Saturday, March 7, 2009

Crime Wave (1954)

Director André de Toth first captured my conscious attention when a friend sent me a copy of Pitfall (1948), a memorable "domestic noir" about marriage as a form of incarceration by choice...or so it seems until Lizabeth Scott tosses her blonde mane in the presence of insurance adjuster Dick Powell. You can read about that movie here, but today let's take a look at the splendors of the influential Crime Wave (1954), which I suspect most people have discovered long before me. If you've seen Stanley Kubrick's The Killing, the cast and the look of this film will seem familiar, though the succinctly presented plot is quite different. Kubrick must've sat in a theater and made notes throughout de Toth's movie, because almost all the facets of that later gem are seen here first.

The look of this "B" movie, photographed by veteran cinematographer Bert Glennon uses Los Angeles area streets and buildings to their full advantage. Photographing mostly at night, Glennon and the director caught the bland surface of that lost world. The detailed look of the city is so fraught with an underlying urban loneliness and longing that is crisply rendered in razor-sharp detail by the camera that you may think of Edward Hopper and WeeGee at the same time. Here's a few moments of the opening scene to give you a taste of the film's visual beauty:

Made at Warner Brothers without any real stars, the first recognizable face we meet is Dub Taylor as a loquacious gas jockey who's eager to talk to the two men (Nedrick Young & a very young Charles Buchinsky aka Bronson) who have driven up to his isolated post. It seems that Doris Day, who is bleating out a version of "S Wonderful" on the blaring radio, was a song that the excited Dub had requested to hear. As soon as Taylor starts to gas up the car, humming away, he's conked on the head, thanks to a third man who emerges from the car, Ted de Corsia, who is the brains of the group.
Poor Dub Taylor, he never had a chance to hear the boffo ending of
"S'Wonderful" on the radio.
As Young takes over Dub's duties to make it look as though all is well while the other two find the floor safe, a motorcycle cop familiar with the station rolls by. Smelling something amiss, he doesn't buy Ned Young's assertion that he's the replacement for Taylor, who went home sick. The cop starts rooting around in the men's car, opening the glove compartment to reveal bullets galore. He's shot, he shoots Young, and the guys get away, pushing Ned into a car alone and telling him he will drive, despite being shot, while they escape in a different vehicle. This terse beginning should be shown to every film student in the world as a primer on how to choreograph action without any unnecessary frills.
"Let it ring," begs Phyllis Kirk as a call at midnight signals a threat to the couple's privacy. The economic way that de Toth signals a shift in the Production Code's ability to dictate content. It also gives the film a feel of real life.
After this initial take-off, the story then hurls us into the threadbare coziness of the lower middle-class apartment of Gene Nelson, an ex-con gear head who is trying to go straight, in part because he is married to the sexy yet elfin Phyllis Kirk. Later, the couple's palpable bond will be tested further.

A mysterious phone call from someone in the middle of the night arouses Nelson's underlying anxiety about his past, and his former fellow inmates, showing up to put the kibosh on his tentative happiness.  

Gene & Phyllis have an unwelcome midnight caller, (Nedrick Young), who may be bleeding on the carpet.They'll never get their security deposit back now!

Kirk, who acknowledges that his past didn't stop her from marrying him, and that now that they're married, it bothers her even less, distracts him for awhile with some moments of connubial bliss. Soon, all hell breaks loose as first Ned Young stumbles into the apartment followed by another ex-con, Jay Novello, who does a great turn as an alcoholic former medico turned veterinarian. Novello now only treats dogs and felons on the run, as long as the latter have cash. These unwelcome visitors are soon followed by cops, a sympathetic parole officer and later, numerous crooks (de Corsia and company).
Sterling Hayden aka Grumpenstein. What a week to quit smoking!

Not having stars in the cast of this movie really helped the proceedings, especially since it led to the casting of Sterling Hayden as Det. Lt. Sims. Hayden's rumpled appearance, wearing a suit that looks as though he slept in it and a tie that is far too short for a man of 6'5", reflect his generally misanthropic manner as he attempts, by chewing on a toothpick throughout the movie in order to break himself of smoking. (If I were his co-worker, I'd probably have bought him a pack of cigarettes just to get him to act human).

A despairing Nelson being cuffed by Hayden, who appears to assume the former felon's guilt.
While almost two-thirds of the film is set at night, the contrast with the brightly lit police station, with the cold fluorescent lighting in public buildings in this film emphasizing the dankness of the setting, made me feel as though I'd been up all night listening to the cops and the crooks dance around the truth. According to the commentary track on the DVD, Eddie Muller pointed out that the filmmakers had considerable access to the police department for their location work, lending the film more verisimilitude.  I believe that some police personnel were used as extras. This may have been accomplished because one of the writers of this film was Crane Wilbur. A former actor turned author, Wilbur had contributed to several notable crime films prior to Crime Wave, including Blackwell's Island (1939), Canon City (1948), He Walked By Night (1948), and Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison (1951). In the process, Wilbur had developed considerable first hand knowledge of police procedures and prison conditions, as well as close relationships with several people in law enforcement, giving him the kind of exceptional access seen in this movie.
An exhausted looking Hayden with Nelson at police headquarters in the middle of the night.

To make an account of this briskly told story more concise, while under suspicion of involvement with the gang who knocked over the gas station as well as numerous other small jobs, leading to the big one at a bank, Gene Nelson is press-ganged into being the driver for the band of ruffians. Among this pack of underworld slugs we meet none other than Timothy Carey, as a complete and obvious psycho, (not to mention scene stealing ham), who, naturally, is left with vulnerable but feisty Phyllis Kirk while the gang and a reluctant Nelson go forth to wreak havoc on a local financial institution. Imagine this viewer's surprise when, alone at last, the lustful Carey (seen seated at right) asks her to play gin rummy! I won't spoil the beautifully shot last ten minutes of the movie, but suffice it to say, it was a delightful surprise.
Gang Members threaten Nelson and Kirk, forcing Nelson to be involved in their latest caper. (l-r) Jim Hayward, Timothy Carey, (looking abnormally restrained for him), and Charles Buchinsky , who would later change his name to Charles Bronson.
Gene Nelson and Phyllis Kirk make a credible couple, though I must admit that I was a bit taken aback by the appearance of the noted hoofer as a hard luck guy. While he did not dance a step here, his appearances in the musicals The West Point Story (1950) and Oklahoma! (1955) document his skill rather well. I believe that this role may have been part of Nelson's effort to become established as a straight performer in the movies. That never worked out, though he had a long career as a director in tv. Later in life, Nelson commented that "I was happier directing than I've ever been doing anything else. That form of creativity is very rewarding and I liked it a lot. Both careers were incomplete. I feel unfulfilled in either one. I didn't become the star I wanted to be." I doubt if it was a lack of talent on his part, but simply the timing of his arrival in Hollywood, as the movie studios disintegrated. Phyllis Kirk, a delightful performer familiar from such fare as television's version of The Thin Man, with Peter Lawford, never had the film career she deserved either, though her own life, as a polio survivor, political activist, and publicist for CBS News was very intriguing.

The members of the gang, especially Bronson and Carey, make vivid impressions as deadly, none too bright human dobermans whose only governor on their impulses is the curdled criminal glamor and brutality of Ted de Corsia. The best by far here are Jay Novello who is seen only briefly, and Sterling Hayden, who looms over everyone like a hangover on a Sunday morning. I hope that you'll add your own observations of this enjoyable movie here.
Bone-tired, exhausted spiritually and physically, Hayden's character finds a crumpled cigarette in his pocket after everything is wrapped up.
Ah, the end of another shift, as the rain cleans the streets.

Ahh, you deserve to kick back and indulge your foul habit for at least a moment, big guy!

This film is on DVD, with a commentary track by film noir maven Eddie Muller and noted LA author, James Ellroy. While there is a bit more of Ellroy's libido on display than I needed, Muller's appreciative comments about the director, cinematographer, criminal milieu and his pinpointing of the locations is quite interesting. I may have missed it, but I don't think that this has been broadcast on TCM. Andre de Toth appears in a series of interviews about his work in videos from The Film Noir Foundation. They can all be seen here. Below is a clip of his comments on the characterization of Sterling Hayden in Crime Wave, a film that the director had been wanting to make for a long time:

For more information on this film, the following sources are recommended:

Alan K. Rode on Crime Wave (1954)

Driftin': In Tribute to André de Toth (1913-2002)

An Interview with Sterling Hayden

Here is the original trailer for Crime Wave (1954), which features Sterling Hayden speaking directly to the camera:


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