Drive a Crooked Road (1954) featured Mickey Rooney's best performance. It's his best because it's his most understated. He doesn't sing or dance. He does no slapstick. The actor who had been making the public laugh since he was a child is quiet here. The most popular actor of the late 1930s, who had married some of the most beautiful women in Hollywood, plays a lonely man who can't believe a beautiful woman loves him.
Eddie Shannon is an ace car mechanic and a hotshot driver. His co-workers at the garage mock him for being short and not knowing any women, but they grudgingly admit he's the best mechanic and driver they've ever seen. He takes their jokes in stride. He seems otherwise occupied, as if all he thinks about are cars and engines and is quietly satisfied with his lot. Even when he eats his bagged lunch with the guys, he seems distant, there but not there.
One afternoon a woman named Barbara brings her car in for repairs. She flirts with Eddie. She invites him to the beach, and then to her home for dinner. We assume that this is a big deal for Eddie, and what's great about Rooney's performance is that we don't see the standard scenes of a lonely character at home. We see Eddie's apartment, a small, cozy place filled with racing trophies, but we don't see him alone eating TV dinners, or any other Hollywood tropes used to signify loneliness. Rooney somehow, inexplicably, transmits his loneliness through his eyes, and through director Robert Quine's decision to put him in scenes alongside tall men. Rooney was never smaller than in this movie. One look at him and you know he's been isolated for so long that he's practically dead inside. Barbara, played by Dianne Foster, seems sent from Heaven to help this poor guy out. Eddie's whole demeanor changes. He becomes scrappier, no longer so willing to be the butt of jokes. But as any asshole will tell you, if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.
Barbara is affiliated with a gang of robbers. They've sent her to maneuver Eddie into working for them. They've plotted a heist, but their escape route involves a long treacherous stretch of road that could only be handled by someone like Eddie Shannon. When Eddie learns of the plan, he goes into denial. He simply can't believe his sweetheart could be manipulating him. He agrees to take part in the plan, perhaps to impress the woman he loves, or perhaps because he wants a cut of the proceeds. He plans to buy a new car and compete in real races in Europe. For once in his life, he's dreaming big.
You know it can't end well. Steve Norris, the leader of the gang (Kevin McCarthy), mocks Eddie behind his back. He calls him "the midget," and assures Barbara that "when an ugly little guy like that falls for a woman, he falls hard." Barbara feels guilty, for she actually likes Eddie, and appreciates his kind heart. What Eddie doesn't know is that Barbara and Steve are lovers, planning to take their end of the loot and split. This is about as heartbreaking as film noir gets. Then again, Rooney was going through some heartbreak of his own.
Rooney started his career as a kid actor in silent movies, went on to become the most popular actor in the country, and then endured one of the longest tailspins in showbiz history. He came back from 20 months of Army service to an America that no longer cared for his style of comedy. He attempted to change his image, appearing in angry little noir films like Killer McCoy (1947) and Quicksand (1950). He even jumped on the roller derby craze with a movie called The Fireball (1950) Nothing worked. Fate had kicked Andy Hardy in the ass.
By 1954, Rooney's stock was lower than it had ever been. A failed TV show, ugly divorces, and a growing sense of self-destruction was making his personal life a regular headline in the news. It seemed that America's little red-haired mascot had a thing for booze, hookers, and gambling. At 33, he was creating what would soon be an American archetype - the ruined child star.
Drive a Crooked Road was directed by Robert Quine, an old pal of Rooney's from his musical days. Quine was a solid director of comedies, but found a strong sense of darkness and drama for this tale of thieves and crooked roads. Notices were strong. One syndicated columnist raved that Rooney had "come up with...one of the most honest and sympathetic characterizations of his considerable acting career." Pacific Stars and Stripes described Rooney's nightmarish drive through the escape route as "a hair-raising thing that has the audience stomping the theater floor in search for the brake and gripping the armrests at every curve." The New York Times felt the movie could have been better, but mentioned that Rooney "deserves a special salute for his job." Most reviewers, even those who felt the story was not particularly unique, agreed that Rooney was more subdued than usual, and was living up to his claim that he was trying to be a more serious actor.
The problem was that audiences weren't buying a serious Rooney. For that matter, they weren't buying any version of Rooney. Movie audiences had plenty to choose from in 1954, from Rear Window to On The Waterfront to A Star is Born. Rooney's movie ended up on the bottom half of double bills, and quickly faded from memory.
The next several years were hit and miss for Rooney. He was very fine in films like The Bridges at Toko Ri and The Bold and the Brave, and occasionally scored in TV dramas, but he also worked opposite talking mules and ducks. His personal life remained stormy. He was once kicked off a late night talk show for showing up drunk. Don Siegel, who directed Rooney in Baby Face Nelson (1957), described him in a memoir as "one of the most talented actors I've ever worked with. However, the combination of Mickey and a six-pack was usually a disaster. He'd become vicious, morose, and very stubborn."
He made his comeback years later, reinventing himself as a character actor, no longer a leading man, but the sort who could take a smaller role and steal the show. Two decades after Drive a Crooked Road, Rooney was everywhere, appearing in Disney movies and on Broadway, picking up awards left and right. He was a survivor, tougher and more durable than anyone might have imagined. That part of himself is what he poured into Eddie, and it's why Eddie has stayed in my mind ever since I first saw this movie.
Part of what made Eddie Shannon so interesting was that beneath his shy demeanor was a constitution of iron. At the film's climax, when Steve sends one of his goons out to kill Eddie, we see Eddie's real self come blazing to the fore. He drives his car off the road to crash it, killing the hoodlum in the passenger seat. Climbing out of the wreckage, his face bruised and blackened from smoke, Eddie grabs the hood's pistol and begins a long walk back to Steve's beach house. He walks with the grimness of a man going to settle a score, and even though he's a small man, we believe he has bad intentions and will carry them out. He finds Steve and Barbara on the beach arguing. Steve tries to intercept Eddie, but after a quick struggle, the gun goes off and sends Steve reeling into the ocean. As the police arrive, Barbara is on the ground, weeping. Eddie kneels next to her, telling her not to cry, gently patting her hair. He's probably going to jail for manslaughter and for aiding in a robbery, but in his mind he's a winner. A woman loved him, or so he believes, and he fought for her.
Everyone should have something like Drive a Crooked Road on their resume, a moment different from everything else you've done. It's always interesting to see that there is more to a guy than anyone knew. Just like with Eddie Shannon. Or Mickey Rooney.