“Once a crook, always a crook.”
To those who consider Sterling Hayden the scariest, most intimidating, hardboiled figure of noir, Crime Wave must be exhibit number one. He plays LAPD detective Sims, who’s not about to give ex-con Gene Nelson the benefit of any doubt, because “once a crook, always a crook.”
It all starts when three escaped hoods (Charles Bronson, Ted de Corsia and Ned Young) kill a cop during a gas station robbery and Young gets shot in the process. Out of desperation, Young shows up near death at his old prison cellmate Gene Nelson’s apartment. Trouble is, Nelson doesn’t want anything to do with Young, any of those guys, or this whole situation, because he’s been walking the straight and narrow since getting out of prison. He’s got a good job, a great wife (Phyllis Kirk), grocery bills and a bank account now, but unfortunately still an almost insurmountable obstacle in trying to make people forget the sins of his former life. Things get worse when a crooked alcoholic veterinarian (Jay Novello) who doubles as an underworld fixer-upper, shows up at Nelson’s apartment to do some fixing-upping, but when Young expires, Novello just cleans out his pockets and leaves Nelson and wife with the body. At this point Nelson could’ve possibly explained his way out, but Hayden arrives in time to find the body and all the wrong conclusions. Things get worse still when de Corsia and Bronson show up, Bronson uses Nelson’s hot rod to go eliminate the vet, leaving said car to be found, clearly implicating Nelson. Try explaining all that in some believable fashion to your best friend, let alone a scary and thundering cop who won’t be swayed from his belief that you’re bad by nature and won’t ever change.
When Bronson and de Corsia need Nelson to be the driver for that famously doomed crime movie plot convention, the One Last Big Heist, they hold his wife hostage as incentive and insurance. In a waterfront hideout she’s “watched” (shudder) by Timothy Carey (sorry, make that a SHUDDER!), highly memorable in one of his first big (still at this point uncredited) roles and just the perfect actor to cast when you want “watching” to take on a whole other level of skin crawling meaning. So the unfortunate Nelson gets stuck between a rock and a hard cop, but he manages eventually to make Hayden understand. And when he does, it remains perfectly in keeping with his character, especially since he makes sure to be sweet (in his manner) gruffly accompanies his mercy with it with some stern finger-wagging and gives the excuse that he meant to be such a tough so-and-so, for the good guy’s own good. That’s the movie’s basic setup and structure, and it fits nicely into just over 70 minutes with style to spare, and like the great noir it is there’s much, much more going on both in the glare of the searchlight and in the peripheral shadows. This is one of the most “modern” looking, most strikingly shot classic noirs around, and Andre De Toth directs with stark, swift pace and movement, assembling one of the best candy boxes of dark chocolate noir characters you’ve ever seen. Crime Wave barrels along, shocking you and keeping you engaged in equal measure.
Hayden’s just perfect; impenetrable, unforgiving and definitely not the kind of authority figure you want on your tail when you need someone to understand you’re actually an innocent victim of circumstances. The way the camera is constantly positioned to look up at him just makes him that much more of a threatening and towering force. He questions with relentless, machine-gun speed, through teeth clenched, barely biting back a fearsome, seething volcanic anger. He’s constantly chewing on his quit-smoking-aid toothpicks (those were probably complete logs when he started chewing them! Hayden actually was trying to quit at the time. No wonder he played this so well). Considering the intensity of his role, Hayden enters the movie in a relatively low key way. He doesn’t even speak in his first few moments, simply surveys and broods over the service station crime scene, a wrinkled mess, clearly conveying he’s seen senseless acts like this countless times before, been there, been disgusted by that, and bought the t-shirt, (which also kind of sums up his feelings about Hollywood, actually; again, no wonder he played this role so well.) The movie’s lean, realistic documentary style look at the investigative process meshes well with Hayden’s just-the-facts (if he even believes them) acting style. In keeping with the LA scenery that’s captured so starkly, so dramatically, and in such gorgeously rich detail, Hayden never seems anything less than a totally authentic detective.
As young as he looks here, he still gives the impression he’s been a cop for eons, weary and weather beaten, with far important things to do that notice his tie is on backwards, important things like monitoring interrogations, pushing hoods (and even poor Phyllis Kirk) around, harumphing and sneering and snapping at people; “Shaddup, you slob!” is his signature retort. Sometimes he almost seems crazed by the combined pressures of quitting nicotine and his determination to get a crook off the streets. There’s a great little moment at the end where he pops a broken ciggie into his mouth; it just seems so appropriate for the rumpled lawman, hanging there bent way out of shape but still functional. He only enjoys it for second before remembering it’s forbidden, then tosses it away and chews on the match instead. There are lots of cars in this movie, and a chase where Hayden gets yet another unique opportunity to glower and glare. Hayden’s vehicle seems propelled by sheer force of will, in his case a totally renewable energy source. In Crime Wave, Hayden perhaps had his best role, and certainly an essential one; you could make a great double feature by pairing Crime Wave with another essential Hayden noir that it clearly heavily influenced, Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing, in which Hayden, de Corsia, Carey were reunited. Just think how different either movie would have been, had Crime Wave director De Toth done it Jack Warner’s big budget way, and cast Humphrey Bogart instead of Hayden. Okay that’s enough; now think about Hayden again.
a version of this was previously published in THE DARK PAGES newsletter for noir fans; click here to check out the latest issues
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