Noirvember: Crime Wave

Concluding our crime cinema month with a look at a standard 1953 drama that becomes quintessential noir thanks to dialogue, characterisation and visual style.

On the face of it, director Andre De Toth’s Crime Wave, made in 1953, appears a workaday B-movie crime programmer from Warner Bros. Studios, its plot utilizing the familiar story of a former con, Steve Lacey (Gene Nelson) going straight after being released from prison two years earlier and holding down a decent job in seemingly domestic bliss with an attractive wife, Ellen (Phyllis Kirk). But the leader of his old crime gang (Ted de Corsia) has escaped from San Quentin and is now, alongside a pair of fellow thugs (Charles Bronson, Ned Young), instigating a major wave of crime around Los Angeles with a raid on a fuel station that culminates in the death of a motorcycle cop. One of the thugs, Morgan (Young), is badly injured in the raid and makes his way to Lacey’s apartment where he contacts a disgraced former doctor they had met in prison (Jay Novello) to try and treat him, but too late – he dies of his injuries. A hard-bitten cop, Lt. Sims (Sterling Hayden) suspects Lacey is involved with his former criminal partners and keeps tabs on him to try and capture them during a climactic bank robbery, but all is not as it seems.

The plot wasn’t especially noirish, and the main principals involved were relative novices to the genre. This was a total sea change from De Toth’s previous film, House of Wax, which also featured Kirk and Bronson, this time in support of Vincent Price and was notable for its rich colour tones, elaborate art direction and 3-D. De Toth was known more as a director of westerns and only occasionally ventured into noir; similarly, cinematographer Bert Glennon was more known for his panoramic vistas of open prairies in John Ford westerns than seedy streets and back alleys of big cities and leading man Gene Nelson was, up until this point, usually seen as a light song and dance man in Warners musicals alongside Doris Day and Virginia Mayo.

Luckily though, actors like Hayden, de Corsia and Bronson were either veterans or ideal participants for such fare (Bronson, still being billed under his real name of Charles Buchinsky, seems ready-made for gritty crime cinema), and De Toth took the decision to eschew the usual glossy Hollywood sets and artificial lighting for a much gritter, semi-documentary approach. He filmed in rather grainy black and white, shooting a great deal on location in distinctly unglamorous areas of LA, sometimes inside real-life police stations, bars and banks – that occasionally causes trouble with the recording of the dialogue. In this sense, the film followed the lead of The Naked City made five years earlier in New York, which also featured de Corsia as the main villain.

Glennon’s cinematography uses a major amount of natural light, but there are still some striking effects of noirish expressionism and even some effective, if all too brief, hand-held camera shots, adding to the feeling of realism. There are few remotely sympathetic characters on view with the exception of Kirk; the normally pleasant, easy-going Nelson effectively changes his normal onscreen persona to that of a cautious, untrusting, slightly paranoid ex-con who thinks and often gets the worst out of associates; Hayden is an exceptionally bitter and taciturn senior cop who openly hates cons and ex-cons alike and scarcely believes in the process of rehabilitation; Jay Novello as a struck-off doctor now working – oddly – as a vet and who has no scruples in taking money out of a thug’s pocket as soon as he dies; de Corsia is a convincing menace as always, and Bronson is a really vicious and brutish thug – he was a much more interesting actor when playing straight villains in films of this era than the violent anti-heroes he played from the late Sixties onwards. There’s also an uncredited but memorable cameo from a toothy, snarling Timothy Carey as a virtual psychotic who keeps guard over a helpless Kirk at the gang’s hideout while Nelson is forced to go on the bank job with them.

Credit goes to this impressive cast for adding unexpected depths and nuances to what would normally be cardboard characters, while De Toth’s hard-hitting and gritty direction emphasises less familiar and much seamier, inelegant LA locations – Beverly Hills and Hollywood this definitely is not and the grimy locations are enhanced by Bert Glennon’s chiaroscuro imagery.

The best thing about the film, however, is Bernard Gordon and Richard Wormser’s screenplay, adapted from a short story that featured in The Saturday Evening Post magazine in 1950 (Criminal’s Mark). There is barely a wasted scene or superfluous moment within the brief 74-minute running time and the dialogue contains just the kind of hard-boiled, pessimistic rhetoric you would expect to find in noir, here concise and to the point. The cast handles it with considerable aplomb, making this a thoroughly gripping and entertaining noir that deserves a lot more credit and attention – after being somewhat ignored and undervalued for many years, is now becoming recognised as one of the best of its kind, helped by a nicely done – if slightly obvious – twist ending that shows the uncompromising Hayden in a more sympathetic light.

One would like to think Stanley Kubrick probably saw this film during the early stages of his cinematic career; Hayden, de Corsia and Carey (as much of a handful off-screen as he was on) all appeared in Kubrick’s The Killing three years later. If Kubrick possibly may have used De Toth’s original here as an inspirational launching pad for his own classic take on the noir genre, it’s another reason why Crime Wave deserves to be better known than it currently is.


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