Director de Toth balances the gritty with the stylistic in ‘Crime Wave’

Friday Noir #15

Crime Wave

Directed and Andre de Toth

Screenplay by Crane Wilbur

U.S.A., 1954

Sometimes the merits of a film noir come down to how superbly directed and acted it is, simple as that. Truth be told, there are only so many variations of the same story which can be told within the genre for it to be considered as legitimately part of the club. In some ways, those are precisely the sources from which these films derive most of their strengths and memorable qualities. Noir is very much about style, which can be robustly dictated by smart direction and specific acting styles rather than by a script. That is not to say that a script is incapable of guiding the mood and shape of a story, but within noir, it is the former two ingredients which shine brightest more often than not. Director Andre de Toth, fondly remembered as quite a character within the Hollywood circle (an image aided, unfortunately, by an eye patch which covered a horrific scar he received by engaging in anti-Nazi demonstrations in Vienna in his youth) takes a simple, honestly quite predictable screenplay, and whips it into mesmerizing shape. The result: Crime Wave.

Somewhere in Los Angeles, a trio of crooks are slowly performing the planned steps which shall eventually lead to a major bank heist. Among them is the self declared leader, ‘Doc’ Penny (Ted de Corisa) and the younger, vile, brutish Ben Hastings (Charles ‘Buchinsky’ Bronson. Yes, Once Upon a Time in the West Charles Bronson). They make a pit stop at a gas station to reap it of its cash, but critically wound a police officer in the process, thus spoiling their stealthiness and putting the heat on themselves in the process. Potential assistance might come in the shape of an old partner currently on parole, Steve Lacey (Gene Nelson), who lives with his wife Ellen (Phyllis Kirk) in a cozy apartment, now unwillingly caught in a criminal web yet again. Det. Lt. Sims (Sterling Hayden) is an experienced cop whose intuitions are rarely wrong, and he can small rat from a mile away. His gut instinct directs him towards Steve however, convinced the latter has renewed his allegiance with the criminals world and is aiding the detective’s prey. Steve tries to correct the detective’s guess, but his pleas fall on deaf ears. Not only will Det. Sims refuse to believe in his innocence, but ‘Doc’ Penny and Ben Hasting up the pressure on Steve to help them rob the bank, even threatening to harm his wife…

 

Andre de Toth proves his talents as a director with Crime Wave, demonstrating an unequivocal capacity to lend virtually every scene with the right amount of style or realism, all depending on what is required from the moment at hand. His sense of tone and mood is equally impeccable, ensuring that the picture consistently feels taught and tension filled regardless of how light the script is. He moves the characters around like pawns under his seamless control, giving them a degree of gravitas, intensity and flair that not only preserves the film’s undeniable energy but in fact increases it as the story unfolds. In truth, it is only once the movie ends that the viewer comes to the realization just how flexible the direction is throughout, a testament to its quality given how the appreciative moments never call attention to themselves in any overt manner. Rather, they just ‘happen’, effortlessly and comfortably. This diversity comes across as a finely tuned juggling act between very stylistic touches which are balanced by gritty realism.

Consider the moment when the police, unaware at the moment that Steve Lacey and his wife have already gone off with the Doc and Ben against their will, barge into Lacey’s apartment home. The shot begins already inside the home, with the light obviously switched off. The cops rip the door open, thus allowing a sharp ray of light to shoot through the passageway, with the shapes of the few officers appearing as richly black silhouettes. It is a beautiful moment, raw with action but sharply put together in a way that produces a very clever, recognizable noir-ish effect. Conversely, every scene occurring at the police station looks bluntly real by comparison, to the point where even the sound design is strikingly natural, the booming echoes of the voices howling in the room’s air. Moments later, director de Toth might produce a very classic cinema, slow zoom in on actor Sterling Hayden’s face as he nonchalantly explains why he chews on toothpicks as opposed to smoking cigarettes. Again, the balance of artificial style with realism is a constant, and Crime Wave, from a visual standpoint, reaping the handsome benefits.

This precision extends itself to what de Toth gets out of the majority of his cast. The choice of Sterling Hayden is brilliant (according to accounts revealed in the DVD supplements, getting the studio to approve of Hayden was quite a tall task), and the actor does not disappoint in the slightest. He is so terribly good at playing such characters, characters which, as presented to the audience, are morally ambiguous, causing those watching to always question to what degree they should even side by him. A crazed rogue but hilarious United States army general (Dr. Strangelove), crooks with just enough redeeming qualities for them to earn the viewer’s sympathy, (The Killing, The Asphalt Jungle), Hayden absolutely owns these sorts of roles. In Crime Wave, he is a detective (good) with a strong hunch, so strong in fact that it leads to bullheadedness and accusations fired towards the wrong person (bad). It is a strong performance, a commanding one, although said ‘strength’ may very well be enhanced by the fact that Hayden is so much taller than everyone else. Gene Nelson, as Steve Lacey, has a steep challenge in front of him if he is measure up to Hayden, but the actor holds his own magnificently. What comes across most effectively in the performance is how intense his character is despite having renounced his unlawful ways some time ago already. There is little doubt in the audience’s mind that he is genuine in his attempts to finish his life as a law abiding citizen and a strong husband, but when pushed by either Lt. Sims or his former partners in crime, their is a quiet anger which burns from within. This is a man who can dangerous if need be, a man who has nerves of steel if need be too, and anyone who risks ticking him off might get the evil eye, maybe more…Even the smaller bit players, such as Phyllis Kirk and Charles Bronson are excellent. Kirk, playing Nelson’s wife in the piece, honestly does not have much screen time, nor is she provided with much weighty material to work with, but their is a strength to her voice and demeanour which allows to hold her own and make an impact. Bronson is, well, a ill-mannered brute of a hoodlum one should never turn one’s back to.

All of these incredible qualities make up for a script with suffers from relaying far too much on overused film noir elements. It almost feels as if the plot is check marking all the necessary plot points in order to pass a ‘film noir exam.’ The film’s brief running time, a scant 74 minutes, does not help things either, operating in far too frugal a manner with regards to storytelling. More could be done in order to provide the characters with better definition, or at least some more original heft. As it stands, Crime Wave‘s effectiveness lives or dies by de Toth’s sumptuous direction and its stellar cast.

-Edgar Chaput

By Edgar Chaput

Edgar is a Montreal based film blogger who earns a living in the vile world of telemarketing. While not being subservient to the forces of evil, he enjoys chatting away with friends about movies, European soccer (Arsenal!), American football (Raiders!) and some basketball (Celtics!). Among his preferred film related tastes are balls to the wall action, historical dramas, detective stories, some freaky genre stuff and, above all else, the James Bond franchise. After all, nobody does it better. If you find him at a bar, he is more than likely ordering a good old ale.

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