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In many ways Crime Wave (1954) exemplifies what is best about Andre De Toth as a director: a strong sense of pacing, a lean visual style, and the ability to draw committed performances from actors. During the Forties and Fifties, De Toth made a number of relatively low budget thrillers and Westerns which represent some of his best work. In fact, he routinely turned down larger budgets and the promise of big-name stars since he felt that "B" pictures offered the kind of creative freedom not possible with a major "A" picture budget. In a later interview he stated, "Why would I want to do a 'million dollar picture?' I didn't need a million headaches. With the lower budgets, most of the time, I was left completely alone." Although he did not direct a large number of films in the noir vein, those he did make stand out, especially the noir-Western Ramrod (1947) and the straight noirs Pitfall (1948) and Crime Wave.
When De Toth originally received the script for Crime Wave from Warner Brothers, it was a more ambitious project starring Humphrey Bogart and Ava Gardner, with a planned shooting schedule of 35 days. De Toth recalled, "I thought that Sterling Hayden in every way would be a better fit. He had a certain rumpled dignity. He wasn't bigger than life like Bogart." After throwing a fit Jack Warner let him use Hayden, but he cut the budget and reduced the shooting schedule to fifteen days. In retrospect, De Toth was surely right--Hayden delivers one of his best performances of the Fifties. Gene Nelson, who plays the young ex-con trying to escape his past, had appeared in a number of musicals in the early Fifties but this was his first major dramatic role. He later appeared in Oklahoma! (1955), but mostly he worked as a television actor and director for the rest of his career. A young Charles Bronson, still using the name Charles Buchinsky, makes an appearance as a member of the criminal gang.
Crime Wave was hardly the first film noir shot on location in the Los Angeles area, but it includes many distinctive locations in Glendale and elsewhere in Los Angeles, including Bunker Hill, a veterinary hospital with memorable architecture, and an actual Bank of America branch for the climactic robbery scene. De Toth said of the bank, "We were granted only one night. Everyone knew it. That helped. It added an urgency to get it done and then get the hell out of there; that urgency is felt on the screen. It was a wonderful night for all of us."
The film also stands out for its early use of nighttime location photography. De Toth explains: "It was unusual at that time - with the low ASA ratings of the film negative, the heavy equipment, the lights, the clumsy cameras and cranes - to shoot at night outside the pre-rigged studio backlots." Bert Glennon, the film's director of photography, was one of the most talented in Hollywood, working with filmmakers such as John Ford and Josef von Sternberg. His considerable professionalism no doubt helped De Toth achieve what he wanted and finish under schedule.
During Crime Wave's initial release Philip K. Schuer of the Los Angeles Times admired the film's "documentary quality," its "nagging-note pitch of excitement" and its performances, especially that of Hayden. The anonymous reviewer for the New York Times characterized the film as standard crime thriller fare, but with a "graphic, flavorsome birds-eye view of Los Angeles." He also pronounced it Gene Nelson's "best performance to date" and commented on the "disturbing note of righteous sadism" of the police sergeant as performed by Hayden. Writing about a revival screening in the 1990s, Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times encapsulates why the film holds up so well today: "De Toth never makes a false move, never lets up a breakneck pace and gets sensational performances from one of those amazing casts we once took for granted in Hollywood pictures."
Producer: Bryan Foy
Director: Andre De Toth
Script: Crane Wilbur, adaptation by Bernard Gordon and Richard Wormser, based on the short story "Criminal's Mark" by John and Ward Hawkins
Director of Photography: Bert Glennon
Art Director: Stanley Fleischer
Film Editor: Thomas Reilly
Cast: Sterling Hayden (Detective Sgt. Sims); Gene Nelson (Steve Lacey); Phyllis Kirk (Ellen Lacey); Ted de Corsia (Doc Penny); Charles Buchinsky (Ben Hastings); Jay Novello (Otto Hessler); Nedrick Young (Gat Morgan); James Bell (Daniel O'Keefe); Timothy Carey (Johnny Haslett).
by James Steffen
De Toth, Andre with Anthony Slide. De Toth on De Toth: Putting the Drama in front of the Camera. London and Boston: Faber and Faber, 1996.
Porfirio, Robert, Alain Silver and James Ursini, eds. Film Noir Reader 3: Interviews with Filmmakers of the Classic Noir Period. New York: Limelight Editions, 2001.
Scheuer, Philip K. "Crime Wave Rugged; Warden Duffy Kindly." Los Angeles Times, March 11, 1954.
T. H. H. "The Screen in Review." New York Times, January 13, 1954.
Thomas, Kevin. "Gems that Still Glow in the Dark; Cinematheque Serves Up an Eclectic Lineup in its Greatest Hits Series." Los Angeles Times, August 13, 1998.