The Beach Party Blogathon: Drive a Crooked Road (1954)
When I think of my favorite beach movies (and I do have some favorite beach movies!), I must admit that film noir doesn’t exactly spring to mind. But when I learned of the Beach Party Blogathon, hosted by Kristina at Speakeasy and Ruth at Silver Screenings, the first movie I thought of was Drive a Crooked Road (1954). I wasn’t even sure why – I’d only seen this film once, and that was more than 15 years ago. But when I watched it again to prepare for this post, it all came rushing back to me, like the ebb tide on a warm summer evening.
Drive a Crooked Road is a minor, woefully underrated noir starring Mickey Rooney (yes, THAT Mickey Rooney) and Kevin McCarthy (best known, perhaps, for his role in that iconic sci-fi thriller, Invasion of the Body Snatchers). Rooney is Eddie Shannon, a would-be race car driver described by one character as “Master mechanic, International Motors. No family. Few friends. Lives alone and hates it.”
We soon see that Eddie is shy, slightly awkward, and completely obsessed with cars; a glimpse into his persona is provided when he’s seen at work, eating with four of his co-workers (one of whom is Jerry Paris, who played Rob Petrie’s best friend and neighbor on The Dick Van Dyke Show, and later became a respected director). The other guys start giving the wolf treatment to a woman passing by, but Eddie doesn’t join in. One of the fellas starts ribbing Eddie, asking when was the last time he had a date and if he’d ever been alone with a woman. Instead of answering, Eddie abruptly and wordlessly abandons his half-eaten lunch and returns to work.
But before long, Eddie gets the opportunity to learn that there’s more to life than automobiles. When an attractive woman – Barbara Matthews (Dianne Foster) – brings her car in for repairs, she asks for Eddie by name, and the next day, Eddie gets the nod for a housecall when Barbara phones to report that her car won’t start. Arriving at her house to fix her stalled car, Eddie finds Barbara clad in a sunsuit; while he works on the car, she hovers around him like a hummingbird, asking questions, remarking about the lovely weather, and asking about the scar on his forehead. (“A scar can look interesting on some people,” she practically purrs. “I have one on my leg.”) (Whoa!) She also tells him that she goes to the beach at every opportunity, and pointedly shares the exact location – “It’s never too crowded,” she adds.
Now, what could this dame be up to? Hmm?
Although he makes plans to meet his co-workers that night for a game of cards after work, Eddie clocks out and heads straight for the beach. Barbara spots him and invites him to join her – she’s with a man named Steve (McCarthy), who has a house on the beach, and who she introduces as an “old friend.” (Yeah, right.) When Steve heads for home, Barbara suggests that Eddie take off his shirt, encouraging him to share with her his love for cars, and assertively positing why he followed her to the beach: “You like me. You’re interested. It’s as simple as that.” She gives him her phone number and the next thing we know, Eddie’s dining at her apartment, where she’s artfully placed several race car magazines and assumes a rapturous gaze as Eddie talks about his dream of racing in Europe. And when her friend, Steve, calls to invite her to a party, she asks Eddie to take her.
Seriously. What is the deal with this chick?
At the party, Eddie spends most of his time with Steve, who pumps him for information about sports cars, and how fast they can go. But later that night, after Eddie drops Barbara at home, we discover that Steve and Barbara are lovers and that Barbara has deliberately set out to ensnare Eddie. We don’t know why, but we do know that Barbara is getting cold feet: “I feel sorry for him, terribly sorry for him. Let’s call the whole thing off,” she says. “He’s not like other people. He’s like a lonesome little animal that’s never had any love in its whole life.” But Steve tells her it’s too late. And, in fact, it is. The next day, Steve shares his plan with Eddie, which is for Eddie to act as the getaway driver in an intricately planned bank heist – in exchange for a cool 15 grand. When Eddie balks, Steve suggests that he talk it over with Barbara – and he does. And he realizes that she’s not quite the peaches and cream sweetie pie that she’d first appeared. “You don’t want to be just a mechanic, and I don’t want you to be,” Barbara tells him. “Steve made you a proposition. To you it’s terrible, it’s breaking the law. Well, sure it’s breaking the law, maybe it’s terrible, but I can think of a whole lot worse . . . . You’re willing to wait and hope that maybe someday you’ll get what you want. Well, I can’t wait. I know what happens when people wait.” Eddie also realizes that Barbara knew about Steve’s scheme all along – and that their relationship is kaput unless he capitulates. So he capitulates. SUCKER!
So . . . is the heist a success? Do the bandits get away with the money? Does Eddie get his $15,000? Does he ever get to race in the Grand Prix?
And what about Barbara?
I’ll leave all that for you to discover. But let’s get back to the purpose of this blogathon – the beach – which, in this film, is practically another character; every significant action in the film takes place there. Eddie follows Barbara to the beach after fixing her car, and that’s where they have their first real conversation. Next up is the party at the beach house, where Eddie first gets to know Steve. The beach house is also where Eddie is approached about participating in the bank robbery, and where Eddie throws a monkey wrench into the works by showing up at the beach after the heist. And, finally, the film’s dark, unexpected climax takes place – you guessed it – at the beach. There are no games of volleyball or sandcastles being built at this beach; it’s full of menace and shadows and danger. But if you watch Drive a Crooked Road, you won’t be able to get it out of your mind.
Drive a Crooked Road is available on DVD – if you haven’t seen it, you really need to check it out. Mickey Rooney offers up a sensitive portrayal of yet another noir everyman who finds himself in over his head because of his affinity for a duplicitous dame. His performance is so subdued and understated, in fact, that it’s easy to forget that you’re watching Mickey Rooney. Kevin McCarthy is excellent in his role as well, creating a character with a pleasant façade and a thoroughly black soul – you may never look at him the same again. Others in the cast include Dianne Foster, who can also be seen in such films as The Violent Men and The Brothers Rico (and who, incidentally, is now age 86 and living in California), and Jack Kelly as Steve’s annoyingly jokey but deadly sidekick – you might remember him as James Garner’s little brother in the 1950s television show, Maverick.
This post is part of the Beach Party Blogathon, hosted by Speakeasy and Silver Screenings.
Click the picture at the right to check out the many great posts being presented as part of this event! You only owe it to yourself.