The following review is one of several that I composed for the ClassicFlix site under the column title “Where’s That Been?” Most of those columns made the transition to CF’s new site but some of them stayed behind for reason or another…and since my writer’s ego is just big enough to where I don’t like having what I’ve penned shielded from the large number of folks who surf the Internets I have reprinted it here. Enjoy!
If you’re a devoted or even casual fan of old-time radio, chances are you’ve heard Frank Lovejoy at one time or another—he appeared on such programs as Suspense, The Whistler, and Escape, and had regular gigs on Mr. and Mrs. North and Murder and Mr. Malone (also known as The Amazing Mr. Malone). Lovejoy’s crowning radio achievement was a short-lived series entitled Night Beat, which has acquired quite a cult following among OTR buffs; he played a Chicago newspaper columnist named Randy Stone whose work on the swing shift brought him into contact with various individuals and their stories formed the plots each week. Dynamic stuff—you should check it out (if you haven’t already) when you get a chance.
Frank was one of radio’s best actors; his voice was commanding and possessed a no-nonsense presence yet was coupled with an Everyman quality that literally made him the embodiment of “the Average Joe.” As much as I enjoy Lovejoy’s work, I’ll be the first to admit that he wasn’t able to bring those strengths to the silver screen; from his debut in 1948’s Black Bart he had problems conquering a stiffness that often bordered on parody in vehicles like I Was a Communist for the FBI (1951), House of Wax (1953), and Shack Out on 101 (1955). That’s not to say that he couldn’t rise to the occasion: he’s solid as Humphrey Bogart’s cop pal in In a Lonely Place (1950), and his best onscreen work is in the rarely screened noir classic Try and Get Me! (1950; a.k.a. The Sound of Fury), in which his Joe Average finds himself entangled with a psychotic criminal played by Lloyd Bridges.
Frank gets top billing in The Crooked Web (1955), an aggressively average crime drama that does have occasionally entertaining moments. Lovejoy is a small businessman named Stan Fabian, who owns a drive-in restaurant and has plans to marry one of his carhops, Joanie Daniel (Mari Blanchard). Joanie’s brother Frank (Richard Denning) breezes into town and ever the gracious host, Stan takes them out for dinner and a night on the town, where he learns from Joanie that Frank has a big deal cooking in Chicago, a job that will net him and his partner $200,000.
Fabian’s interest is piqued; he’d like to get in on the deal because Joanie is the type of woman who has to have nice things, and she refuses to marry him until he obtains a little stability in his business (Stan has periods of being both flush and broke, owing to a gambling habit). Reluctant at first, Frank supplies his future brother-in-law with the details: there are some priceless gold “knick-knacks” worth a great deal of money hidden somewhere in Germany, and if Frank’s partner won’t let Stan in on it, Stan can have half of Frank’s take.
The Crooked Web has now laid the groundwork for its caper plot…except there’s a little plot twist. Frank and Joan are actually undercover cops laying a trap for Stan; it seems that during the war, Stan was responsible for murdering a soldier and the father (Roy Gordon) has sworn to make Stan pay. Stan escaped the long arm of military justice only because he had been discharged by the time the evidence to prove his guilt had been collected, and so Frank and Joanie are relying on Fabian’s innate greed and willing to take risks to slip the noose around his neck.
Web was directed by Nathan Juran (billed here at Nathan Hertz Juran), who was at the helm of classics like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) and First Men in the Moon (1964), and camp fests like The Brain from Planet Arous (1958) and Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958) (he went by plain ol‘ Nathan Hertz on these last two). The film’s script is courtesy of Lou Breslow (Murder, He Says, You Never Can Tell), and once it’s revealed that the Daniel siblings are working for The Man, the movie pretty much settles into how’s-he-catch-‘em territory.
The curious thing about Web—and I’ll readily admit it might be because I’m a Lovejoy fan—is that I think it might have worked better had Lovejoy and Denning switched parts. Frank seems a bit too sympathetic to be the villain (and at times he appears uncomfortable and agitated), while Richard has difficulty ditching that oiliness that marked many of his screen roles (particularly that in Creature from the Black Lagoon). I almost hoped that Lovejoy would get away with what he’s done because Denning and Blanchard (a cold femme fatale if ever there was one) are kind of jerks. R.V. Atherton, the father of the murdered soldier, comes across as a man who’s not motivated by grief but simply because he has the means and wherewithal to bring Stan Fabian to justice. The Daniels are also helped by a man named Herr Koenig (John Mylong) who can’t shake off a veneer of The Sinister about him—of course, I may be projecting here a bit because I remember Mylong as the plastic surgeon in cahoots with Raymond Burr’s gangster in His Kind of Woman (1951).
I did, however, enjoy some of the turns by character actors like Vince Barnett (who has a small role as Lovejoy’s short-order cook/business partner) and George Cisar (as a drunk who recognizes who Denning really is and has to be taken care of by Denning’s connections)—though admittedly it’s because both actors had recurring parts on Mayberry R.F.D. and I have acquired a reputation for that kind of arcana. OTR veteran Lou Merrill also works wonders as the individual (Herr Schmitt) who’s going to “fence” the gold obtained by Denning and Lovejoy by camouflaging it as monkey wrenches. The Crooked Web is undeniably a strictly paint-by-numbers thriller (with a few noir trappings here and there)…but even when painting by numbers you end up with a nice picture.