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Crime Wave (1954)

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Crime Wave (1954)

Postby moira finnie » March 7th, 2009, 1:24 pm

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Director André de Toth first captured my conscious attention when Klondike 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 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.
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The gas station seen during this film's beautifully crafted opening sequence.

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.
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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.

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 gearhead who is trying to go straight, in part because he is married to the sexy yet elfin Phyllis Kirk.
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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!).

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. 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).
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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).
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The gang plan their ultimate heist, (note Timothy Carey, solicitously guarding the bathroom door while occupied by Phyllis Kirk).

To make a 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 pressganged 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 scenestealing 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.
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Imagine this viewers surprise when, alone at last, the lustful Carey 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. Gene Nelson and Phyllis Kirk make a credible couple, 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.
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Ahh, you deserve to kick back and indulge your foul habit for at least a moment, big guy!

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

Alan K. Rode (our pal Moxie) on Crime Wave (1954)

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

An Interview with Sterling Hayden

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 for 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.
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Re: Crime Wave (1954)

Postby Mr. Arkadin » March 7th, 2009, 1:27 pm

A great film. I'd comment, but I hear ChiO rounding the corner...

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Re: Crime Wave (1954)

Postby ChiO » March 7th, 2009, 4:19 pm

Believe it or not, I wrote a long excited post, but it took me so long that I had to re-log in and I lost it.

Suffice it to say, I love CRIME WAVE (#12 on my list for the long ago Bestafavorite Film Noir poll). The story is tight, De Toth's pacing is exhilarating, and every performance is wonderful, though two stand out. Sterling Hayden gives, in my view, his strongest, most fully developed human performance (of those I've seen). A perpetual scowl with an occasional sneer tossed in, he personifies a noir philosophy that the institutions and representatives of power may make our lives a living Hell, but they are just as doomed as the rest of us (and he conveys this despite a quasi-happy ending). And the last shot -- from scowl to cigarette to matchstick -- is a fine piece of minimalist acting. Then there's Timothy Carey...what kind of idiot leaves him to guard your hostage? Bless the logic of noir. A bravura performance, as always.
Everyday people...that's what's wrong with the world. -- Morgan Morgan
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Re: Crime Wave (1954)

Postby jdb1 » March 9th, 2009, 10:37 am

So sorry I missed this one. And look at the Tim-Man in that photo. Wow - even sitting on the floor in the background, he gives it his all. What an artiste.

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Re: Crime Wave (1954)

Postby ChiO » March 9th, 2009, 1:23 pm

To think, some refer to him as a "scenestealing ham".

I prefer the term Performance Artist Extraordinaire. Or, to coin a phrase, Immutable Essence of the Universe.
Everyday people...that's what's wrong with the world. -- Morgan Morgan
I love movies. But don't get me wrong. I hate Hollywood. -- Orson Welles
Movies can only go forward in spite of the motion picture industry. -- Orson Welles

jdb1

Re: Crime Wave (1954)

Postby jdb1 » March 9th, 2009, 2:11 pm

ChiO wrote:To think, some refer to him as a "scenestealing ham".

I prefer the term Performance Artist Extraordinaire. Or, to coin a phrase, Immutable Essence of the Universe.


Hey! Uncoin that phrase, Buster. I have all common law rights to it, and if Romeo Carey wants to purchase it, the bidding starts at $12.95. For anyone else, the base price is $10,000.
Last edited by jdb1 on March 9th, 2009, 2:15 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Crime Wave (1954)

Postby moira finnie » March 9th, 2009, 2:13 pm

ChiO wrote:To think, some refer to him as a "scenestealing ham". I prefer the term Performance Artist Extraordinaire.

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Well, based on the above typical pose by your pal, I must say that I've never seen anyone act with their teeth so much, (at least not since I last saw Burt Lancaster in The Rainmaker). "Performance Artist Extraordinaire" is still a ham, no matter how you slice it. Actually, Maestro Carey's looney, a bit by a bandaged Fritz Feld and Sterling Hayden's universal disgust provide the humor in this movie, as do the glimpses of the real workings of the LA Detective bureau with the display of some truly horrible glasses, ghastly hairstyles and fashion choices that are arrestingly amusing, (if you'll pardon the pun).

Btw, I should have mentioned that this movie was the product of the mind of Crane Wilbur, who also authored several other police procedurals that dipped their toe in the dark pool, among them Canon City, He Walked By Night, I Was a Communist for the FBI, The Phenix City Story, and that essential film noir, The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima. He is also said to have given Jack Webb the idea for Dragnet.

Omigod, two coincidences! I just read that Crane Wilbur was born in Athens, NY, about 18 miles from my childhood home. We used to have The Miracle of Our Lady of Fatima run for us by the nuns at my school the day before Easter vacation every year! Whodathunkit?

Now I'm worried. I think I may be starting to think like Timothy Carey, seeing patterns where they really don't exist. Hmmm, time for a long walk.
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Re: Crime Wave (1954)

Postby MissGoddess » March 9th, 2009, 2:49 pm

I really enjoyed reading that interview with Sterling Hayden. Thank you for the link.
It was almost as good as reading his autobiography. :)
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Re: Crime Wave (1954)

Postby MissGoddess » June 29th, 2009, 6:26 pm

I watched this movie last week, finally. I agree, Moira, Carey and especially Hayden were very amusing.
"There's only one thing that can kill the movies, and that's education."
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Re: Crime Wave (1954)

Postby klondike » June 29th, 2009, 7:01 pm

Must be the season!
I saw this film 2 weeks ago (it is after all the feature preceding Decoy on the 2-in-1 budget disc), and having read everything else about it here, have very little to add, except that: 1) my status as a longtime, entrenched, hardcore print-fan of James Ellroy was sorely tested by having to listen to him bark & pant like a dog on the commentary (I, too, worship at the Temple of the Holy Dog, Jimbo, but never feel compelled to verbally mock them :evil:); and: 2) I was surprised to hear how much of Sterling Hayden's childhood-latent New Hampshire inflection comes through here, which seemed not to color his speech in any other performance, before or after! :roll:


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