One-eyed director André de Toth’s Crime Wave is a unique little b-noir that knocked me on my ass. Although it’s considered “lesser noir” by many, I venomously disagree. Crime Wave packs a helluva wallop and is devoid of any of the “crime doesn’t pay” PSA bullshit. It’s a simple story that only runs about 73 minutes, but de Toth’s direction elevates the material to a film of tough beauty. He made the most of on location shoots, that combined with the top-notch acting by an impressive lineup of mugs make Crime Wave a must-see film noir.
The film begins with three two-bit hoods drive into a gas station late at night. de Toth puts us right in the backstreet with the hoods, using a POV shot through the windshield to make us accessories to the crime they’re about to commit. ‘Doc’ Penny (Ted de Corsia) heads up the gang, which includes a bushy-tailed Charles Bronson (still using his original Buchinsky name). Shot at an actual gas station, the crime is shot in a very understated manner – as is the entire film. The three knock out the attendant, rob the place, and wind up killing a motorcycle cop who stops in. They get away with about $100.
The three split up, but one of the gang is badly wounded by the cop. He seeks help at the apartment of Steve Lacey (Gene Nelson), an ex-con trying to turn straight. He’s got a wife, a job, and grocery bills. Lacey tries to kick him out – he doesn’t want to risk anything that could lock him up again – but the gang member dies, bleeding out on Lacey’s armchair. His wife, Ellen (Phyllis Kirk), clearly wears the pants in the Lacey household. She desperately wants Steve to cut all ties with his underworld buddies. They keep dragging him back in though, and after the hood dies, the police bring him in, thinking he knows where the other two guys are.
The lead detective is played by that giant brute Sterling Hayden, an actor who never seems like he’s acting. Everything he does feels organic – from the way he chews a toothpick to how his tie is messed up all the time. Juxtaposed with Hayden’s instinctive approach is scene devourer extraordinaire, Timothy fucking Carey. He plays a hood who guards over a hideout later in the film and despite only having about two lines, he manages to steal the show. Weird tics, clenching his teeth when he talks, blowing cigarette smoke through the sides of his mouth – the man just did whatever the hell he wanted.
Doc and the gang essentially kidnap Ellen and force Steve to pull off one more job or else Timothy Carey will probably rape her. The shooting locations add a palpable dimension, particularly inside the Bank of America for the big caper at the end. There’s a real cinéma vértité feel to the entire film. It’s also a very bright film, which is peculiar for film noir. Even during the night time scenes, there are no overbearing shadows or figures consumed by darkness. It’s still a gritty film with a lot of toughness to it. It’s just absent of the expressionism you see in the noirs from German transplants like Lang and Siodmak.
Besides the bright lighting, there’s actually a lot of elements that make Crime Wave stand out among other noirs of the time. There’s no narration, de Toth’s use of handheld cameras, and the sheer amount of location shooting. The story itself and the way de Toth presents it is very competent and efficient. What I’m saying is that Crime Wave is a ballin’ ass noir and you should definitely check it out.