Updated: Mar 29, 2020
Crime Wave (1954)
Directed by André De Toth
Produced by Bryan Foy
Written by Crane Wilbur
Adapted by Bernard Gordon, Richard Wormser
Based on the story “Criminal’s Mark” by John Hawkins and Ward Hawkins
Cinematography by Bert Glennon
Edited by Thomas Reilly
Music by David Buttolph
(1:13) Warner Archive DVD from the Film Noir Classic Collection Vol. 4 box set
Crime Wave is a film you can enjoy on many levels. It’s a fine film noir with a great cast and colorful Los Angeles locations frequently populated with down-and-out characters who were most likely actual down-and-out people. It also contains elements that might make you shake your head, wondering “Why did they do that?” as well as characters who may make you literally laugh out loud. It’s a film that often gets ignored or dumped on, which it shouldn’t. Crime Wave is a testament to just how much director André De Toth could do with very little.
One of the early “Why did they do that?” moments comes early in the film as the credits roll. We see a car pull up to a gas station, a scene that’s repeated several seconds later when it really means something: two guys get out of the car and approach Gus Snider, the night attendant at the service station. Classic movie and TV fans will know this is Dub Taylor, a character actor who’d already appeared in more than 50 movies and TV shows when Crime Wave was filmed, although most audiences in 1954 knew him primarily from Westerns. Whether you’re familiar with him or not, Taylor provides some early comic relief (especially as he attempts to sing along with a Doris Day song and later sports an enormous head bandage).
The two guys from the car, Morgan (Nedrick Young) and Hastings (Charles Buchinsky, soon to be billed as Charles Bronson), are joined by the third guy in the sedan, Doc Penny (Ted de Corsia), all of them recent San Quentin escapees. (Eddie Muller, in his book Dark City: The Lost World of Film Noir, calls these guys “a post office wall’s worth of creeps.”) These guys make quick work of knocking out Gus and grabbing the money from the register, but when a motorcycle cop pulls in, suspicious of Gus’s absence, Morgan plugs him, also getting shot in the process.
Soon, Steve Lacey (Gene Nelson, with a great head of hair) gets a call from a voice he recognizes as Morgan. Lacey realizes Morgan must’ve escaped San Quentin, probably with Hastings and Doc Penny. Lacey knows it’s just a matter of time before all three will want to hide out at his place, pulling him back into a life of crime. Lacey’s wife Ellen (Phylis Kirk) warns Lacey to have nothing to do with these losers, but we know what’s going to happen.
Meanwhile, staunch no-nonsense Detective Lieutenant Sims (Sterling Hayden) struts around the crime scene, and later at homicide, chewing on toothpicks and proudly wearing the ever-present short tie of the 1940s and ‘50s (although this one is usually on backwards).
As an aside, Sims simply has to be the inspiration for the character of Steve McCroskey (Lloyd Bridges) in Airplane! (1980), giving us even more opportunities to laugh.
Film noir movies in the late 1940s and early ‘50s often suffer from an overabundance of voiceover narration, but De Toth wisely scraps that idea right from the start. Yet in a way, he retains it in the form of announcements from the police dispatch running throughout the film. De Toth also uses many actual locations, giving the film an authentic feel. I’m not sure how many of the details we see onscreen were actually scripted, such as what appears to be a Salvation Army band playing “Bringing in the Sheaves” as cops walk into the Circle B cocktail lounge (I’m still trying to figure out that name…), where they find some of the most authentic low-life characters you’ll see anywhere, giving up such original lines as “The heat’s on all over town.”
Other moments in the film made me chuckle, such as a scene in which Sims talks to some of the other detectives in homicide about similar jobs the trio pulled in the area. Instead of going to a Los Angeles area map, or even a map of California, Sims goes to a map of the entire United States to show the route these guys have traveled! A few minutes later, in a scene that mimics a similar one from Detective Story (1951), Sims watches (and blocks a significant portion of the screen) as another detective interrogates a couple. Without a break in the shot, the camera pulls down low, filming Sims from below as he moves to the next desk, where we see a blonde who’s suspected of covering up for some thug, her mascara running as she exclaims, “I hate his stinking guts!” Sims then slides over to watch a stool pigeon being questioned. We get the feeling that Sims is simply watching these detectives playing out techniques he’s taught them, but doesn’t seem very happy about their progress. (In fact, he doesn’t seem very happy about anything, which in itself is classic Sterling Hayden.)
Later we witness lots of cops standing around, apparently waiting on Sims to tell them what to do. All of this is at least somewhat humorous, but it also goes to show that De Toth is building character, not only that Sims calls all the shots, but that he’s in control of the whole building.
If you think Sims is strutting around the station, just wait until he starts grilling Lacey. Sims’s “Once a crook, always a crook” estimation of Lacey’s story wears the suspect down so much that we think he’s either going to clock Sims or just crawl in a hole. “Whaddya want, Christmas every day?” Sims says when Lacey asks him for a break, harassing both Lacey and his wife, the toothpick never dropping from his lips.
When Lacey’s former buddies show up, holding Ellen hostage while Lacey does their bidding, the tension rips into overdrive. Then things get strange when a member of the gang (played by the ultra-weirdo Timothy Carey), who practically looks like a wolf on two legs, is told to guard Ellen. This won’t be pretty…
This is all familiar territory, but the outstanding cast, Bert Glennon’s cinematography combining ambient light, dark streets, and mostly location shooting (Unfortunately, the few rear projection process shots practically scream "Fake" at the audience), make Crime Wave a nice little gem worth pursuing, even if the ending doesn’t quite live up to expectations.
If you pick up the Warner DVD (a double feature with the utterly strange noir Decoy from 1946), you’ll be treated to a rousing commentary with novelist James Ellroy and Noir Alley’s Eddie Muller. Actually, “rousing” isn’t exactly the right word. This commentary is a hoot, absolutely priceless.
Jack Warner pushed for Humphrey Bogart as Sims and Ava Gardner as Ellen, but De Toth won the casting battle. Warner countered, downgrading the project to B-picture status, which cut the director’s budget and shortened the shooting schedule. No problem: De Toth shot the film in 13 (or 14, depending on who you ask) days on location with a realism he’d never have gotten on the studio sound stages and backlots. I think he nailed it.
Photos: Nicholas Stix, IMP Awards, The Skeins, TCM, The Timothy Carey Experience, Movie Title Stills Collection, Hollywood Visage, Pulp Curry