Ten Miles Square


September 17, 2014 11:20 AM Watching the NFL Twisting in the Wind

By Michael O'Hare

The remarkably inept response of the NFL and three of its teams to players in trouble for various kinds of violent behavior has triggered an important but somewhat confused debate. Football is intrinsically a violent sport, where most of the action is big strong men trying to impose their will on other big strong men (fall down, drop the ball, etc.) not only by main strength as in judo but by ballistic collisions.  The game is already in some trouble from the brain damage caused by its repeated head impacts (helmets or not, concussions or not): it appears that about a third of players will develop Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, way more than the population base rate and occurring earlier in life.  At least as damaging has been the NFL’s shucking, jiving, and denial as the evidence of this risk came to light, and its tradition of treating players like used Kleenex after their playing value is exhausted  (they don’t treat their purely decorative labor all that well either, apparently).

As football players are celebrities, they make news when they misbehave off the field, and while their arrest rates are lower than the average for adult males , the proper comparison would seem to be ‘adult millionare males with at least some college’.  When the misbehavior is violent, all sorts of bells go off, as they have with the recent cases of Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, and Ray MacDonald.

The NFL is a cartel of entertainment companies, whose core business is to sell beer, cars, and other things young men like, along with seats in stadiums provided (if possible) at taxpayers expense.  Image is tricky for them, because fans like to identify with players and for a lot of them, the particular kind of toughness that defensive linemen act out is a precious fantasy. You can let out your inner tough guy watching a particularly savage hit, and then you even have  the occasional moment of awe and sympathy when a player is carted off with busted parts.

The league is tying itself in knots trying to figure out what to do in the  three current cases, of which two are at the arrest/indictment stage.  Should the league suspend players for off-field behavior like this when the facts are clear enough for a reasonable person to draw a conclusion, perhaps immediately upon an arrest? Well, the facts can be pretty clear in the period between arrest and final appeal, and sometimes people are found “not guilty” even when they unquestionably did it.  Furthermore, employers fire people all the time for things that are not criminal: I could lose my job for grading student papers by length or randomly, or telling students made-up nonsense in lectures, and if I beat my children or wife I hope my dean wouldn’t stand me up in front of a classroom.  “Innocent until proven guilty” is a rule of very specific, narrow application: it forbids government to punish people not convicted in court, period.  Football players are public figures and marketed as examples of upstanding character to emulate; courage, fair play, determination, team spirit, charity work, pink ribbons, and all that good stuff. If the league doesn’t want to present itself as a bunch of violent thugs, of course it should suspend or fire players who are arrested for beating women and children, and for driving drunk, too .

On the other hand, every game one of these guys  misses (especially a star like Peterson) leaves the team’s, and indirectly Roger Goodell’s, money on the table, and denies fans who just want to have a good time some number of those great hits.  Minnesota lost the game he didn’t play, and something like that can mean missing a playoff and a whole stadium of ticket sales plus a big bunch of TV revenues.  We’re talking serious money here.

Can’t this be managed with some framing? Well, whacking a couple of four-year-olds with a hand and a stick can be pretty well fuzzed up with sanctimonious cultural competence, Serious Reflection on black family tradition and history, and anyway, that bloody beating with a stick is easy to wrap into a big category of “corporal punishment” that includes a slap on a clothed behind. Even that expert in complex right/wrong discernment, the Viking’s GM, says “It’s a difficult path to navigate”.  Rice’s business partner/wife not only forgives him but accepts blame. MacDonald denies everything, and his fight with his lady friend in any case didn’t injure him; seems wasteful to idle talent, doesn’t it? After his trial and appeal, with luck after the season, there’s plenty of time to suspend him; he could miss a whole summer of practices. Anyway, hurting someone smaller and weaker than you isn’t all that different from what we pay defensive tackles to do to quarterbacks whenever possible, is it?

The video of Rice dragging his fiancee out of the elevator was upsetting, but it wasn’t really eyeball bait and certain to fade away.  The video inside the elevator added no facts to the story, but it has the gripping quality of a really good hit on the field, the kind of thing that gets replays and note from the announcers, as NFL execs know. Once it was out, the money calculation reversed and Rice was toast.

How will  all this come out? I don’t know, but Ambrose Bierce has a prediction:

A Moral Principle met a Material Interest on a bridge wide enough for but one.
“Down, you base thing!” thundered the Moral Principle, “and let me pass over you!”
The Material Interest merely looked in the other’s eyes without saying anything.
“Ah,” said the Moral Principle, hesitatingly, “let us draw lots to see which shall retire till the other has crossed.”
The Material Interest maintained an unbroken silence and an unwavering stare.
“In order to avoid a conflict,” the Moral Principle resumed, somewhat uneasily, “I shall myself lie down and let you walk over me.”
Then the Material Interest found a tongue, and by a strange coincidence it was its own tongue. “I don’t think you are very good walking,” it said. “I am a little particular about what I have underfoot. Suppose you get off into the water.”

It occurred that way.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

September 17, 2014 11:15 AM Krautmas Only Comes Once a Year…

By Henry Farrell

But here are two belated presents – take your choice as to which one you put beneath your poisonwood tree.

George Scialabba tries to see (as George always does), the good side.

For the tragic waste of Krauthammer’s considerable talents represented by Things That Matter, a good deal of the blame should doubtless go to the bad habits fostered by op-ed writing and talk-show commenting. Krauthammer is an expert simplifier, summarizer, and close-quarters scrapper. His skill at producing zingers is enviable. But remarks are not literature, and zingers are not political wisdom. You can’t surprise yourself, breathe deeply, get to the bottom of things in 800 words or 20 seconds.

By and large, the quality of the eighty-eight pieces in Things That Matter is proportional to their length. Hearteningly, Krauthammer mentions that he is, at long last, writing a book: two books, in fact, one on domestic policy and one on foreign policy. Perhaps in the course of them he will, at least occasionally, surprise himself and us, vindicating Mill’s generous hope.

Mark Liberman doesn’t.

It’s a tribute to our nation’s culture that a man like Krauthammer, who so consistently expresses blatant quantitative falsehoods about national leaders, is not only out of jail but comfortably established as a commentator for a major media outlet.

[Cross-posted at Crooked Timber]

September 17, 2014 11:04 AM What to Keep in Mind About Thomas Frank

By Seth Masket

I’m a bit late to the pile-on over Thomas Frank’s recent attack on political scientists and data-oriented journalism. I won’t attempt to improve on what folks like Ed Kilgore, Jonathan Bernstein, and Jonathan Chait have already capably written. I just wanted to provide a bit of context that I think helps explain Frank’s rather caustic view towards political science.

Back in 2005, political scientist Larry Bartels wrote up a thoughtful paper (pdf) critiquing Frank’s highly successful and enjoyable book What’s the Matter with Kansas?. The book’s central thesis is that the Republican Party is basically duping working class white voters in places like Kansas by running on cultural promises (gun rights, abortion bans, etc.) and then largely ignoring those issues once in office, turning their attention instead to cutting taxes and gutting social services, which only ends up hurting those voters. As Bartels demonstrated with a detailed analysis of ANES data, that book rests on a faulty assumption. By most reasonable definitions of the term, the “white working class” in Kansas and elsewhere outside the South is voting Democratic and has been doing so for some time. What’s more, there’s little evidence that these voters are being duped on cultural issues; voting on economic issues has become more pronounced over time, not less so.

Here’s how Frank responded to Bartels’ critique:

The fundamental assumption animating Bartels’ attack on What’s the Matter With Kansas? is that studies like mine—based on movement literature, local history, interviews, state-level election results, and personal observation—are inherently inferior to mathematical extrapolations drawn from the National Election Surveys…. My own feeling, after watching him steer his science around the proving ground, is that this vaunted research device is in reality a rickety and most unreliable contraption. To begin with, consider the barren landscape of American politics as Bartels describes it—a featureless tundra swept of history, ideology, and any hint of the raw emotional resonance that everyone knows politics possesses. His NES America is not a place that I recognize. It might as well be the moon….

Frank’s attitude seems to be that political scientists like Bartels are pointing to mathematical symbols like π or e and claiming “That’s America!” But of course that’s not what’s happening. These “mathematical extrapolations” come from an analysis of a detailed survey of American voters that’s been running since 1948, asking questions about partisanship, income, union membership, religion, beliefs, education, ideology, and more. These are the issues Frank claims to care about. And yet when he’s presented with evidence of the way Americans truly think and vote and behave in a thorough and unbiased format, he completely rejects it in favor of his preferred narrative. “It might as well be the moon.”

Frank is a very good storyteller. It is regrettable that he sometimes tells stories not just absent evidence, but in direct contradiction to evidence. And it’s all the more regrettable that in such situations, he rejects the evidence as alien.

[Cross-posted at Mischiefs of Faction]

September 16, 2014 3:33 PM The Genetics Profession Confronts its Troublesome Inheritance

By Aaron Panofsky

On August 8, a remarkable letter appeared in the New York Times Sunday Book Review. Written by a group of five leading evolutionary geneticists and signed by another 135, it repudiated the main conclusions of Nicolas Wade’s book A Troublesome Inheritance. Wade was for many years the main science reporter for the New York Times covering developments in genetics and biology. His book purported to summarize the main findings of the research he had been covering: that the European, African, and Asian races are genetically defined and that they have faced different evolutionary pressures that have given them what he claimed are different intellectual, behavioral, and civilizational capacities.

The book has been widely reviewed and, apart from a glowing endorsement from conservative policy writer Charles Murray, has received largely negative assessments. Wade’s main response has been that the commentators lack the stature and expertise to criticize his ideas. Thus, when the 135 scientists, many of whom Wade cites as his own authorities, blasted his argument as “incomplete and inaccurate” and with “no support from the field of population genetics,” his thesis had been dealt a mortal blow.

But to understand what makes the move of these geneticists so remarkable, you need some history and sociology of claims that genetic science explains racial differences in intellect and behavior.

In 1969, educational psychologist Arthur Jensen used ideas from the emerging field of behavior genetics in an article claiming that the IQ and educational achievement gaps between black and white children were due in large part to genetic differences between the races, and that educational efforts to close the gap must therefore fail. This was the era of intense conflicts over civil rights and President Johnson’s Great Society. Jensen’s writings sparked student protests and heated academic debates. Not surprisingly many education scholars, social scientists, and psychologists denounced Jensen’s work, but so too did many geneticists. In 1975, 1,390 members of the Genetics Society of America co-signed a statement that said “there is no convincing evidence as to whether there is or is not an appreciable genetic difference in intelligence between races” and over nine hundred had signed a stronger repudiation of Jensen’s work.

The IQ and race controversy was traumatic for researchers interested in genes and behavior. As debates raged about science, politics, and ethics of the research, the field fragmented into mutually distrusting groups and many geneticists completely abandoned behavior as a topic.

A quarter century later psychologist Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray published The Bell Curve, an 845 page doorstop that made a very similar argument to Jensen’s: the lack of success of Latinos and African Americans relative to whites and Asians has a strong genetic basis. American inequality, they argued, is mostly genetic. This time, the response was very different. Social scientists and liberal pundits decried the work, criticizing the science and linking it to the history of scientific racism. However, biologists and geneticists largely ignored the debate. Those who tried to intervene, like Stephen J. Gould, were often perceived as politically, rather than scientifically, motivated. Geneticist David Botstein explained his peers’ silence: The Bell Curve “is so stupid that it is not rebuttable.” Members of the Human Genome Project’s (HGP) Ethical, Legal, and Social Issues (ELSI) division hoped to organize project leadership to publicly distance genetics from the book’s racial ideas. It took two years for an ELSI statement to be allowed to appear in a specialist genetics journal, but HGP leadership remained publicly quiet. Soon thereafter ELSI was reorganized and its public activism discouraged.

We tend to think of a scientist’s public responsibility as a matter of individual commitment. But it has much to do with the structure and culture of scientific communities. The IQ controversy from the 1970s had spurred changes driving geneticists’ disengaged approach to The Bell Curve in the 1990s. Conflicts fragmented the research community so geneticists rarely interacted with behavioral scientists and weren’t comfortable engaging their claims critically. Mistrust made it impossible to see public criticism as legitimately scientific rather than purely political. And the outsourcing of ethics to ELSI made it difficult for many geneticists to see the public interpretation of scientific controversies as their business.

The genetic evidence for racial behavioral differences hasn’t changed in the 45 years since Jensen wrote, but geneticists’ public responses have. The recent collective response to Wade’s book is heartening because it indicates that geneticists are coming to see that a new approach to the public interpretation of their science is needed. Because it aims to tell us about human similarities and differences, capacities and potential for change, there will always be a public politics to genetics. The difficult work of the public interpretation of contentious issues cannot be left to social scientists and ethicists (whose genetics credentials will be questioned) or to individual geneticists (whose motivations will be questioned). This group will take heat for their stand, but they cannot be doubted as scientists or marginalized as individuals. They will learn, I believe, that being political in this way—soundly criticizing public misappropriations of their research—can only be good for the long term legitimacy of genetics.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

September 16, 2014 9:39 AM Hillary’s New Message Should Scare Republicans

By Ramesh Ponnuru

Over the weekend, Hillary Clinton went to Iowa for the first time since she lost the caucuses there in 2008. If her remarks there are any indication, she’s planning to campaign­­ for president in 2016 on two themes: the war on women and middle-class economic struggles.

Not everyone understands what she’s up to. The Washington Post, for instance, says that Clinton used her speech “to address growing concerns in her party about income inequality.” The story then quotes her: “American families are working harder than ever, but maintaining a middle-class life feels like pushing a boulder uphill every single day.”

That remark isn’t about inequality, however. Clinton is actually following President Barack Obama’s example of moving away from the discussion about income disparities.

It’s a smart move, because inequality is a low-priority issue for voters. As William Galston, a Brookings Institution scholar who worked in Bill Clinton’s White House, pointed out last week, voters are more concerned about economic growth and middle-class opportunity than they are about narrowing the gap between rich and poor. In other words, most Americans aren’t that concerned with the ratio between their income and that of hedge-fund managers. They just want that numerator to rise.

Clinton also talked about raising the minimum wage and ensuring equal pay for women. Those policies would reduce inequality, but that isn’t their principal selling point. And they wouldn’t do anything to reduce the incomes of the highest-earning 1 percent.

Clinton’s emphasis also makes sense given her political history. Inequality was rising when her husband was in the White House, but the public didn’t mind because the country was enjoying broad-based prosperity.

Iowa isn’t just a key presidential-primary state. It’s also ground zero for the midterm elections: The governor is on the ballot, a Senate seat is up for grabs and several House races are competitive. The message Clinton is using here, which presents Republicans as out of touch with the economic concerns of middle-class voters, could turn out to be formidable.

“Hello, Iowa. I’m baaack” is how she began her remarks. For Republicans, it sounds a bit like a horror film.

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

September 15, 2014 11:26 AM In Defense of Football

By Don Taylor

I don’t write to defend domestic violence, drug abuse, denigration of women, or the many other ways in which professional football players misbehave. I don’t write to defend what I consider to be the unjust withholding of money from college players. And I don’t write to defend lack of transparency and not paying for the health needs of players injured while playing.

I do write to defend the game of football, as it was played yesterday in a middle school game in Durham, N.C. I loved playing middle school and high school football, and I now have the privilege of being a volunteer assistant coach with my son’s team, who won the game 14-12. The other team easily could have won and both played well and hard. No parents misbehaved. The refs did a good job. And no one got seriously hurt.

I realize that none of the good outcomes listed above was inevitable.And there are long term worries about head injuries in football, and the finding of a JAMA study in May, 2014 is the most worrying that I have seen–that exposure to football (years playing among college players) is associated with cognitive impairment independent of head injury. If that finding holds up, then it really could be a game changer.

Several people have asked me how I could let my 14 year old son play football given the risks. The simplest answer is that there are obvious risks of playing. However, the counter factual of him not playing football also carries risks, just of a different type. For example, he tends to do better in school during football season. The motivation of “I have to do my work because if my teachers don’t sign off I can’t play and it will hurt my team” is a better school motivator for him than anything else I have found as a dad.

There are also some benefits of football that may not be clear from  afar. My son’s football team is far more integrated racially and on an income basis than is our church or neighborhood. It is good for kids to learn that they can work together toward common goals with people who are different. And football is the consummate team game. Players have to depend upon one another. On one play yesterday that was set up perfectly, one kid missed a block. 10 guys did their job and 1 did not and the play failed terribly. This is a strong life lesson of inter-dependence and also accountability (the film doesn’t lie). Finally, some of the most practical examples of redemption I have experienced have come via football.  I’ll tell you just one.

There is a kid who last year could not run 1 lap around the track because he was so out of shape. He had lots of anger issues and couldn’t be trusted to keep his head in games. This year, he ran extra after practice the first few weeks to try and get in better shape. His improvement in fitness in 1 year is hard to imagine. Yesterday, he played both offense and defense and almost never came out of the game, and I watched him help a younger kid get in the correct position on a few plays. He did not correct with a harsh anger, but as a leader who knew it was in everyone’s best interest for him to help the other kid understand.

None of these good outcomes is inevitable. However, they are possible if football is done in the correct way.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

September 15, 2014 11:20 AM The Less-Union Jack

By Michael O'Hare

Inquiring minds want to know, what will the British flag look like if the Scots scoot? Well, it will look like this:


The reason involves one of the most famous creative heraldic hacks in history. If you look at paintings of British battles and ships before 1808, you will see that the Union Jack had only a white X, not a red one. More precisely, Azure, the Cross Saltire of St Andrew Argent [the Scottish cross] surmounted by the Cross of St George Gules, fimbriated of the second. This means, “on a blue field, a white X behind a red cross, the latter edged with white”. The white border on the red cross is required by the rule that metals (white/silver and yellow/gold) may not touch each other, nor may colors (red, blue, purple, orange, black, green).  Most baseball caps obey this rule, but incomprehensibly, the Mets and Giants take the field with non-compliant caps, an enduring scandal.

Upon the Act of Union with Ireland, it was necessary to add St. Patrick’s cross, a red saltire.  If this were centered, St. Andrew’s cross would disappear, becoming a mere fimbriation of the Irish saltire.  Placing the latter off-center as though slightly rotated, making St. Andrew’s cross an element in its own right, (given that the implied mess at the center crossing is hidden by the English cross), was a stroke of near genius and to my knowledge completely original in heraldic gimmickry.

If the white cross is removed, all that is necessary is to recenter the red saltire of (Northern) Ireland in its obligatory white border, hence the figure above: Azure, the Cross Saltire of St Patrick Gules, fimbriated Argent, surmounted by the Cross of St George Gules, fimbriated of the third.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

September 15, 2014 10:36 AM Democrats Swallow Clinton Fried Steak

By Francis Wilkinson

I have seen the future of the Democratic Party and its name is Hillary Clinton.

I believe that’s a true statement even if it lacks the electricity associated with a rock star. Clinton is in Des Moines today for Senator Tom Harkin’s 37th and apparently final steak fry. It’s a testament to Harkin’s Democratic soul — along with his aid to the Clintons over the years and some persistent lobbying — that she is here.

“When Tom Harkin called and asked me to come, I wasn’t sure what to say. I’ve got a few things on my mind these days” Clinton told a cheering crowd. But she promptly turned less coy and acknowledged: “It’s true that I’m thinking about it.”

The two biggest factions of the Democratic Party — let’s call them pragmatists and idealists, or Clintonites and Obamanistas — have all but acceded to her presidential nomination two years in advance, although Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley and others will be testing her for weaknesses over the coming months.

The pragmatists see the benefits of her candidacy. The idealists are exhausted by six years of Republican efforts to destroy Obama and his programs. When the attacks on Clinton get vicious, as they will, Democrats will need a fresh front line of defenders.

It has been almost seven years since Clinton’s Iowa team took it on the chin, coming in third in the state’s caucuses behind Barack Obama and John Edwards. Many of those staffers have moved on to careers, relationships and obligations elsewhere. But Clinton will hardly be building from scratch. The network that she and her husband have built is immense and responsive. Many of the political veterans celebrating Tom Harkin this weekend are veterans of one Clinton campaign or another. Reunions, which began with a bar bash Friday night, also serve as recruiting and reconnaissance missions for 2016: Who is ready for another tour of duty?

Newcomers have been brought in through Ready for Hillary, a super political action committee that has been building campaign infrastructure around the nation and recruiting the kind of small donors — more than 90,000 of them so far — who powered Obama’s campaigns.

And although detractors will never understand it, Clinton continues to inspire. Ready for Hillary flew in 100 or so youthful volunteers for a conference at the Des Moines Marriott this weekend. Mostly female, donning Hillary T-shirts and sneakers, they were fired up and ready to go.

A Clinton coronation, if indeed that’s what Democrats give us, will be boring for Democrats and catastrophic for the news media. More than 200 reporters obtained credentials to get a glimpse of Clinton politicking. If she doesn’t get viable competition from Democratic opponents, she may have to invent it. Otherwise reporters will rely on internal feuds and Republican attacks to produce the kind of conflict on which campaign narratives depend.

It’s hard to believe the historically fractious and occasionally thrill-seeking — the nomination of Barack Hussein Obama was the political equivalent of magical realism — Democratic Party will surrender in toto to Clinton without at least a symbolic fight. But with each passing day, it gets even harder to believe it won’t.

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

September 14, 2014 4:46 PM Five Undercovered Midterm Stories

By Jonathan Bernstein

It’s terrific that we have six polling aggregators and forecasting models, each giving us rapidly updated odds for every Senate seat. It’s nice to have the chances of a Republican majority in the next Senate (continued aggregation-of-aggregation odds: toss-up, very slight edge to Republicans).

But as many have noted, things aren’t going to change much depending on whether there are 51 or 50 Republican senators in 2015. A majority of 55 seats, up from a minority of 47 (more or less the edges of the likely range) would matter more. And Senate majorities are more important now than they were 30 or 40 years ago. So I have no complaint about the media focus on the Senate margin.

On the other hand. it’s not as if Senate margin is the only pressing question. So here are five things concerning the November midterm elections that could use more reporting and more attention:

1. Who are these senators? Party is more important than ever in the Senate, but single senators still matter. Whether it’s Ted Cruz, Elizabeth Warren, Tom Coburn or Dianne Feinstein, plenty of senators are far more than just generic Democratic or Republicans. It’s not just about ideology, the issues they care about can have important policy consequences, as can their styles. The media focuses on those in close races (and their strengths and weaknesses as candidates), but some coverage of the incoming sure winners would be great, too.

2. Governors! Perhaps because the Senate has a clear party contest story line, we’re getting plenty of coverage of that, even though most of the forecasters are handling both offices. Governors have huge policy effects. Let’s see more coverage.

3. State legislatures. The flip side of the entry above. I’ve seen a little mention of legislature importance down the road in the context of redistricting, but states are going to pass lots of laws in 2015 and 2016, and partisan control of chambers is going to make a major difference. And by the way, state legislation is contagious. So even for those in states without close contests, the electoral outcomes in other states may produce legislation that will eventually be adopted elsewhere or at the federal level. These are national stories.

4. It’s a cliché of media criticism, but it would be nice if we heard more about the candidates’ policy platforms. We’ve had some (Greg Sargent for example is tracking how Obamacare is being used), but it’s often in the context of how it plays in campaigns, not what it means after the election.

5. The House. It’s true that the most important thing to know about any House member is their party affiliation. Unlike with the Senate, by far the most important thing is who holds the gavel — and we know it’s going to be the Republicans in 2015. But margin of victory does matter, both for the next House and (especially) because the larger the margin, the greater the chances of hanging on to the majority. As usual, the total coverage for House elections tends to be somewhat less than that of single House special elections during slow spots in the electoral cycle.

So I’m not complaining. A lot of the coverage of control of the Senate is very good, and it is a legitimately important question. Just not the only one. Hey, reporters! We’re under the two-month mark; how about some good reporting that goes beyond control of the Senate.

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

September 12, 2014 11:04 AM Weekend Film Recommendation: The Crooked Way

By Keith Humphreys


Amnesia is one of the most overused and hokey plot devices in film. Yet if the rest of the elements of a good movie are wrapped around it, viewers can suspend disbelief and really enjoy themselves. A perfect example is this week’s film recommendation: 1949′s The Crooked Way.

The plot: A war veteran who thinks his name is Eddie Rice (John Payne, again playing a noir archetype, the ex-GI) is being treated for a head injury in a San Francisco military hospital after a heroic career as a soldier. Eddie’s physical function has returned, but he can’t recall anything about his life in Los Angeles before the war. Hoping to recapture his memories, he leaves the Bay Area for L.A. (as in real life, always a bad idea). He is immediately recognized by cops, gangsters and a dishy B-Girl (Ellen Drew) and finds himself hip deep in a world of trouble that he can’t understand because the events of his former life are all lost in a fog of failed memory.

The credibility-straining premise aside, this is a superb film noir. As the anchor of the movie, John Payne does well in the romantic and action scenes and puts over the premise of the story by eliciting sympathy from the audience for his amnestic plight. I have written before about Payne’s successful reinvention of himself as a tough guy after the war (see reviews here and here), and this was one of the high points of that second phase of his career. Another former All-American song and dance man, Dick Powell, made the same transition and his noirs are better remembered, but Powell didn’t have the physical presence and hard emotional edge that works so well for Payne in these types of films.

But even more important than Payne is noir legend John Alton, who gives a photography masterclass here. Gordon Willis is sometimes referred to among cinematographers as the Prince of Darkness; Alton was the King (I sometimes wonder if he even owned a fill light). In a wide range of L.A. locations he dazzles and entrances viewers with memorable visuals, my two favorites being of Payne getting worked over by thugs in his hotel room as a light flashes through the shutters, and, later in the film, a car driving straight away from the camera, progressively being swallowed by utter blackness.


There are no bad performances in the movie — which is saying something when Sonny Tufts is in the cast — so props to director Robert Florey for his efforts. Florey also deserves credit for keeping things moving crisply, building tension as he goes along but never making viewers wait too long for the next violent confrontation. Another plus: Amidst the vengeance and killing comes a wonderful comic relief scene when Payne, fleeing through the night, hitches a ride with an eccentric undertaker played by Garry Owen.

The Crooked Way is a suspenseful, exciting and gorgeously shot movie. I am amazed how few people know of this fine film. Please take a look at it, and then share the secret with another movie lover, so that it can acquire the reputation it deserves.

p.s. Interested in a different sort of film? Check out this list of prior recommendations.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

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