BluRay/DVD Reviews

CHASE A CROOKED SHADOW (Warner Archives)

By • Jul 23rd, 2014 •

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What do WALK A CROOKED MILE (1948), DRIVE A CROOKED ROAD (1954), and CHASE A CROOKED SHADOW (1958) have in common? Besides containing the word ‘crooked’ in their titles.

They’re all Films Noir, with quintessentially noir monikers. Perhaps CHASE A CROOKED SHADOW is the least overtly noir, but it’s the best noir title of the three, and it’s listed, along with its impossibly difficult plot summary, in John Grant’s ‘A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir.’

This was one of several hard-edged or swashbuckling B&W features in which Douglas Fairbanks Jr. had a creative hand. Another, which I once owned a 16mm print of, and which is not on DVD as yet (to my knowledge), is STATE SECRET (1950 – aka THE GREAT MANHUNT), a neat thriller in which he stars. And a third, also once in my collection (tinted), and frustratingly not yet on DVD, was 1947‘s THE EXILE, which he co-authored, and which was directed with typical style by Max Ophuls (spelled Opuls on the front titles, something Fairbanks could not explain when I asked him about it. But Ophuls’ name has an amusing history: check it out on IMDB).

Kimberly Prescott (Anne Baxter), a South African heiress, is returning to a house high on a bluff overlooking the Mediterranean where she plans to live following her father and brother Ward’s deaths. But a man claiming to be her brother shows up and insists he is who he says he is, even while she claims a) that he isn’t, and she should know, and b) that she identified her brother’s body in the morgue after the fatal car crash. Local police Commissar Vargas (Herbert Lom) joins the mystery but can’t help her solve it, and quickly begins to doubt that she’s the one spouting the truth.

I’ve told you all I’m going to because, 56 years after the film’s release, and liking Fairbanks Jr.’s erratic body of work, I’m going to bend to his wishes, stated in a brief epilogue after the film’s narrative has ended. Smiling and debonaire, he addresses the audience: ‘I would just like to thank the Spanish authorities for their co-operation in the filming of this picture, a great part of which was made in Northern Spain. They have a proverb out there which, translated, says that ‘to keep a secret is to keep a friend.’ So we would appreciate it very much if you would join with us in not telling anybody how CHASE A CROOKED SHADOW ends.’

That’s been done before – notably in THE BAT WHISPERS. But his entreaty is so heart-felt, I’ll let you wander through this complex maze of a plot and enjoy the twists with no spoilers.

Technically the film is, if anything, over-produced. Erwin Hillier’s crisp B&W cinematography finds all the best angles on locations and in sets overflowing with art direction, and Gordon Pilkington’s swift editing keeps us on our toes. There’s a strange little prologue that felt like it might have been tacked on after the film was finished, to help the audience orient itself after test screenings left viewers confused. I’m not saying that’s what happened, but the cut from that sequence to the story itself is unprofessionally abrupt. Once we enter the actual narrative, however, it barrels along and keeps us on edge.

Anne Baxter is good in her role, but I suspect Fairbanks would have preferred someone else and had to settle for her. Richard Todd is also good, but stiff. Fortunately, being stiff lends him an air of menace, which entirely works for the story. Personally I liked Herbert Lom the most; he effortlessly owns his role.

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