dir. Andre De Toth
"Once you do a stretch, you're never clean again. You're never free. They've always got a string on you, and they tug, tug, tug. Before you know it, you're back again."
A while back I mentioned the large collection of out of print movies I had at my disposal while working at Movie Place. Having free access to so many out of print flicks is, of course, the wet dream of many a movie geek; and much to my pleasure, the majority of these pictures were noirs. Considering their prolificness and the affection my owner had for said movies, it was no surprise that, one: so many of these movies would be out of print; and two: our store would have such a large collection of these dark, brooding films. Although the classic prestige noirs had generally always been available on home video, many of the lesser known flicks had been forgotten. The reason is obvious; it just would not be economically feasible to manufacture videos of so many lesser know pics. One of the movies that slipped through the home video cracks was Andre De Toth's tense Crime Wave, perhaps my favorite from our out of print collection.
With the advent of the dvd age, however, all the rules changed. Considering the relative ease of mass producing dvds, studios would have less to lose if more obscure movies failed to sell in substantial numbers on the home video market. One of the greatest benefits of the dvd age would be the ability to watch so many movies that would have otherwise vanished into the dustbins of history. Budding film scholars could get a better grasp of film movements and directors' oeuvres, because now it was possible to study not only the benchmark films but also the run of the mill fare.
It would be misleading, however, to refer to Crime Wave as run of the mill. Although it is not groundbreaking in any significant way and falls smack dab in the middle of a larger film movement, it is an expertly paced and crafted thriller that still holds its power to captivate.
Crime Wave, although part of the crime film genre, belongs, more specifically, to the smaller subset of films dealing with the subject of the reformed criminal getting sucked back into a life of criminality (a mini genre that would reach its apex with the Eddie Bunker penned Straight Time). In Crime Wave, reformed criminal Steve Lacey (Gene Nelson) struggles against former accomplices, an unsympathetic police force, and himself to stay on the straight and narrow. More compelling than the standard crime film, movies of this sort are of particular note because they seek to indict not only the criminals, but also a system that contributes to such criminality. In essence, everyone is culpable.
Of course, my first attraction to this movie was the prospect of seeing a young Charles Bronson in an early film role. Yes, Bronson previously worked with De Toth on the Vincent Price movie House of Wax, but seeing as I haven't seen that movie since I was a kid I don't remember much of it (Besides, the action/thrillers have always been where Bronson has excelled, and this movie is no exception). I also wanted to see if this film could further prove my theory that Charles Bronson was never young. Indeed, it is an important piece of the puzzle. I'm sure, were I to get pictures of the catfish whiskered infant smacking the birthin' doctor while lighting a stogie, my theory would be complete. Although it is not well known, Bronson's weathered appearance was partially attributable to his bout with iggypopitis, a condition in which the victim, although exhibiting the lean, muscular physique of an athletic twentysomething, is cursed with the grim, hard-worn, leathery visage befitting septuagenarian chain-smoking prostitutes and Skeletor.
Here, Bronson plays Ben Hastings, a member of a group of cons on a crime spree, or crime wave, if you will (hey, that's the name of this movie). As the film opens, this group pulls a minor stick up of a gas station, and in the process shoots a cop who in turn injures one of their own, Gat Morgan (Nedrick Young). Seeking refuge, Gat decides to flee to the apartment of an inhospitable Lacey. Lacey knows that where Gat goes, his cohorts will be soon to follow. And when the rest of the gang tracks down Lacey, they fail to believe in his desire to lead a clean life.
Hot on the trail of these hoods is the no-nonsense Detective Sims, played expertly by Sterling Hayden, one of my favorite character actors. His appeal is due to the fact that he always seemed to have a touch of the crazy. It is hard to tell where his characters end and he begins. Like the hoods, Sims does not believe that Lacey is either reformed or reformable. His mantra is, "once a criminal, always a criminal". It is his unwavering desire to out this former criminal that fuels his pursuit of the criminal gang. And although Sims does not know it, he is in a race against time to rescue Lacey's wife who has been kidnapped by crazed goons so as to coerce Lacey into aiding the gang in their latest bank heist (One of the crazed goons is played by career psychopath Timothy Carey. Talk about an actor with a touch of the crazy). Of course, Lacey is also eager to shake off the gangsters and rescue his wife, and it is this tension that works to bring the film to an interesting, if not wholly believable climax.
Crime Wave belongs to a larger trend toward a docu-realism style that started in the previous decade with such pictures as The Naked City and Kiss of Death, and would continue until the end of the noir form in the latter half of the fifties (Of course, it would later make a resurgence in many of the gritty urban dramas of the New Hollywood films of the seventies). Crime Wave is also part of a group of films more inclined to examine the psychology of criminality and display the relative moral ambiguities of criminality and justice, evidenced not only in such high profile pictures as White Heat, The Asphalt Jungle and The Big Heat, but also in lesser known gems such as Crashout and The Big Combo.
Of particular note in this film is the careful attention to seemingly unimportant details that De Toth displays. He feels perfectly at ease, for instance, with filming an extended scene in which Sims roams a police station and catches snippets of random interrogations, none of them relating to the plot at large. Just a decade earlier, such a diversion would have been unthinkable in a streamlined studio picture. In this new group of films, scenes such as this became important in that they helped build the atmosphere in which a movie took place. More than anything, De Toth excels at creating a sense of place.
The completely un-romanticized vision of criminality on display here is also noteworthy. The gangsters here are not larger than life kingpins building criminal empires, but rather the working stiffs of the criminal world. They survive by pulling a series of small time jobs. Their goal is not the house on the hill but the next meal. This is just a job to them. Rarely does a movie depict the banality of an existence that is normally the subject of either intense scorn or glorification.
It should be noted that the dvd containing Crime Wave also has an earlier noir, Jack Bernhard's Decoy, which I saw for the first time after rewatching the De Toth picture. If only for its insanity, Decoy is even more interesting than Crime Wave and I plan to write about it extensively in an upcoming post. Thanks in part to the dvd age, Decoy has only been rediscovered in the past few years. It will be interesting to see which random, minor films of today will be hailed in the years to come.