The older I get, the more I like watching films from the 1950s, the decade in which I was born, especially the mid-1950s. I like revisiting my favorites from that period and continually discovering new films from that time, be they westerns, dramas, crime movies, historical epics, musicals, sci-fi, horror, etc. It was a unique period for filmmaking, as Hollywood was undergoing a transition from the studio era, its ironclad contracts and ownership of theaters to one of independent production, independent theater chains, a loosening of the Production Code, more location shooting and greater acceptance by the public of foreign films. The old guard was still turning out exemplary work, as seen in the films of John Ford, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Fritz Lang, William Wyler and King Vidor, all of whom had gotten their start during the silent era, while younger directors with bolder visions and new stylistic approaches had emerged during and after the war, including Orson Welles, Billy Wilder, John Huston, Elia Kazan, Anthony Mann, Vincente Minnelli, Nicholas Ray, Don Siegel, Samuel Fuller, Robert Aldrich, Douglas Sirk and Otto Preminger. In addition, a host of new talent was emerging from television, Broadway and documentaries and quickly finding their way to Hollywood, including Stanley Kubrick, Arthur Penn, Martin Ritt, Delbert Mann, Sidney Lumet, John Frankenheimer, and Robert Altman. These overlapping waves of directors offered an unprecedented talent pool the likes of which Hollywood has never seen since. It’s no coincidence that a group of French film critics developed the auteur theory around this time.
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.