Crime Wave [a.k.a., The City Is Dark]

| November 14, 2001

Several of the 1950’s era crime caper films, including Armored Car Robbery (1950), The Asphalt Jungle (1950), and The Killing (1956), comprise an important style of classic film noir. Within this genre, Crime Wave (1954), a 73-minute Warner Brothers effort, is frequently overlooked and unappreciated. A closer look at this film reveals a well-crafted “B” movie with fascinating characters and interesting moral ambiguities.
Sterling Hayden plays hardcase cop, Lt. Simms who inflicts his personal standard of justice on the unfortunate Gene Nelson. Nelson, an airplane mechanic married to Phyllis Kirk, is a straight arrow who just happened to do a stretch in San Quentin before he saw the light and reformed. Former cellmates (Ted de Corsia and Charles Bronson) break out of “Q” and decide to visit their old pal after a bungled gas station holdup nets them a dead cop and a robber’s corpse in the Nelson living room. Before Nelson can regain his composure, his lethal pals are forcing him to be the wheelman for the heist of a Glendale bank while Hayden pins him as career criminal and starts turning his life inside out. After many twists and turns, the robbery does not come off as planned. The surprise denouement gives Nelson and Kirk another chance at the American dream while Hayden comes to realize that rehabilitation could be more than a myth.
Director Andre de Toth makes excellent use of the familiar L.A. locations with interesting camera work highlighted by the movement of automobiles. His perspective of the cramped interior view from prowl and getaway cars gives his film a gritty realism. De Toth also has star Sterling Hayden lurch around like an upright, surly bear in a rumpled suit, crushed hat and askew tie, chewing on toothpicks and barking at crooks and cops alike. There is a terrific scene where Hayden squeezes a pathetic, drunken veterinarian, who moonlights as a doctor for crooks, to become an informant. Hayden mercilessly forces him on a subsequently fatal mission as a stool pigeon then pets an ill dog in the doc’s lap saying, “nice pooch,” before shambling out wearing a backwards tie and a crooked grin. Great stuff.
Both Gene Nelson and Phyllis Kirk are earnest and harmless in roles that do not require classical training. Nelson looks most comfortable when tooling Kirk around in a Paleolithic era hotrod that seems better suited for Tony Dow on Leave It to Beaver. One does to begin to wonder, however, about the integrity of any hero who leaves his wife alone in the bathroom of an apartment with Timothy Carey waiting in the next room.
The heavies in this film are a terrific collection of vintage noir characters. Ted de Corsia, one of the greatest villains in motion picture history, (The Naked City–1948, The Enforcer–1951, The Killing–1956, Inside the Mafia–1959) plays the ostensible master criminal, Doc Penny. He initially affects a calm demeanor with his cigarette holder and precise robbery plans, but later, during the heist, the professional veneer evaporates as he barks at Nelson in the getaway car and shoves a gun in a bank employee’s face shortly before his own demise. Charles Bronson (billed as Buchinsky) is a buff Cro-Magnon thug who intermittently leers at Kirk and exhibits both real and implied brutality. Bronson was great in these roles and always seemed incongruous in his later, starring vehicles such as Death Wish (1974) when cast as an architect in a three-piece suit. Timothy Carey makes a brief, but memorable appearance as a crazed thug. Carey’s shameless mugging for the camera in the background of shots would be quickly categorized as either laughable or boorish if done by almost any other actor. Carey is such a bizarre and unique screen presence that his appearance in this and his other films amounts to a strange sort of beauty that alternately fascinates and entertains. Other memorable character actors are scattered throughout the movie: Dub Taylor, whose career spanned Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to Bonnie and Clyde and beyond, is the gas station attendant who is robbed in the film’s opening. Fritz Feld makes a brief appearance as a battered husband requesting discretion from detectives during a sequence in a police station.
Crime Wave is a film noir that is well worth seeing. A good plot and fast action pace the movie, but the central attraction is the outstanding cast of characters.

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