Crime Wave (1954)

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The opening gambit is wonderful. It’s marvelous. You can’t blame me if I get a little…Well, anyways if you thought that squeaky-clean Doris Day could never turn up in a film noir you were gravely mistaken.

In this particular case, a jovial gas station attendant has her blaring loud on the radio right before he gets whaled on. Crime Wave makes its intentions fairly clear right from the beginning. Here is yet another arbitrary noir title that tells you next to nothing. That’s what this first scene is for. It tells everything to us in visual language.

A trio of San Quentin convicts are pulling bank jobs dotted all the way up and down the coast of California and this is just one of them. But a cop has been killed and they ran off with the cash register’s contents.

I had to do a serious double take because my eyes must have passed over Charles Bronson’s name in the credits. Seeing him young and tough as ever is like seeing an old friend — even if he’s playing a thug.

He’s an ogling and ill-mannered brute as can only have a life in such a darkly cynical world. Meanwhile, Ted De Corsia is the ringleader who has been sitting on his scheme for years now. But they need someone to call on — a new home base for their operations after one of their men gets a bullet in the gut.

Just like that, reformed jailbird Steve Lacey (Gene Nelson), currently working as an airport mechanic and married to a nice respectable girl (Phyllis Kirk) hears his old life calling. It’s the old Out of the Past (1947) conundrum. You never truly escape the specter. So he gets netted once more by his old mates and slowly dragged back into the crime world he hoped to never look back on.

But even in his attempt to maintain his path on the straight and narrow and remain on the right side of the law, one momentary lapse in judgment is all that it takes. He tells his wife to keep a pact with him. A man came to their house and that was all. He doesn’t want to be implicated any further so he leaves out the shady doctor who took the cash on the dead convict’s person. It seems such an easy bit of information to divulge but then again, the world is twisted in knots of confusion. He’s paranoid and distrusting of everyone. Perhaps he has every right to be.

Two dueling philosophies seem to present themselves from the side of the law. Police Detective Sims (Sterling Hayden) holds fast to that old adage that “Once a crook, always a crook” while Lacey’s kindly veteran parole officer seems to think that “sick men get well again.” And as the film seesaws back and forth we are forced to consider both trains of thought. The cop with no heart for ex-cons or their wives, while the parole officer entertains more sympathy. But it’s hardly enough.

However, that plays precisely in its favor as a gritty picture rooted in realism while still overlaid with a cinematic crime story inspired by a Saturday Evening Post write up. The film presents a world where the cops are as cunning as the villains and in a sense, they have to be.

It has the imprint and the contours of an L.A. that existed at one time — though now eroded and reconstructed through the years — but this is a stylized vision of it all from Andre de Toth. The streets and names might be all too real from Glendale to San Diego but the events and accents are not — overrun with stray cats and dogs — not to mention the colorful mugs of pet doctor Jay Novello (some might remember his nervous-types on I Love Lucy) and the forever crazed-faced Timothy Carey.

It becomes a sort of neorealism with the Hollywood touch even in its ending which while not a complete sellout definitely caps the film with optimism. And in that moment, maybe Crime Wave gives us a hope for the real world. Maybe cops and robbers don’t look all that different. Maybe they both are prone to corruption and vice. But maybe justice can still be enacted.

If this film was all about morals it wouldn’t be worth much to many movie audiences. Thankfully it’s a gripping picture that places us right into the scenario like all the great caper films and it gives us a hero to empathize with. The visuals are presented as a stellar piece of added everyday reality. Search this one out if you’re a fan of small-time gems.

3.5/5 Stars

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