Did you hear the nail say ouch, because you just hit it on the head. Yes, the lower you go, the more your glutes and hams (the posterior chain) are invloved.
Noisy joints are no biggie. It's called crepitus. Only pay attention if pain and/or swelling accompany the sounds.
Charles Staley has described a deadlift as a squat done holding the bar in front of you. Pretty good analogy.
In a stiff leg, your knees don't bend much (if at all). Your arms are straight, the bar slides up your leg, and the only movement should be from the waist.
I'd go with sumo deadlifts (a "regular" deadlift done with the feet wide, and the hands in close), and romanian deadlifts (basically, stiff leg deadlifts with a little more knee bending.) Also, deadlifts from a deficit ("regular" deadlifts done with a greater range of motion), either stand on a small platform, or use 25 or 35-pound plates on the bar, instead of 45's.