A crackling little B-movie, The Crooked Web (1955) is indicative of the modest but lively movies Columbia Picture's second features unit, Clover Productions, was capable of during the 1950s. Despite the occasional turkey, literally in the case of their The Giant Claw (1957), these unpretentious, efficient pictures frequently offer a lot of bang for their buck and are long overdue for reappraisal.
The Crooked Web began shooting under the title "The Big Shock," an apt moniker. A noir-crime thriller, it has two impressive plot twists within the first twenty minutes. Formula B-movies rarely catch this reviewer off-guard but thanks to the performances, direction, and even the casting, both caught me completely by surprise and their impact is felt for the remainder of the picture.
A manufactured-on-demand, Sony "Choice Collection" release, The Crooked Web is presented in an excellent 1.85:1 enhanced wide screen transfer, sourcing good film elements. There are no extra features or even menu screens.
The movie opens in Los Angeles, where ex-G.I. Stan Fabian (Frank Lovejoy) operates a drive-in restaurant and is dating one of his waitresses, Joanie Daniel (Mari Blanchard). Joanie's moody brother, Frank (Richard Denning) drives up, hoping to borrow $3,000 for a mysterious deal he's made in Chicago. Joanie, however, wants nothing to do with her deadbeat sibling, and cautions Stan against helping him.
Stan, however, is intrigued, learning that Frank is raising money with partner Ray Torres (Steven Ritch) to return to Germany where during the war they discovered and secretly buried a fortune in gold, a fortune just waiting to be dug back up again. Stan, anxious to get in on the deal so that he can marry Joanie and provide her with financial security, pressures Frank to cut him in.
It's here that The Crooked Web delivers an impressive one-two punch, all before the twenty-minute mark. (MAJOR SPOILERS:) Frank sneaks into Joanie's room and the two embrace. They're not brother and sister after all but lovers secretly plotting against poor, gullible Stan. A few scenes later, it's revealed Frank and Joanie are not con artists after Stan's nest egg but rather partnered detectives on a year-long sting operation against Stan. While in the army himself, Stan ran a black market racket in postwar Berlin and gunned down several MPs while protecting his inventory. The story then follows the threesome as they make their way first to Chicago, then Berlin supposedly to uncover the loot but with Frank and Joanie actually trying to get Stan confess to his crimes.
The Crooked Web generates a surprising amount of suspense, first suggesting one kind of story then changing gears twice before finally getting underway. Frank and Joanie have to do a lot of fancy footwork to avoid blowing their cover. Several times Stan almost catches them in an embrace, and in one good scene Stan discovers a special police badge given Frank for use in Germany. Frank does a good job covering his tracks but does Stan believe him?
The casting helps. Around this time Denning played both heroes and heels, with the actor fairly fresh from his role as the despicable financier in Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). Frank Lovejoy usually played by-the-book good guys, often detectives, in movies like House of Wax and The Hitch-Hiker (both 1953), while Mari Blanchard excelled in femme fatale roles, she having recently appeared as the voluptuous but temperamental Queen of Venus in Abbott and Costello Go to Mars (1953). In The Crooked Web, the film opens with the three actors all playing to type, to audience expectations, only to have the script pull a bait-and-switch, much as Frank and Joanie pull on Stan.
They must have been fun roles for its three leads to play, with Denning a louse-turned-hero, Blanchard an ingénue-turned-tramp-turned-heroine, and Lovejoy the square-jawed hero-turned-cautious-murderer-on-the-lam. Usually a bit bland, Lovejoy is unexpectedly good here, subtly generating suspense and even a bit of sympathy as he slowly becomes suspicious of his girlfriend and her "brother." Good editing seems deliberately ambiguous: it's not clear whether Stan catches sight of Frank and Joanie when they kiss, for instance.
Nathan Juran, who sometimes directed movies under the name Nathan Hertz, and here is billed as "Nathan Hertz Juran," was an art director at Universal-International before he changed careers and became a full-time regular director. Along with actor-turned-director Fred F. Sears, Juran was among Clover's busiest traffic cop directors.
The picture intrigues for other reasons. Lovejoy's character seems to have been named Stan so that the opening scenes could be shot at Stan's Drive-In, a real restaurant located in East Hollywood, where Hillhurst Avenue, Hollywood, and Sunset Boulevards all converge. The restaurant is gone, but in some shots across the street one can see the Vista Theater, a historic landmark since restored and still showing movies in 2013. (For years I lived close by, up Hillhurst near Los Feliz Boulevard.)
It was a clever way to add a lot of production value at no extra cost. The picture opens with an establishing shot of the "Stan's" sign, a towering neon affair, and all over the place are menus, soda machines, and other drive-in paraphernalia with "Stan's" written all over them (probably worth a fortune to collectors today).
The rest of the film is moderately less successful. On the road, the trio dumps a body in "Lake Michigan" and drives around Ohio, terrain that resembles the High Desert above L.A. a lot more than the Midwest.
Video & Audio
The Crooked Web sources good film elements and is presented in its correct 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio, enhanced for widescreen TVs. Detail, contrast, and blacks all impress. The audio, English only with no other choices and no subtitle options, is likewise strong. There are no menu screens; the movie simply begins then restarts automatically after it's done. The disc is region-free. No Extra Features.
Highly Recommended, The Crooked Web is a nifty little B, a noir-thriller with a better-than-decent quotient of suspense and surprises.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.