Thursday, February 17, 2011

Riding the Wave

Continuing my participation in the Film Preservation Blogathon: For the Love of Film (Noir). This is a fundraiser, folks, so send a few bucks to this link. Proceeds benefit the Film Noir Foundation and will help fund the restoration of The Sound of Fury (1950).

Most of my favorite films noir are minor films. I mean, it's easy to love the big name movies--your Double Indemnities, your Maltese Falcons, your Sweet Smells of Success--but the little films? The throwaway b-pictures? That takes some effort. It's easy to dismiss them as cheap and tawdry. And yet, film noir is built on these movies. One of my own favorite "minor" films is Crime Wave (1954, directed by Andre de Toth). Crime Wave is a damn near perfect B-movie. It's tightly wound and starkly beautiful in spite of being cheap as hell, and it's exactly the right length at 73 minutes. There's not a single ounce of fat on this film, and yet it still provides a vivid gallery of characters and a complete dramatic arc.

The element that should give the whole thing away--the location shooting in the streets and slums of Los Angeles--turns into an asset in the hands of ace cinematographer Bert Glennon. Glennon was a favorite of John Ford and he was a big part of the reason Ford's movies made such great use of landscapes. Glennon puts that command of environments to striking use here. One would think that the extensive use of locations would lend Crime Wave a kind of kitchen sink gritty realism, but it doesn't. It serves to accentuate the weird abstraction director Andre de Toth gets from the way he frames his shots, and from the hyper-stylized noir performances of the actors. Be that as it may, this is still very much a movie about the city and its environs. It's about cars and gas stations and diners and train stations. It's about back alleys. None of this looks like Glennon's work for Ford. It looks vaguely like the French New Wave, actually. Here are some typical shots:

The story: Ex-con Steve Lacey is in a tight spot. Ever since his release from San Quentin, he's been trying to toe the straight and narrow with his new bride. Unfortunately, three of his ex-cellmates have busted out and gone on a crime spree. After a botched gas-station hold-up, in which one of them has been shot, they show up on Lacey's doorstep expecting him to help them out. When he balks, they coerce him. Worse, police detective Lt. Sims is keeping an eye on him. In Sims's eye, once a con always a con, and he's not about to cut Lacey any slack. The plan is a bank job, with Lacey as the getaway driver. If he refuses, his new wife will pay the price...

Sterling Hayden is the big name in the cast (unless you count an early character turn by Charles Bronson as one of our villainous thugs), and his performance sets the tone for the movie. He's slightly off-kilter, speaking his lines in a cadence that suggests the abstraction of hardboiled tough guys rather than naturalistic dialogue. At the director's suggestion, Hayden substitutes toothpicks for cigarettes for his signature piece of business; he chews through a bunch of them as the movie progresses, damn near an entire forest of them. The two innocents caught in the middle of the conflict between cops and robbers are Gene Nelson and Phyllis Kirk (who also starred in de Toth's House of Wax). They're okay, but this is Hayden's show. Everyone in this film gives a performance pitch just this side of hysterical. It's very theatrical this way; almost like it's noh theater. The most baroque expression of this is in the quasi-famous (within film circles) phone call. Phone calls are never good in film noir, and this one is no exception. The film plays nearly an entire scene with the camera looking solely at Phyllis Kirk's hand, wedding band prominently shown, restraining Gene Nelson's hand. All the acting is done with a gesture here. It's a striking sequence.

The story arc has our two heroes stuck in a dual trap. First, they're caught in the uncaring dragnet of a manhunt, with Hayden's character as their primary bete noir. In the second, they're snared by the classic film noir construction of a checkered past invading the present and dragging them back into a life of crime. The movie ultimately relents on its traps and lets our heroes off the hook: It dissipates the doom at the end, with the black beast turned white and with all the snares evaded. It's positively sunny in the end as these movies go. But that's okay. It's still a crackerjack film, and even with that sunny disposition waiting at the end, it still manages to lift the lid off the city primeval in order to watch the cockroaches scatter.


Mykal said...

Nice write up, and I agree entirely. A crackerjack film puts it well.

I loved on the commentary track for the DVD when James Ellroy (watching Sterling Hayden in a particularly effective scene) says "F*** Russel Crowe. He's Bud White!" (Referring to the character in the film version of his novel L.A. Confidential).

Ed Howard said...

Yeah, this is a great one. What's especially fantastic about it is its veritable rouge's gallery of oddball and sleazy characters. It really presents a colorful portrait of the city's underbelly, introducing all these memorable thugs and sinister creeps and gangsters.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Mykal. I've had the disc since it came out and I still haven't listened to the commentary. I probably should. And, yeah. Hayden is TOTALLY Bud White.

Hi, Ed. Crime Wave has loads of interesting faces and locations. I love that Dub Taylor is the pump jockey at the beginning.