26 August 2012 | JamesHitchcock
Tense, well-paced and well-made film noir
"Crime Wave" opens with a gang of criminals carrying out a robbery at a gasoline station, in the course of which a police officer is killed and one of the gangsters wounded. The wounded man makes his way to the home of Steve Lacey, a former associate of some of the gang, but dies before medical help can arrive. This turns Lacey's life upside-down. Although he is a former convict, he has been trying to start a new life; he has found an honest job as an aircraft mechanic and has married a woman who supports his determination to "go straight". Soon, Lacey is approached by the surviving gang members. Although he wants nothing to do with them, his fears for this own safety and that of his wife mean that he is forced to allow them to stay in his apartment and reluctantly agrees to assist them with a planned bank robbery.
There are a number of similarities with another film noir, Sam Fuller's "Pickup on South Street", which came out the previous year. That film too had a central figure who was an ex-convict, and in both films the police are shown in a less that positive light. The police officers in "Pickup on South Street" are not idealised heroes but flawed characters with little compunction about bullying suspects or bribing informers to get information. The main police character in "Crime Wave", Detective Lieutenant Sims, is a similar figure, ruthless, hard-nosed and lacking in human warmth. Sims does not believe in the possibility of rehabilitation or reform, and hence is very suspicious of Lacey, even though his parole officer is willing to vouch for the young man's reformed character. A surprise development late in the film, however, does enable us to see Sims in a rather more sympathetic way.
Director André De Toth was not primarily known as a noir director- he seems to have specialised more in Westerns- but here he reveals himself to have been a competent director of crime dramas, even an innovative one. He shot much of the film on location in Los Angeles, making use of both city landmarks such as City Hall and of more humble buildings. (The gas station which the villains hold up was, for example, a real one). This use of real city locations for added realism seems to have started a trend in film noir; one film said to have been influenced by this one was Stanley Kubrick's "The Killing", which used several of the same actors.
"Crime Wave" was made as a second feature, which explains why it is so short, at just over 70 minutes in length. De Toth, however, was able to turn the film's short running-time to his advantage, as it has a terseness and gripping sense of tension lacking in some more expansive dramas. A number of typical noir features are present, such as the moody black-and-white photography, with a number of scenes taking place at night or in low levels of lighting. (An alternative title for the film is "The City is Dark"). Another such feature is the sense of moral ambiguity hanging over the storyline, with an ex-convict turning out to be more heroic than the official guardians of law and order. The film does not, however, feature that stock noir character, the seductive but villainous femme fatale- the only major female character is Lacey's courageous and virtuous wife Ellen, played by Phyllis Kirk with her sweetly innocent, girl-next-door prettiness.
I would not rate the film quite as highly as "Pickup on South Street", one of the greatest of all films noirs. There are no acting contributions quite on the same level as those of Richard Widmark, Jean Peters and Thelma Ritter in the earlier film, although Sterling Hayden is very effective as Sims. (Another well-known face is a young Charles Bronson, credited under his real name of Charles Buchinsky, as one of the gangsters). Fuller's film also has a greater moral complexity. Whereas Lacey is a reformed character who has gone straight and become a model citizen, Widmark's character, Skip McCoy, is at the beginning of the film far from reformed; in the very first scene we see him stealing a wallet from a young woman on the subway. Crime Wave", however, is a tense, well-paced and well-made crime drama, and for something which began life as a B-movie a remarkably influential one. 7/10