Monday, January 11, 2010
Crime Wave is a powerful, economical noir from director André de Toth, a taut film, the brilliance of which lies in its wealth of details, filling in the edges around this familiar tale. Steve Lacey (Gene Nelson) once made a mistake and did a five-year stretch in prison because of it, but now he just desperately wants to go straight. He's made good: he's got a decent job, a place of his own, the help of a good-hearted parole officer (James Bell), and the love of his pretty wife Ellen (Phyllis Kirk). He's plagued by his past, though, as his old prison friends never stop calling for favors, and the cops maintain a suspicious vigilance, always willing to believe the worst about him. His decent life falls apart completely when a trio of old prison acquaintances rob a gas station and go on the run after the job is botched. One man shows up at Steve's apartment and promptly dies, causing enough problems for him, but when the gang's ringleader Doc Penny (Ted de Corsia) shows up with heavy Ben Hastings (a young Charles Bronson, still going by Buchinsky) things gets even worse. Steve is increasingly roped into the gang's plans against his will, since he has no choice but to go along or else they'll likely kill him and, even worse, hurt his beloved wife.
Steve's predicament is complicated by the dogged pursuit of detective Sims (Sterling Hayden), who never believes that Steve has gone straight and believes that he's willingly helping his old crook pals. Sims is an incarnation of the cop as God, a seemingly omniscient investigator who remembers every detail about every crook or potential crook in his city. In one scene, his underlings give him names of possible suspects and he displays his encyclopedic knowledge of the urban underworld in dismissing unlikely choices. He knows everything there is to know, and more than just the surface facts he claims to know what's in men's hearts and souls, the things they think and never show the outside world. He is an absolute moral authority, and will admit no opinion other than his own. He decides instantly that Steve must be guilty, and from then on will not allow another option a moment's consideration. He is an impressive, intimidating figure, an avatar of dogged justice, with his ever-present toothpick dangling from the corner of his mouth, replacing the cigarette he'd really like to have.
This kind of detail drives the film. It's a pretty formulaic story, but de Toth ensures that no moment, no character, is simply perfunctory or clichéd. At one point, early on, as Sims walks around his police station, he listens in on a few interrogations and conversations, some of which have to do with the case at hand (a stool pigeon indignant about being dragged away from his respectable neighborhood in the middle of the night) and some of them unrelated (a married couple angry that neighbors called the police on their domestic quarrel: "last time I threw a lamp at him he thought it was cute," the woman says). De Toth has a sense of all the stories happening around the fringes of a narrative like this, and each character, no matter how small their role, communicates something beyond their dramatic function. Even a small cameo by a hood, Timothy Carey's creepy Johnny, can be an opportunity for unexpected divergence. Carey, in an uncredited part, nearly steals the film in his few minutes of screentime, mugging wildly and whispering through gritted, perpetually grinning teeth. In one scene, he's in the background just smoking a cigarette while the other crooks discuss their bank robbery plan, but he attracts the eye to peer into the frame's depths, to catch his antics with a cigarette, his obvious enjoyment of the games he plays with these tendrils of smoke. His pleasure with this smoke is echoed in the film's final scene, as Hayden's Sims lights up and then discards a crooked, mashed-up cigarette, finally putting the blackened match between his lips instead.
De Toth also infuses unexpected pathos into the character of the drunken former doctor Otto Hessler (Jay Novello), another small role that makes an outsized impression. Hessler was once a great doctor, but like Steve he made some kind of mistake, went to prison, and now he's lucky to find work as a vet while doing underground doctoring for criminals on the run whenever they call him. He has a subtle stagger in his walk, a slight bend and a waver in his voice, so that there's no doubt he's a drunk even before de Toth shows him taking a drink for the first time. But he's not just the stock figure of the shady underworld doc: he shows real compassion and love for the animals he takes care of. When Sims comes to shake him down for information, the doctor is working late at the vet hospital, trying to help a dog whose owner had left the animal to simply be put to sleep. Hessler hates the idea that people supposedly love these animals and then are willing to give up on them so easily the moment they get sick. He's too good a doctor to tolerate such callousness, such lack of hope or faith or compassion. His situation may be degraded, and he may be a slimy hack who says he won't even touch a patient unless he gets his money first, but there's still this light of goodness and decency unextinguished at his core.
Ironically, the film's central hero, Steve, is rather more vanilla, as is his wife Ellen, though they inhabit the film's center amiably enough, suffering under the weight of the pressures pushing in on them from every side. The film's real hero is actually Sims, though he's a tough antihero whose unshakable belief in his own ability to tell bad from good makes him a rather unlikable portrait of a cop. Of course, this story could only be leading to one place in the end given the Hollywood conventions of the era, and in order to get there Sims has to change his nature, admitting that maybe he was wrong and people can change and become good after all. It somewhat blunts the film's otherwise caustic portrayal of police justice, muting the script's satirical perspective on the contradictory virtues of rehabilitation and punishment in the justice system.
This small disappointment aside, though, the film is a well-made, potent noir, with an emphasis on process and subtle characterization. De Toth captures a realistic feel with a few small, carefully placed details, like the manhunt scenes where the audio of police radios repetitively delivers the same description over and over again in a repeating loop, as police cars drive slowly through shadowy back streets. De Toth is equally good with the quiet intimacy of the scenes between Steve and Ellen early in the film, as he gets late-night phone calls from his old prison associates while she tells him not to let himself get dragged back in. At one point, as he goes to answer a phone and she stops him, de Toth stages it as a closeup on their hands, his reaching for the phone and hers, wedding ring prominently displayed, clutching his wrist to stop him. The off-camera conversation isn't as important here as that simple and effective image, which conveys everything about this scene. This is the way de Toth's aesthetic works in general, capturing the essence of his story with elegant but un-ostentatious formal touches.