Last year, Nicolas Refn’s crime thriller DRIVE, starring Ryan Gosling as a taciturn getaway driver, got lots of praise and was touted by internet fans as a surefire Oscar nominee in several major categories. (It only got one nomination—Sound Editing.) While I enjoyed most of it, its virtues arose from the fact that it was simply a well-executed mid-range genre film, coming out at a time when this kind of film has become quite rare. I thought back to an era when films like this were routinely released, with no fanfare and no critical hype, and tended to be much better than DRIVE. I’m thinking of L.A.-filmed crime dramas and examples of film noir from roughly 1947-1955, e.g. BORN TO KILL, ACT OF VIOLENCE, BODYGUARD, CRISS CROSS, HE WALKED BY NIGHT, HOLLOW TRIUMPH, RAW DEAL, BETWEEN MIDNIGHT AND DAWN, etc.
Another such film is CRIME WAVE (1954), found on a double feature DVD (paired with DECOY, 1946) from Warner Bros., which I watched for the first time yesterday. It’s short (74 minutes), snappy, and shot almost entirely on location in Los Angeles and its environs. What struck me almost immediately is the naturalistic style of the cinematography, with existing light used where possible, dialogue recorded sync-sound on the spot for most of the scenes, and a complete avoidance of Hollywood gloss. It’s almost like a documentary in parts.
One of the elements that initially drew me to this film is the participation of Charles Bronson in an early role as a thug, some 20 years before he became a top boxoffice star in DEATH WISH, in which he played a character who routinely shot and killed just this kind of thug. Although released in 1954, CRIME WAVE was shot in a period of two weeks in November 1952, a year after Bronson made his film debut in YOU’RE IN THE NAVY NOW. He is billed as Charles Buchinsky here and was known that way for the first three years of his career.
Sterling Hayden stars as Sergeant Sims, a homicide detective investigating the shooting death of a policeman during a gas station robbery. Gene Nelson, a dance star better known for such musicals as OKLAHOMA!, LULLABY OF BROADWAY, SO THIS IS PARIS, plays an ex-con who’s gone straight, but is forced by the gas station robbers, former prison buddies of his, to give them shelter when they’re on the run and assist them in a bank robbery. Phyllis Kirk plays Nelson’s suffering wife, who’s held hostage for a time.
The robbers are played by Ted de Corsia and Bronson, with an ill-fated member of the gang played in the early scenes by Ned Young. They later enlist two more hoodlums to help out with the bank robbery, played by Timothy Carey and Mack Chandler. Dub Taylor plays the gas station attendant who gets knocked out and robbed in the film’s opening scene.
According to an interview included in a special feature on the DVD, Jack Warner, the head of Warner Bros. at the time, originally wanted to give this film a much bigger budget and hire Humphrey Bogart and Ava Gardner as the leads. Director Andre De Toth insisted on using Sterling Hayden (from THE ASPHALT JUNGLE), so Warner told him to do it on a lower budget and finish it in 15 days. Which De Toth did, happy to get his own way. Somehow I doubt the finished product would have been as compelling with bigger stars and a bigger budget.
In the audio commentary on the DVD, novelist James Ellroy (L.A. Confidential, The Black Dahlia) and film noir historian Eddie Muller insist that Stanley Kubrick must have seen this film before making his caper classic, THE KILLING (1956). There are stylistic similarities in the way both films are shot and particularly in Hayden’s performance, since he plays the lead in both films (a cop in one, a robber in the other). Two other actors from CRIME WAVE are in THE KILLING—Ted de Corsia and Timothy Carey, both of whom play key members of the robbery team in Kubrick’s film. (de Corsia played a cop who does his part of the job while on duty!)
(Ted de Corsia and Gene Nelson)
(Timothy Carey with Phyllis Kirk)
What CRIME WAVE doesn’t have is the wall-to-wall narration found in THE KILLING. It’s actually that rare semi-documentary-style crime drama from the postwar period to completely avoid such narration and feels leaner and more realistic as a result.
Also in the audio commentary, the two men agree that Sterling Hayden would have made a perfect Bud White in the film adaptation of Ellroy’s novel, L.A. Confidential (a role played in the 1997 movie by Russell Crowe). They also allow that L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, the film, should have looked like this movie and been shot on these kinds of locations in black-and-white. I tend to agree.
I didn’t like L.A. CONFIDENTIAL, which dealt with corrupt L.A. cops in 1953, largely because I never bought the period setting or the casting. I never believed that Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce or Kevin Spacey were who they were supposed to be. None of them looked or sounded like tough Los Angeles cops from that period. Plus, I found the over-the-top climactic shootout between competing factions of cops to be utterly ridiculous.
CRIME WAVE has its own contrivances. Hayden’s a little too hardnosed most of the time, insisting, with a snarl, “Once a crook, always a crook,” even though Nelson had been living an exemplary life before his onetime prison mates, newly escaped from San Quentin, re-enter his life.
Also, had Hayden stuck to his initial impulse and staked out Nelson’s apartment after learning who the robbery suspects were, he would have saved everyone a lot of trouble and apprehended the suspects almost immediately. It’s never clear why he didn’t proceed. Still, everything else is quite plausible and at no point did I shake my head in disbelief, as I’ve done with so many recent crime films. People don’t do impossible stunts in this film. There is a car chase near the end, from Glendale to downtown L.A., in which they drive fast, but not recklessly, and make it exciting without getting far-fetched.
There’s a great line in the audio commentary over a scene where Bronson returns to Nelson’s apartment quite agitated after killing a witness. Muller says: “This is more emotion than Bronson displayed through the entirety of the 1970s.”
Ellroy adds: “I always thought Bronson was better than Clint Eastwood, if you’re looking at icons. Better actor, bigger presence.”
The screenplay is by Crane Wilbur (who wrote tons of crime and prison films and even directed a few), based on a story that had originally appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, a source for many screen adaptations in that time. The adaptation was done by Bernard Gordon and Richard Wormser. Gordon was blacklisted after this credit and his subsequent Hollywood jobs in the 1950s were all done under pseudonyms. He later wrote a book called Hollywood Exile, or How I Learned to Love the Blacklist, and died in 2007 at the age of 88. He was one of the leaders of the protest against the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences when Elia Kazan was given an Honorary Oscar in 1999. (Kazan had given names to HUAC–the House Un-American Activities Committee–in 1952 during the congressional investigation of Communists in Hollywood.)
Another blacklisted screenwriter, Ned Young, happens to be in the movie. He plays Morgan, one of the robbery gang, who gets mortally wounded after a shootout with a cop during the opening gas station robbery and is the first to reach Nelson’s apartment. Young was blacklisted after this film as well, but appears as an actor in TERROR IN A TEXAS TOWN (1958), which also starred Sterling Hayden, who, like Kazan, had cooperated with HUAC and given names. So three people caught up in the Hollywood witchhunt were involved with this film.
Phyllis Kirk and Charles Bronson were also both in HOUSE OF WAX (1953), also directed by de Toth. It was made later, but released earlier than CRIME WAVE.
The co-feature on the DVD is DECOY (1946), a very interesting low-budget noir from Monogram Pictures in which a prisoner on death row is executed and brought back to life by a doctor enticed to perform the miracle (with some kind of special drug) by the prisoner’s moll, with the promise of love and lots of money when they learn where the prisoner stashed the dough from a bank job.
Edward Norris, Jean Gillie, Herbert Rudley in DECOY
The audio commentary is supplied by DVD Savant’s Glenn Erickson and, in a surprising twist, Stanley Rubin, author of the original story on which the screenplay was based! He’s 94 now and was nearing 90 when he did the commentary. (The finished screenplay was written by the aforementioned Ned Young, one of the cast members of CRIME WAVE, so it all comes full circle.) I’m planning a future blog entry on audio commentaries on golden age Hollywood films supplied by their actual creators!