Crime Wave (1954)

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*. Richard Schickel leads off his essay on this movie by wondering if the title was meant ironically, as there isn’t much of a “crime wave” sweeping L.A. On the DVD commentary, Eddie Muller and James Ellroy also share a laugh at the title, noting the incongruity between a crime wave and knocking over a gas station.
*. I don’t think the title was intended to be ironic, or is particularly out of place. The studios were knocking out a lot of these pictures, which were all pretty formulaic. The titles they slapped on them were just supposed to sound catchy. A lot of them had little or no direct connection to the movies they were slapped on. I’ve noted how Mystery Street is one such throwaway title. Crime Wave is another. They were generic labels.
*. Eddie Muller also dismisses the claim that this film is a “minor noir” just because it’s such “a routine crime story.” I don’t know. Muller and Ellroy compare it favorably to The Killing, but that’s a better picture.

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*. Along with the rehabilitation of this film has come the rediscovery of Andre de Toth (or De Toth, or DeToth, or however you want to spell it). I’m not that impressed. De Toth had a long and productive career working with poor material on low budgets and tight schedules (sometimes, as in the case of Crime Wave, by choice), but when the debate over your greatest achievement is between Crime Wave and House of Wax, with no other films in the running, you were not a major director.
*. Ted De Corsia and Charles Buchinsky (later Bronson) are both solid, if a bit of an odd couple sartorially. Gene Nelson and Phyllis Kirk strike me as being just functional, though some people see a line of grit in Kirk. The two of them don’t seem quite grown up here. Lacey’s jeans make him look like a juvenile and at the end of the movie they’re both dismissed like a pair of truant schoolkids.
*. The vet, Dr. Hessler, delivers a speech that, I think, is supposed to be about hypocrisy: “People. They accept the love of a dog, and when it gets old and sick they say put it to sleep. And you know what they call it? Mercy. That’s what they call it.” Granted, the particular dog he’s holding on his lap has apparently been dumped off before its time, but the lines don’t stand as any kind of general indictment, and it seems as though they’re meant to. We do call it a mercy to take care of the passing of pets that are old and sick. Is there something wrong with that?
*. The quality that is usually cited as making this movie stand out is the location filming. But a lot of noir did this, and the L.A. locations here are nothing special. They’re interesting, but they don’t add anything essential to the movie.

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*. I would say the only real reason to catch this one is to see Sterling Hayden.
*. I can understand Hayden’s tie getting flipped around at some point, but in the scene where he visits the vet it seems to have actually been tied on backward. Deliberately? Then later, as Muller points out in the commentary, it’s tied properly but looks clownishly short.
*. The tie that doesn’t fit is part of Hayden’s screen persona. He seems too tall for the picture frame and his head is sometimes cut off or he has to stoop. Muller also makes a good point about how you expect him to speak slowly but instead he delivers his lines incredibly fast.
*. I love how the camera swoops in on the bad guys’ hideout when Steve pulls up to it at the end. It’s one of the few real flourishes de Toth allows himself. Most of the time this looks like a standard docu-noir.
*. It was shot in a couple of weeks, and you can tell. The goofs begin right from the start, with some footage from the end of the credits reappearing immediately at the beginning of the film proper. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before. Then notice how in the bedroom scene Steve Lacey picks up the phone so awkwardly, and then Ellen bangs her head into the headboard as she leans back down in bed. I guess there were no second takes. De Toth’s motto, according to Eddie Muller, was “Don’t be careful, have fun.”
*. I think de Toth did a good job under the circumstances. And there’s no denying this is a film with historical interest. But at the end of the day it hasn’t much in the way of a story and the lead (the familiar noir hero trapped by his past mistakes) is weak, especially when contrasted with the oversized lawman hunting him. It’s minor noir, but there’s nothing wrong with that.

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