By coincidence, I watched this little-known 1954 crime movie just after seeing the Ben Affleck picture The Town – which has a remarkably similar storyline, albeit with less suspense, more obvious character development and a general air of being solidly okay but not as felt as the old quickie. In both films, a hood who has ambitions to go straight and has hooked up with a good woman is impressed on by his crooked former comrades to help out in a big heist (which is doomed), and a lawman with a specific beef rides hard on the wannabe good guy in order to bring in the killer scum whom he rides with. The only areas in which the new movie is unmistakably an improvement are in the action scenes – though Crime Wave is more interested in ratcheting up the tension than staging operatic set-pieces – and in the depiction of the heroine (Rebecca Hall is given much more to do beyond being a symoblic good person like Phyllis Kirk).
It opens with a gas station hold-up in Glendale, as a trio of escaped convicts knock over a cash register, rough up the proprietor (Dubb Taylor, later Dub) and gun down a passing cop: our thugs are ‘Doc’ (Ted de Corsia), a low-rent mastermind with a cigarette holder and a sweet bank job planned, Ben (Charles Buchinsky, later Bronson), a strong-arm guy, and Gat (Nedrick Young), who gets shot by the cop and needs help. Gat barges in on ex-con Steve (Gene Nelson), who has gone straight as an aeroplane engineer, and dies before the burned-out doc (Jay Novello), an alocholic former abortionist who now works as a vet, can treat him. The quack steals Gat’s cash stash, and Steve gets hauled in by Detective Sims (Sterling Hayden), a toothpick-chewing, rangy fanatic who has an instinct that he’s still dirty. The villains essentially invade Steve’s home, making implied threats against his pretty, straight wife (Kirk) which become less implied when she’s baby-sat by a twitchy psycho-rapo (the one and only Timothy Carey, who does more acting than anyone else in the movies until Edwin Neal as the Hitch-Hiker in Texas Chain Saw Massacre) while Steve drives getaway for the bank job. The heist is blown by a tipoff Steve has given, and the whole bank is full of cops – which leads to a fragmentary, elliptical massacre in which the raiders are ruthlessly put down.
It’s an on-the-streets, actual locations noir, but extreme, contrasty characterisations give it the air of a crime comic. The details of the cop and crook methodologies are convincing (this is Los Angeles, where police telephone operators wear Hawaiian shirts), but Hayden’s crook-hating, snarling, no-sympathy-at-all policeman is so forceful you sense something wrong with him even if Hollywood wasn’t yet ready to make an officer like him a full-on baddie (Hayden was usually on the other side of the law in movies). Doc’s almost seductive, epicene approach to Steve suggests another aspect of life in prison the hero might want to seek refuge from in marriage, but Sims also wants to make Steve his bitch, suckering him into becoming an informant so he’ll have to spend the rest of his life as a desperate stoolie (we see a minor character who has been unmanned this way). With Hank Worden, Fritz Feld, Iris Adrian, Lyle Latell and other types. Directed by Andre de Toth (House of Wax), from a script by Crane Wilbur (The Bat), from an adaptation by Bernard Gordon and Richard Wormser of a story by John and Ward Hawkins).