show, a result of his being the more naturalistic director, the very quality that so enhances a straightforward crime drama like Drive a Crooked Road, in which a feeling of ambient sound enhances soundstage interiors as well as location scenes, and an impression of physical as well as emotional reality seems so effortlessly imposed.
The two filmmakers are alike in not playing games with what the world is, which suits a cinema becoming to adults, even as, in a manner appropriate to the great last years of the studio system, they eschew heaviness and pretentiousness. In Quine's Strangers When We Meet (1960), there is no moralizing about adultery, just dimensional characters and a believable and emotionally compelling situation, while in Breakfast at Tiffany's, hero and heroine both begin in prostitution, but the film is nevertheless sweet as well as tart and they are sympathetic from the beginning. Did the two directors also share a love for setting films at least partly at the beach? It surely works well here, and beaches and beach scenes do turn up many times in both their films, those of Edwards especially. Is it because at the ocean's edge a melancholy yearning not so hidden beneath their sparkling surfaces and tonically clear-eyed visions might find release?
For one final reality to be observed about both Quine and Edwards is that their primary emphasis on films in the lighter genres may have been an escape from natures that were anything but light. I don't usually like to take much note of biography in discussing films, but it is well known that Blake Edwards constantly described himself as a life-long depressive and a matter of record that Richard Quine took his own life. Perhaps the character of Eddie sounded a deep chord within them, one they knew how to play as surely as he knew how to drive.
issue #7 (1.2011)