Noir 101. The Essentials. Crime Wave.If this little policier from Warner Bros. (filmed in 1952, released in 1954) isn’t part of your vocabulary then it needs to be; and considering it was finally released on DVD a few years ago, there’s no excuse not to see it. Crime Wave doesn’t stand out from a narrative point of view (despite a bucket of writers); the plot is routine, like a million other second features cranked out during the fifties. Although the story and characters are heavily steeped in noir tropes, it’s André De Toth’s sharp direction that sets it apart from other low budget crime pictures and demands that it be seen by any enthusiast. It can be argued that no other film noir is as influential as it is unknown.
The story is old hat: Ex-con tries to go straight. His old crew breaks out of the Q and comes knocking. When he refuses to help, they hold his fresh new wife in order to force him to take part in one last caper. All the while, the cops are along for the ride, except they don’t believe for a second that our boy is on the up and up.
The cast here is special, and although Sterling Hayden isn’t (necessarily) the protagonist, he dominates the film. This is the sort of role the movie gods had in mind when they placed Hayden in front of a camera: LAPD Detective Lieutenant Sims, bigger and tougher than any hood in the mug book. For my money this is the role of Hayden’s career — not the meatiest or the most well known, but the one in which he leaves the impression of having been the part, rather than merely having played it. (Put it another way: during the DVD commentary, author James Ellroy asserts that Hayden in Crime Wave simply is Bud White.) There are those that prefer him in The Asphalt Jungle or The Killing, but Hayden has a distinct vibe as a cop that isn’t there when he’s playing a crook: you can cross to the other side of the street and dodge a hoodlum (and it isn’t like you won’t see Hayden coming from a mile away) but you can’t avoid the police. With the force of law behind him, the prospect of cop Hayden looking for you is scary as hell.
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