Tuesday, May 23, 2006

B NOIR: Crime Wave (1954)

Too many of the films featured in Film Forum's current B Noir land outside the boundaries of the style. They're too mopey, too full of pretty boys like Farley Granger navel gazing their way through sappy love stories. Call me close-minded, but noir — particular B-grade noir — should be brief bursts of violence and mood and melodrama. They should be like Andre De Toth's masterful Crime Wave.

The story is pure pulp: ex-con Steve Lacey (Gene Nelson) is trying to live a new life on the straight and narrow with his wife Ellen (Phyllis Kirk) when a bunch of pals from the joint come calling, looking for a place to lay low for a while (including a very young Charles Bronson, credited as Charles Bunchinsky). Lacey has no interest in crime, but it's like someone once said: every time he thinks he's out, they pull him back in. As he tries to persuade the criminals to vamoose, he has to contend with the simultaneous hassles of one tough cop, played by Sterling Hayden in a deliciously hard boiled performance. His tie perpetually backwards, his hat pulled low, Hayden turns an underwritten role into something soulful. "My doctor won't let me smoke cigarettes," he tells Lacey. "So I chew toothpicks. Lots of 'em." He pops a 'pick in and grinds away.

It's the perfect foundation for true noir: like any serious noir hero, Lacey straddles the line between hero and villain, and even if his problems stem from a couple of old friends who refuse to leave him alone, the conflict is within his nature: to revert to a life of crime or stay on the side of the angels.

Though Hayden is the unquestioned star, Nelson as the cornered ex-con is a true surprise, he has the wounded look of a man trying to do right, and the physicality of a guy whose started and finished plenty of fights in his life. Nelson was an unknown to me, and after Crime Wave and a major role in the adaptation of Oklahoma!, he went on to a long but undistinguished television career. What gives? In Crime Wave, the dude's a movie star.

De Toth is someone I know little about, but I was floored by Crime Wave's formal intelligence. As a director, he prefers camera moves to cuts, a tactic that pays big dividends in shots like the one where Lacey and Ellen return home to make some dinner. The camera trucks back as the pair enter the apartment, and follows them all the way into the kitchen. As they embrace, the camera shifts to catch a view of the apartment door as the criminals enter, literally suggesting the way the outside world is invading the Lacey home. The use of L.A. locations, particularly in the key chase scene, is dynamic and real (listen to the way the sound echoes in that police station!), adding yet another dimension to the verisimiltude of the world De Toth creates.

Crime Wave is nothing less than a revelation. Sitting in that stinky Film Forum doesn't get much better than this.


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